Barnum director Gordon Greenberg: ‘I’m stuffing the greatest show on earth into the smallest theatre’
The Broadway actor turned director is bringing Barnum to London – but not to a large West End venue. He tells Holly Williams about the logistics of getting a big-top show into the 200-seat Menier Chocolate Factory
When Gordon Greenberg was a child, he was so enraptured with the musical Barnum that he used to stand outside the stage door of the St James Theatre on Broadway, just to listen.
“I couldn’t afford a ticket, but I could listen,” he tells me when we meet during rehearsals for his revival of the 1980 musical. “Eventually, I saved up, I saw the show and then I wanted to go back even more. A musical like this is a gateway drug for theatre.”
It certainly was for that 11-year-old. Within a couple of years, Greenberg was even performing in musicals as an actor. Since moving into directing in 2004, the New Yorker has helmed more than a hundred productions.
The show he is known for in the UK is 2014’s sprightly revival of Guys and Dolls at Chichester, which transferred to the West End with glowing reviews and was given a further fillip with the casting of Rebel Wilson as Miss Adelaide.
But his Barnum, a musical about the 19th-century circus-owner and hustling showman PT Barnum, will be on an altogether different scale. It’s staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has only about 200 seats, leading Greenberg to ask: “What does it mean to take ‘the greatest show on earth’ and stuff it into the smallest theatre on earth?”
Despite traditionally being thought of as a big razzmatazz production – the original 1980s incarnations were on Broadway and in the West End, starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, then Michael Crawford and Deborah Grant – Greenberg is convinced Barnum can be bijou.
“Barnum is so full of visceral excitement and magic, death-defying acts and huge, buoyant songs,” says Greenberg.
But how do you do that in a tiny theatre?
“We’re looking at the show as a small piece that is overstuffed and gigantic in our imaginations,” he explains. “In this case, it will be overstuffed literally as well, because we have a full orchestra – a full West End musical – at the Chocolate Factory. But it all starts very small and simple: we’re trying to take advantage of the intimacy and the toy-box nature of the theatre… that phrase ‘toy box’ was definitely an inspiration.”
PT Barnum was quite a character: he ran a museum of curiosities, became a politician, then set up the Barnum and Bailey circus. His life of hustling and ‘humbug’ is served up in Cy Coleman’s ragtime-tinged music, Michael Stewart’s lyrics and Mark Bramble’s book as if it were one of Barnum’s own whimsical creations, spun into a circus show.
The 18-strong cast features a mixture of American and European circus performers and musical theatre types, so expect to see tightrope walking and acrobatics as well as jazz hands. But a small show that gives the impression of being something gigantic is exactly the kind of stunt Barnum would have tried to pull. He was known for his ‘humbug’ – his salesman’s shtick – and is credited (probably erroneously) with coining the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”.
Greenberg says this was simply a case of embracing the possibilities of the imagination: “He was all about taking a tiny breadcrumb and turning it into a beautiful Victorian gateau. He provided the narratives around all these acts and artefacts that turned them into divertissements, turned them into beautiful baubles on the tree of life.”
Q&A: Gordon Greenberg
What was your first non-theatre job? Ice cream scooper at Haagen-Dazs, when I was still at high school.
What was your first professional theatre job? Acting in The Little Prince and the Aviator on Broadway, aged 13.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Walk through every door that is open to you – and keep creating new projects.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Garry Marshall, who taught me to make every rehearsal a party. And my dad, who taught me that hard work, loyalty and perseverance are everything.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Think of them as deposits in a bank account that you will one day withdraw from.
If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been? Airline pilot.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Candy, whenever possible.
Still, if you search for Barnum on the internet – who was also a Republican for a time, albeit a liberal one, in favour of abolishing slavery, and who wrote a book called The Art of Money Getting – you quickly find articles comparing him to Donald Trump. Might his humbug really be 19th-century fake news?
“It’s actually the opposite of fake news, because nothing he did was for anything other than to give people pleasure,” says Greenberg. “The world has become somewhat cynical, it takes the idea of wrapping a narrative around something and perverts it into something used for selfish purposes. But nothing he did was for selfish purposes. At a moment like this, to come back to Barnum, who believed in the value of purity and innocence and open-heartedness, is refreshing.”
It’s hard not to be cynical in the face of such claims; any innocent goodness is surely undermined by one of the main thrusts of the plot: Barnum cheats on his long-suffering wife Charity with glamorous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Yet Greenberg is enthused by the romance of Barnum and Charity’s narrative arc too.
“Mark Bramble created this classic couple: a puritanical, ‘Waspy’ New England woman and a plate-spinning, helium balloon of a man. And just as with any helium balloon, you need a rock to hold it down. We all know as adults that nothing is black and white: it takes great strength for her to say, ‘Go, have your moment.’ And he realises he needs his rock. That grounding is what allows him to be fabulous.”
This dynamic is one that speaks personally to Greenberg, providing his ‘way in’ to the story – he explains his partner is from a very “no-nonsense, undecorative, practical” Connecticut family, while his New York upbringing was much more “inherently glittery”. We might think Barnum is a louse towards Charity, but their ‘opposites attract’ dynamic should still have the glint of truth.
Crucial to this, naturally, is the casting. This revival stars Laura Pitt-Pulford as Charity opposite Marcus Brigstocke as Barnum. Brigstocke is probably better known to audiences as a comedian.
“That’s actually perfect, because he’s very comfortable in this arena, up close to the audience,” smiles Greenberg. “He’s the only actor I’ve worked with who can’t wait to talk directly to an audience member. When I was an actor, I was terrified of even being able to see the audience.”
The slightly leftfield casting may help wrench memories away from Michael Crawford in the role, but there was also something in Brigstocke’s own character that Greenberg felt chimed with Barnum.
“He’s so warm-hearted and childlike in his approach to this material, I couldn’t imagine him being anything other than lovable. If he ever gets a note from any of us, it’s ‘how can you make it more you?’ ”
The figure of Barnum has stepped back into the limelight recently. A major Hollywood movie about his life starring Hugh Jackman – The Greatest Showman – is about to be released. But the actual Barnum and Bailey circus, which had toured the US for 146 years, made headlines earlier this year when it finally shut altogether.
It had struggled since ceasing to use live animals a few years ago – a traditional show that failed to modernise effectively. And while few people mourn the fact that elephants are no longer forced to perform, for Greenberg, the passing of such traditional entertainments also reflects a wider loss of old-fashioned innocence.
“I miss the world where circus was relevant, where people could believe in a politician and where people who spun tales were Mark Twain and Roald Dahl – not Theresa May and Donald Trump. That’s the world we’re trying to access in this show.”
CV: Gordon Greenberg
Born: Fort Worth, Texas, 1969
Training: Stanford University; NYU Film School
Landmark productions: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Zipper Theater, New York (2006), Working, US tour (2012), Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre (2014), Holiday Inn, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, New York (2016)
Agent: Derek Zasky at Williams Morris Endeavor, New York
Barnum runs at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory until March 3