An Interview with Todd McKenney from Barnum – The Circus Musical

Here is part of the group interviews from Barnum – The Circus Musical media call with Todd McKenney (P.T. Barnum), with quotes from Adrian Storey (producer) and Tyran Parke (director).

What: Barnum – The Circus Musical
Where: Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

Performances run until June, 2019
For more information, please visit www.barnumthemusical.com.au

Todd on learning the circus tricks and stunts
“I like a challenge. I knew it could be done. People have played the role and done it, so I thought you’ve got to be able to learn it. There’s slit-walking, magic, juggling, high wire – there’s a lot – then there’s singing and dancing. The wire I’ve had in my house since October – it’s about half a metre off the ground – so I’ve been training on-and-off for six months. Because it’s one thing to doing it in the safety of the mats but doing it in the theatre in the middle of a show, you can’t prep for it. There’s the audience and a spotlight which blinds you. It’s a whole different thing. It’s fun.

Another reason why I took it because you don’t normally get to do this. Also my character gets to talk to the audience and that’s another reason. I love that! I get to break out of the scene and chat to the crowd. I did it in Boy From Oz, which is where I learnt it, because it’s a skill. I did it a bit in Cabaret, where I was the Emcee and my one-man shows. It’s what separates it from other shows in a way. Sometimes I’d rather not sing and just chat. I love to chat. It really connects you with the crowd. It means no show is ever the same twice.”

Todd on what trick audiences are most responding to
The high-wire without a doubt. It gets the greatest reaction when I get across. But all the circus elements, there’s not just done by the circus people but our cast as well – they get a real gasp from the crowd. They’re loving that aspect of it. We’ve had standing ovations!”

Todd on what drew him to the role
“It’s a killer role! It asks for all of the skills I have, plus skills I didn’t have, so I wanted to extend my skills set. I’ve learnt circus, magic, juggling, tightrope walking – all things I’ve never done before. It’s like teaching an old dog new tricks, but I’ve really enjoyed learning it. The circus world and the theatre world have collided in such a beautiful way. It’s a great role because he’s a bit dark. It’s family but he’s got a dark side to him, which we’ve really drawn out in this production.”

Todd on Barnum compared to The Greatest Showman
It’s so different. A lot of people will come to see The Greatest Showman, and they’re not going to get it. They will get the same story, but it’s not The Greatest Showman. I think they’ll love the story and the show, but if they’re expecting that music they’re going to get a whole different style of music. This was written back in the late 70s. It’s one of those roles, as a man, you just want to get your hands on because it’s gritty, funny, exciting, but it’s madness. Hugh Jackman [played P.T. Barnum] in the movie, which I thought was a unique take on it. I’m playing him quite dark. I’ve got a voice for him, which is quite gravely. At the beginning of the show which is just me, we’re doing it like this broken-down circus master where he stands on an empty stage – this is what it used to be like. It’s blacker. Then he comes to life and then he goes back in his shell – so it’s a different take on it. Some people are going to love it and some people are going to say I wish it was the Greatest Showman, but we’ve just got to stay true to what it is.”

Todd on the good and bad qualities of P.T. Barnum 
“Parts of him were [awful]. He’s got every element, and that’s been one of the things we’ve had to do in the show … find out why Charity would stay with him and why people would like him, when he’s done so much terrible things. But he’s also done really great things. Like the museum, circus and also he invented matinees. He bought Joice Heth, who is the oldest women in the world, as a slave and then exploited her. Then, when she died, he sold tickets to her autopsy. He sold swamp land to his friends who all built houses on it and it all collapsed.

But the first thing he ever did was he put on an exhibition, which I think is genius, for his friends to come and see. He got a poster built and it was ‘six foot, man-eating chicken’ and when people paid the money and got behind the curtain, it was a six-foot man eating chicken. It was quite funny. No one got the shits with him; they just went ‘oh, we’ve been had!’ There’s a lot to like but there’s a child-like innocence about him. I’ve got this voice for him when he’s in the show ring and then I’ve got another voice for him when he’s talking to Charity. He gets really soft and a little scared of Charity because she’s actually the boss of him. He’s got some vulnerability; otherwise he’d just be an arsehole – but he’s not – there’s more to him than that.”

Todd on working with Rachael Beck
“We’ve done a lot together. She’s also one of my best friends. We did Singin’ in the Rain together for years, lots of concerts, small tours of things … Rachael, she’s like family to me. She was one of the reasons I said “yes” [to the role] as well. The two of us said, “Let’s do [Barnum] together.”

Todd on the show being exclusive to Melbourne
“We’ve got a few weeks here at the Comedy, which is the perfect theatre for it. Melbourne is the home of theatre, so it’s a great place to start a new production. This is also one of my favourite theatres in the country. It’s so nice to be setting an old school musical in an old style theatre. You can smell the history of both the show and the theatre, and it works perfectly.”

Todd on the show being kid-friendly
“If you want to introduce kids to musicals and theatre this is the perfect one because it’s colour and movement. We had a five year old boy in the front row on Sunday matinee who giggled, laughed and screamed like he was at a pantomime. It’s wholesome but it’s got heart and an interesting story about a man who, for all of his faults, left us some amazing legacies. It’s been interesting learning about Barnum’s life as well.”

Adrian Storey on producing the show
“It was about a year ago that Tyran Parke, our director, approached Todd McKenney to play the role of P.T. Barnum in the show. We’re absolutely thrilled that Todd came on board and the rest of the cast. I’m truly thrilled to have such an amazing cast, technical and creative team working with me on the show.

This is not a carbon copy show that we get from Broadway or London. Aside from it being an original musical in 1980, it is a new show. We saw [playwright] Mark Bramble in New York about a year ago, who kindly agreed to help us rewrite some of the book, which was fantastic. We have new orchestrations, original set and costume design, lighting and sound, so what you’re seeing is only what you can see in Melbourne. As a producer, that’s something I’m truly excited about.”

Tyran Parke on directing the show
“I needed to find the best singers, actors, dancers, and people who could throw people in the air and catch them at the right time – and happily I have done that. There’s a lot of colour. We’ve set this in a circus ring so a lot of our transitions and set ups; I didn’t want people coming on and putting tables down for the next scene, so we’ve found quite unique ways to do that with our circus performers. Every time we change the scenery, there’s a lot of movement and acrobatics.”

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