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Obituary: Barry Dennen

Barry Dennen. Photo: Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock Barry Dennen. Photo: Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock

It would have been enough to have been known as the man who launched Barbra Streisand’s career, but Barry Dennen was himself an accomplished singer and actor who created the role of Pontius Pilate in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

Born in Chicago, he had begun his career in New York’s alternative theatre and thriving cabaret scene in the city’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Sharing an apartment with the then unknown Streisand, Dennen recognised her singing ability and devised and directed the nightclub show that lit the fuse on her stellar career. The pair became lovers (although Dennen eventually realised that he was gay) and their relationship was the subject of his 1997 book My Life With Barbra: A Love Story.

Towards the end of the 1960s, he moved to London, where he made his mark as the master of ceremonies in the West End premiere of  Cabaret, directed by Hal Prince in 1968. The only US performer in the cast, his appearance alongside Judi Dench as Sally Bowles won him an Evening Standard award and brought him to the attention of Lloyd Webber, who cast him as Pilate on the original concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar. Dennen reprised the role on Broadway and in the 1973 film version directed by Norman Jewison.

In 1969, he was hailed by The Stage for his “virtuoso characterisation” of Kent in Sam Shepard’s La Turista at the Royal Court Upstairs and returned to his cabaret roots to direct Annie Ross in a late-night show at the Hampstead Theatre in 1971.

The same year, Dennen was seen as Aaron to Steven Berkoff’s Lucius in Titus Andronicus at London’s Roundhouse. A decade later he was back in the West End, in Peter Ustinov’s Overheard, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

At the newly opened Greenwood Theatre in 1975, he directed his own “panorama of 20th-century French popular song”, Boum!

In his native US, Dennen built a substantial body of work as a director and actor, latterly including playing Herod in a 2003 touring revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and the playwright Bertolt Brecht in Charles Marowitz’s Silent Partners at the Scena Theater, Washington in 2006.

An accomplished writer, in later years he was a popular voice-over artist contributing to video games and animated films and television series including Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

His film appearances included Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Titanic (1997).

Barry Dennen was born on February 22, 1938 and died on September 26, aged 79.

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