Born in Glasgow but raised in the US, actor John Barrowman’s career took off when, having returned to the UK as a student, he attended an open audition for the 1989 West End production of Anything Goes, in which he played the part of Billy Crocker opposite Elaine Paige at the Prince Edward Theatre.
Barrowman went on to star in the West End productions of Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, Matador and, at the Donmar Warehouse, The Fix, for which he was nominated for an Olivier. He played, opposite Betty Buckley, in Sunset Boulevard in the West End and on Broadway, where he also starred, opposite Carol Burnett, in Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together.
Elsewhere, Barrowman’s stage credits include Evita, Aspects of Love, Beautiful and Damned and Rope. Building on regular concert appearances, he made his cabaret debut in 2002.
On screen, Barrowman has appeared in Titans, Stop at Nothing, Central Park West, Megalodon and Stop at Nothing. This summer, he appears – alongside Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd and Jonathan Pryce – in De-lovely, the Hollywood film about composer Cole Porter. To coincide with the film, Barrowman is releasing a new solo album, John Barrowman Swings Porter. His other solo albums include Reflections from Broadway, Aspects of Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Continuing the Porter theme, in December 2002, Barrowman returned to Anything Goes, reprising the role of Billy Crocker in Trevor Nunn’s new National Theatre production, for which he won this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Award for Best Actor in a Musical, one of five Whatsonstage.com wins, including Best Musical Revival, for the acclaimed production.
The musical ran in repertory in the NT Olivier with Nunn’s production of Love's Labour's Lost, in which Barrowman made his Shakespearean debut. Following its sell-out run at the National, Anything Goes transferred to the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where it continues its extended season until August.
Date & place of birth
Born 11 March 1967 in Glasgow, Scotland, but raised in Joliet, Illinois, US.
Lives now in…
Chelsea, west London. I came over here in 1989 to study Shakespeare as part of the last six months in a BA (Bachelor of Arts degree) in Musical Theatre. There was an open call audition for Anything Goes - that was the first time round – and the rest, as they say, is history.
First big break
That was it – “boy plucked from nowhere and put on West End stage”. My first actual paying job was before that, as an extra on the film The Untouchables when I was 17. It was a nightmare because Sean Connery wasn’t very nice and the assistant director shouted a lot and was rude to the extras. I went home early.
Career highlights to date
Over 14 years, there have been a lot, and sometimes the smallest things still thrill me. When I was doing Sunset Boulevard, Howard Keel came backstage to see me after the show. He stood at my dressing room door, sighed and said, “If you were around in the Forties, you would have taken a lot of roles from me.” Most recently, being asked to do Anything Goes at the National, where I’d always wanted to work.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Matador and The Fix, which were structured around me. Sunset Boulevard because I got to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, who took a chance giving the role to such a young man. Rope was my first non-musical piece and it made people look at me in a different light. My first Sondheim, Putting It Together, which I did with Carol Burnett on Broadway. When you’re asked to do Sondheim by Sondheim himself, that puts you in a different category of performer. And my second Sondheim, Company because, after the first night, Stephen told me, “I’ve lived with this show for over 30 years and you’re the first person to show me who Bobby truly was.” Of course, Anything Goes is very close to my heart.
Loads! I always find something different about each co-star that I really adore. You have to do that because to play your character, you do have to fall in love with them to some extent. So, yes, I’ve enjoyed all my co-stars – although some have been a little loony!
I love working with Trevor Nunn because of his precision and detail. Keith Baxter because he takes time with actors - he was an actor himself so he knows what we go through. I loved Eric Schaeffer, because of the sheer fun we had on Putting It Together. And Sam Mendes, because he knows how to make the most beautiful images.
Favourite musical writers
Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey, who did The Fix, write the kind of songs I like to sing: good, gutsy ballads, songs with cojones, not schmaltzy rocky up-tempos for people with ‘musical theatre voices’. And Stephen Sondheim because of the challenge his songs present.
I love love love Stephen Mear. Stephen was a swing in the 1989 production of Anything Goes. I remember one night we were sat around talking about our futures and Stephen said, “I’d love to re-choreograph this show some day”. So it’s a big thrill to be part of it again when he’s done just that. Bob Avian is also a favourite choreographer, but then Stephen is a protégé of Bob’s so that’s kind of two-in-one.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I don’t know if they’ve been written yet. I saw Matthew Broderick in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in New York and I’d love to do that show in London. And I’d love to play Norman Maine, the James Mason character in A Star Is Born, though someone would have to write some songs for him.
How big a challenge was it doing Love's Labour's Lost last year? Would you like to do more straight acting?
Considering I’d originally come over to the UK to do Shakespeare and Anything Goes stopped me, it’s ironic that it was because of Anything Goes that I made my Shakespearean debut in Love's Labour's Lost. I was really nervous in rehearsals - it was completely alien to me. But Trevor (Nunn) explained that the heightened reality of musical theatre could also be used to make this text more truthful and believable. He told me just to read it, rather than to think about acting, and it worked. I would love to do more Shakespeare and there is an offer in the pipeline.
What, if any, differences have you noticed between UK & US audiences? Between National & West End audiences?
Americans are quicker to jump up onto their feet, but the beauty here is that, when you do get Brits up to applaud, it’s a really amazing thing. Can you put in something for both? Ask them to turn off their mobile phones! The other night someone was sat in the front row texting on their phone all night. I wanted to say something. I find that so rude.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
It was a long time ago now but I loved A Streetcar Named Desire at the National. I enjoyed watching Glenn Close and the other performers and seeing the decisions they made.
What would you advise the government – American or British – to secure the future of theatre?
Stop cutting funding for drama and music in public (state) schools! It’s worse in America than here. Let me give you an example. I run a charity called Dreamers Workshops, in which we teach young people life skills through theatre. It’s intense. We take 40 students, from nine to five over seven days. Since 2001, we’ve run the workshops at my old high school in Joliet, Illinois, near Chicago. But not this year. The school is so financially strained that they’re now saying it’ll cost $12,000 to run the workshop there so we’re going to have to move it.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Nobody. I like my life too much.
As a teenager, it was S E Hinton’s The Outsiders. I used to be able to recite all the words to “Stay Gold”, the Frost poem that was used for the song in the movie. I like reading Harry Potter with my nieces and nephews now. And, for myself, Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men.
Favourite holiday destinations
I recently got back from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, where I went diving every day, including my first wreck dive. My favourite holiday of all time was in Rome. We went for a week, rented a scooter and went everywhere.
Favourite after-show haunts
I don’t go out after the show. When I’m performing, I don’t drink or go to clubs. I have a responsibility to 2,300 people every night, and I can’t not be on top form.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I’d have been an airline pilot. That was my dream as a kid – and I thought I’d look good in the outfit. I still love planes. One of the engines my Dad helped design is in the Smithsonian (museum) in Washington DC.
Why did you want to accept your part in this production of Anything Goes?
I love the show. As soon as I’m on stage every night, I know I’ll have fun. There’s not a night when it’s not a laugh. It was interesting returning to the role of Billy Crocker after 13 years. Of course I play it differently now. I’m no longer a young boy – though I am still a young man! As you mature, you understand things about life more. And that’s what they wanted when they cast me. Anything Goes is never going to be a heavy piece, but Trevor was trying to give it a bit more gravitas in this production.
Anything Goes has proved hugely popular with audiences – winning a record six Theatregoers’ Choice Awards and extending several times. Why do you think it’s been such a hit?
Because people want to laugh. With recent world events, terror is always in our face, we’re pushed to be afraid of everything. Anything Goes is the perfect escape from all that. You realise that from the first strains of the overture. The audience immediately start to tap and bee-bop in their seats.
What’s your favourite number from Anything Goes?
I love “Anything Goes” because the whole company is working as such a great team. It’s great to watch. “Be Like the Blue Bird” is a funny one, because Martin Marquez (who plays Moonface Martin) always has a glint in his eye. He’s trying to make me corpse.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened during the run to date?
Ho! It wasn’t funny at the time, but we laugh about it now. One night, when Susan Tracy (who plays Evangeline Harcourt) was running on stage laden down with her jewellery and lifejacket, she tripped and literally flew off the stage into the second row while Cheeky (her on-stage dog) flew five rows further. She carried on with that performance, but was then off for a week.
What are your plans for the future?
The plan with Anything Goes is to take it to Los Angeles and New York. I’m the only one from the company who’ll be able to go because I have dual citizenship. Next month, I’m releasing a new album, John Barrowman Swings Porter, to coincide with the release of the film De-Lovely. We’re having a signing at Dress Circle on 26 June.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Those (pointing to the mantelpiece in his dressing room where he has framed certificates of all five Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards for Anything Goes) mean more to me than Oliviers. Thanks again to everyone who voted for us.
- John Barrowman was speaking to Terri Paddock
Anything Goes continues at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 28 August 2004.