A Conversation with Brent Barrett

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A Conversation with Brent Barrett

September 24, 2018

By Todd Sussman for Cabaret Scenes

Brent Barrett
Photo: Levi Walker

This B.B. is king of the baritones. As Brent Barrett gets ready for the 2018 Cabaret Convention, the multi-talented star reflects on a career’s worth of cabaret, Broadway, recording and touring…and shares some highlights from his personal life, too. It’s the best of Brent.

Todd Sussman: I’m looking forward to seeing you performing live in the 29th New York Cabaret Convention at Jazz at Lincoln Center. With your diverse work on Broadway, touring, recording, and appearing in films and on television, does cabaret work have a special appeal?
Brent Barrett: I love the intimacy of doing cabaret. You can do songs in cabaret that you’d never get to do anyplace else. Audiences get the chance to hear different interpretations of songs, as if experiencing them for the first time.

Todd: What are some of the cabaret hot spots for you?
Brent: I love Birdland. I haven’t been in their new space, but I hear it’s great. I also love Crazy Coqs in London. It’s tiny, very intimate.

Brent at Birdland
Photo: Stephen Sorokoff

Todd: At the Cabaret Convention, you will be paying tribute to Jerry Herman. Are you able to share what you will be singing?
Brent: I don’t think it’s a secret. I’ll be singing “Song on the Sand” from La Cage aux Folles. I’ve played Georges, twice, and LOVE the show and the story it tells. SO relevant in this age of divisiveness.

Todd: Excellent! “Song on the Sand” is my favorite song from that show. Do you have a favorite Jerry Herman score?
Brent: My favorite JH score is Mack & Mabel. I know audiences have trouble with the story, and I wish someone could come up with a new book that would make it more successful than past productions. I would LOVE to play Mack!

Brent in La Cage aux Folles

Todd: There are so many highlights to your career we can discuss. Please allow me to go back to the early days. You had an auspicious Broadway debut in 1980, starting as Diesel and then graduating to Tony in the West Side Story revival. Wow! When you were chosen for that show, who is the first person you told?
Brent: I was starting my senior year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when I got the call. The first person I told was my roommate at the time. Then I had to ask the drama department for permission to leave to make my Broadway debut. I returned the following spring to graduate.

Todd: Singing and dancing to Bernstein and Sondheim’s score—what was a highlight for you in that production?
Brent: ONE of the highlights was Mr. Bernstein conducting our opening night at the Kennedy Center. The whole experience was surreal. Moving to New York and working with those titans of the theater, I kept my head down and hoped I didn’t get fired [laughs]. Touring Europe with the show the following summer was a dream come true!

Todd: In 1983, you played a different Tony, the disturbed Tony Barclay on the popular soap opera, All My Children. Tony’s obsessive love for Jenny leads him to try to murder Greg, but the plan backfires and Jenny is the one who dies. What was it like finding yourself, so early on in your career, on a hit daytime drama?
Brent: Was Tony disturbed? [laughs] I developed a great appreciation for soap actors. It’s very difficult work. I’m sure everyone has a different experience, and I preferred working on the stage. And I also preferred the anonymity of working in theater.

Todd: Did All My Children fans treat you, Brent, as if you were the “bad guy?”
Brent: Soap fans are a unique breed. Fans would tell me to leave Jenny alone, and then would ask for my autograph. What amazes me is that occasionally fans still recognize me from the show. I fell off the roof and died in 1984!

Todd: Did playing Tony Barclay inform any of your future roles?
Brent: I think everything you do informs what comes after. Not necessarily in a conscious way, but you discover little bits of yourself in everything you do and file it away for future use.

Todd: How different is the preparation for a show like that—with its voluminous script to memorize on a daily basis—than preparing for a Broadway show?
Brent: Lots of pressure just to remember your lines. I did get better at it as time went on. In a Broadway show, you have a chance to develop the character. On a soap, you have to come in fully formed.

Todd: The wonderful Susan Lucci (All My Children’s Erika Kane) and you both starred in Annie Get Your Gun, but separately. Did you ever discuss that show with her?
Brent: Annie Get Your Gun was many years after I was off All My Children. Unfortunately, our paths never crossed at the Marriot Marquis. Reba McEntire and I joined the show at the same time and left together. That was another magical time. Reba was born to play that role. I wish she’d come back to Broadway.

Todd: Your Off-Broadway work in Closer Than Ever is highly regarded. Do you still perform any of the David Shire/Richard Maltby, Jr. songs from that show?
Brent: I just love that show! I don’t do any of those songs in my shows. I think it’s time to reexamine that decision.

Todd: Your performance of “Take a Glass Together” from Grand Hotel with Michael Jeter on the Tony Awards in 1990 is captured for posterity on the Broadway’s Lost Treasures DVD set. What are your memories of that night?
Brent: Magical! The cast piled off the bus to perform and we hung out in the alley of the theater waiting to go on. I just kept telling myself, “DON’T FALL DOWN!” Not that I ever fell down in the number, but it was live television and I was nervous. We were introduced and then entered. A surge of adrenaline; almost an out of body experience. After the performance, we loaded back on the bus and watched Michael’s acceptance speech for best featured actor in a musical. Not a dry eye on the bus.

Brent in Chicago

Todd: You won the role of Billy Flynn in the 1998 touring company of Chicago, and later reprised that role on Broadway. Over the years, you became the “go to” actor for Billy Flynn. Playing that part over time, you had to become an “expert” Billy Flynn. As theater is truly a live medium, did you change up the shadings and nuances?
Brent: When I was 18, Chicago was the first show I saw on Broadway. I didn’t think there was any role in the show for me. Flash forward 40 years, and I’ve been playing Billy on and off for 22 years. Unbelievable, that this production has lasted this long. My performance changes depending on who’s playing Roxy, Velma and Amos. Not in a huge way, but subtly.

Todd: I am a huge fan of your Kander & Ebb Album (1999). I would call your version of “Sometimes a Day Goes By” definitive. The cast album version (from Woman of the Year) by Harry Guardino is poignant. However, that recording incorporates a scene snippet with the members of the ensemble that briefly strays from the romance of the song. Your version is stand-alone, with an amazing arrangement and your flawless vocal. What do you recall about the recording session?
Brent: Thank you so much. And thank you, Christopher Denny, for the beautiful arrangement. Bruce Kimmel came to see me in Chicago at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, and I took him to lunch and proposed the CD. The Kander & Ebb CD was the first of three solo CDs we did together. It was all exciting! To hear Larry Moore’s orchestrations come to life for the first time was thrilling. I’m very proud of the finished product.

Todd: Speaking of your vocals, we often see you described in print as “actor and baritone,” which is unique and special. How do you see yourself, and how would you describe your vocals?
Brent: I guess you’d call me a baritone, with a tenor timbre.

Todd: How “hands on” were you with the remarkable arrangements on The Kander & Ebb Album, your first solo album?
Brent: Very! My musical director, Christopher Denny, my director, Barry Kleinbort, and I did all the arrangements, with input from Bruce. I had the idea to slow down “All That Jazz” and make it more sultry and sexy. The CD was a very collaborative effort. Barry brought in songs I hadn’t heard before, and we sifted through everything to find the best fit for me. I knew I wanted a big band feel for “Second Chance.” I love “First You Dream” from Steel Pier, but you can’t do everything! There are some arrangements I do in my Kander & Ebb show that I would love to go back in the studio to record.

Todd: Many years later, you performed the “Married”/“Marry Me” medley from the Kander & Ebb CD in honor of gay marriage. Songs evolve and are imbued with new meaning! What did it mean to you to sing the “Married” medley in this new light?
Brent: Everything! I grew up in a time when, for two people of the same sex, getting married wasn’t a possibility. I never thought I’d have the opportunity, and we can never take it for granted. We have to be very vigilant, especially with the current administration.

Todd: On a personal note, how did you meet your partner, who you recently proposed to?
Brent: It was a “showmance.” Bernie [Blanks] and I met doing a production of Camelot at the Paper Mill Playhouse. He affectionately called himself a medieval jester. We’ve been together for 15 years and I thought, what are we waiting for?

Todd: How did you propose?
Brent: It was a big surprise. My friend, Jo-Ann Pantuso, was the only person I told I was going to propose. We were having an Easter brunch at our house here in Las Vegas, and I called everyone into the living room. Bernie thought, “Why is he stopping the party?” I started the musical track to “Married”/“Marry Me.” When he recognized what was playing and realized what was happening, he started to cry. I started singing and motioned for him to come over. We were both crying, but I got through it and he said yes. Boy, that would have been embarrassing if he’d said no.

Todd: How great that you re-visited Kander & Ebb on the 2-CD new studio cast album of And the World Goes Round (2014). Was it a conscious choice to sing songs of theirs you had not recorded before, including the title songs from The Rink and Kiss of the Spiderwoman?
Brent: Doing that recording was coming full circle for me. I was the first person to sing “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” in the workshop of And the World Goes ’Round. I had to drop out of the commercial run of World Goes ’Round to go on tour with Grand Hotel.

Todd: What is it about their songs that’s so compelling for you as a singer?
Brent: First of all, they’re genius songwriters. If you’re willing to take the journey, they make it very easy to connect on an emotional level. Just tell the story. I’m singing “But the World Goes ’Round,” for the first time, in a show I’m doing at Caesars here in Las Vegas. When I manage to click-in, it stops the show.

Brent with John Kander

Todd: When was the last time you spoke with John Kander?
Brent: I ran into John at one of the final performances of Kid Victory at the Vineyard Theater. He is one of the sweetest men on the planet. Many years ago, I went to his house to play some songs I’d written. He played me some of his early compositions that had never been recorded. A few weeks later we ended up going into the studio and laying them down. One of the tracks, “Summer with You,” ended up on the CD, John Kander—Hidden Treasures.

Todd: For your CD, The Alan Jay Lerner Album (2002), you duetted with the legendary Lauren Bacall on “You Haven’t Changed”/“I Remember It Well?” I love that it’s just you, Bacall, and a piano; you both shine! How did that duet come about?
Brent:  Thank you! That session was pure joy. Ms. Bacall and I met in Paris doing a Bernstein gala for Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund. I gave her a copy of my Kander & Ebb Album. Christopher, Barry and I had discussed asking Betty to duet with me on the Lerner CD. A few weeks later, I ran into her at the restaurant Chez Josephine in New York. I walked over to her table and asked if she would consider doing a duet on the Lerner CD. She said, in her husky voice, “You know I don’t sing.” I assured her we would come up with something and that she would be totally comfortable. We had two ideas. The first was to do “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” from Camelot. And, of course, when we got to the “whistle” line, we’d add, “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” The second, that we recorded, was “I Remember It Well” and “You Haven’t Changed at All.” Betty was so delightful during the entire process, playing the musical scene in the studio with no ego or pretense whatsoever. Playful and sexy.

Todd: Did Bacall impart any words of wisdom?
Brent: I was between gigs and she said, “Get back on Broadway!”

Todd: Her starring role in Woman of the Year was one of the first shows I ever saw on Broadway. Did you get to see her in that?
Brent: Sad to say, I didn’t see her in the show.

Todd: Is there a certain song on The Alan Jay Lerner Album that has a special meaning to you?
Brent: My favorite song on the CD is “Anyone Who Loves” from Dance a Little Closer. It was 1984; we opened and closed the show on Broadway the same night. I played one half of a gay couple. The show was set on the verge of World War III, and we wanted to get married before the world ended in nuclear fallout. Gay marriage, in 1984, was way ahead of its time. I close most of my cabaret shows with that song. As the song goes, “There ought to be a ray of sun to shine on anyone who loves.”

Todd: After the Kander & Ebb and Alan Jay Lerner albums, what other composers’ work would you like to explore and record?
Brent: Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Carole King, Barry Manilow, Adele, Pasek & Paul. I sang Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” for a Guys Sing Dolls concert in Vegas that Phillip Officer put together. I thought Phillip was crazy for suggesting it, but I loved singing the song.

Brent in the film version of The Producers

Todd: In the 2005 film version of the musical The Producers, for the song “Keep It Gay,” you wore a sexy leather outfit and showed off major abs. What were your thoughts when you won the eye-catching role of Brian the Set Designer?
Brent: I better get in shape! Jai Rodriguez and I happened to be working out at the same gym on 42nd Street before filming started. He was baring much more than I was. [laughs] I was in pretty good shape, but stepped it up for filming. The makeup man was very helpful.

Todd: Do you still have the costume you wore in the film?
Brent:  I don’t know where the harness and leather outfit ended up. It doesn’t really fit in my wardrobe.

Todd:  Mel Brooks’ lyrics for “Keep It Gay” are ingenious, considering all the references to “gay” in that song refer to the “lighthearted and carefree” definition and not sexuality. It’s the execution of the number that fills in the latter meaning. What suggestions or advice did director Susan Stroman give you and the ensemble for that scene, which is surely one of the hilarious highlights of the movie?
Brent: I love Susan’s sense of humor, and she’s always looking for ways to make something funnier. Susan is very collaborative and was open to whatever we came up with during the scene. She managed to keep all the mayhem within the camera frame.

Brent as the Phantom in Germany

Todd: You’ve said your role as the title character in The Phantom of the Opera, in the Las Vegas production (2006), was one of the most challenging you’ve ever played. What made it so challenging?
Brent: Doing the Phantom is one of those roles that doesn’t allow you to have much of a life. You have to take very good care of yourself in order to give your all to the role. With the combination of the high intensity of the emotion and the vocals, I had to be very protective of my voice.

Todd: Down the line, you then performed it in German—in Germany! That sounds like an incredible challenge.
Brent: It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I wanted a challenge, and I sure got it! I worked on the translation for three months before I went to Germany to begin rehearsals. A month before the opening, I fractured my ankle in rehearsal. I had surgery in Germany and came home for a month to recuperate. When I returned to Germany to continue rehearsals, I was hobbling down the sidewalk on my crutches, feeling very sorry for myself, asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here”? It turned out to be a wonderful experience and I loved singing the show in German.

The Broadway Tenors

Todd: You co-created and sing in The Broadway Tenors, and you also perform as one of The Four Phantoms. Is there less pressure singing in these groups than as a solo act?
Brent: There’s much less pressure when you’re performing with three or four. You have to be respectful of the other performers on stage. Know when it’s your time to shine and know when to lay back.

The Four Phantoms
Photo: Diana Dumbadse Photography

Todd: Is there a role or project on your bucket list?
Brent: Yes. I’ve been working on a new musical by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger called Casanova Returns, with Artie Masella directing. It’s a fun romp, with a gorgeous score. I keep hoping we’ll find the right producer who wants to do it.

Todd: I hear you are friendly and kind to your fans. The singular Cher recently said she may pose for pictures with fans if they are polite and respectful of her space, but when they “steal” her picture, that’s another story. How do you feel about greeting your fans?
Brent: I love meeting and greeting fans. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them. I’m very grateful they like what I do.

Todd: When I come to the Cabaret Convention this October, may I have a picture taken with you?
Brent: Absolutely!  See you there.
Todd: Great answer!

Editor’s note:

Don’t miss Brent at the 29th New York Cabaret Convention at Jazz at Lincoln Center, October 11, 2018. For tickets: www.mabelmercer.org.

You’ll also want to catch him performing in his spectacular groups, The Four Phantoms and The Broadway Tenors. Visit brentbarrett.com for dates and locations.

Todd Sussman

Todd Sussman is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied journalism and film. A longtime entertainment writer, he is the author of the Blockbuster Video books, The Greatest Movies of All Time, Volumes 1 & 2. He began his writing career as the film critic for The Miami News and soon became the editor of Blockbuster Video Magazine. For his work on the magazine, Todd received an Addy Award for Best In-House Publication, one of several Addy honors he holds. The Walt Disney Company commissioned him to write an interview promoting the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which Todd wrote the questions as well as the answers, in character as the beloved Roger Rabbit). He had the privilege of working as the Liner Notes Editor on the following projects for Barbra Streisand: Encore (her 11th Number One album), Release Me 2 (with various collector editions), and her tour program for The Music…The Mem’ries…The Magic! He also edited the liner notes for: A Capitol Christmas - Volumes 1 & 2, Neil Diamond’s Classic Diamonds, Nat King Cole & Friends’ A Sentimental Christmas, and Kristin Chenoweth’s Happiness Is Christmas. Recent cover stories for Cabaret Scenes include Johnny Mathis, Kristin Chenoweth, and Stephen Schwartz.