INTERVIEW: Brian Conley On Playing PT Barnum On Tour

Brian Conley plays PT Barnum in Ct Coleman's Barnum the musical on tour across the UK
Brian Conley as PT Barnum and Company. Photo: Johan Persson

Following a season at the Chichester Festival in 2013, Cy Coleman’s much loved musical headed out on the road with Brian Conley in the role of Phineus Taylor Barnum, a role originally played by Michael Crawford when the show opened in London in 1981.

Barnum is a musical biography of the great American showman, utilising circus acts to document the great mans life and highlight the struggles and conflicts that he encounters personally along the way.

We caught up with Brian Conley during an afternoon session of wire-walking, a weekly rehearsal regimen that he maintains to keep in form as he tours with one of the toughest musicals currently on tour.

“It is very demanding, it has to be one of the toughest roles in musical theatre” Brian said, “I started training six months before we started the tour. I went to circus school to learn how to walk on the wire which took me months. I got physically fit, lost a stone in weight and I’ve got muscles where I never thought I’d ever get them and I’m now a professional tight rope walker”.

Brian Conley walks the wire in Barnum
Brian Conley walks the wire in Barnum. Photo: Johan Persson

Conley was keen to stress that audiences would be getting the complete Barnum experience when they came to see Barnum. “The show is being produced by Sir Cameron Mackintosh so we don’t do anything by halves, I’m doing all of the tricks in the show. It’s not an abbreviated version. You get everything from stilt walking to fire breathing to juggling, acrobatics and of course walking the wire. It’s the core of the show, you couldn’t do Barnum without doing all of the circus acts” he said.

We asked Brian whether he had any trepidations when he was approached to play the role. “When I agreed to do it I did go online and watch Michael Crawford walking the wire and I thought it doesn’t look too hard, but he’d been doing it for some time and it’s a real skill and it’s not about getting across the wire, if that’s your goal you will fail, it’s about staying on the wire, it’s 7 ft up and 10 ft across, and it’s a wonderful metaphor for what is happening in the show.

The challenge changes venue to venue especially if the stage is raked (angled). If there is a rake, it all becomes much harder. The rake changes what you see in your peripheral vision and makes it much harder because your mind thinks that you are moving at a weird angle” he said.

Conley has played a range of large than life characters during his stage career. Characters like Jolson, Edna Turnblad, Fagin and Caractacus Potts, we wondered whether Barnum continued that trend. “Barnum is a determined character, very much like Jolson in a way. Barnum is all set in the 1800’s, he was very astute, he knew how to manipulate the press. Really he was the first spin doctor. It’s quite amazing when you look at the show and realise that he really did do all of the things mentioned in the musical. He paid $150,000 for opera singer Jenny Lind to come over from Europe in advance. He got 30,000 people to the docks in New York to welcome her, and by manipulating the press he staged 35 concerts with her and made $5million.

When Barnum died he was the most famous man in America, he was the second millionaire and when he died he was the richest man in America. He went into politics. Many people think Barnum is a circus show, but in reality Barnum didn’t get involved with the circus until he was 64. Once his wife died he teamed up with Bailey and they created the Barnum and Bailey three-ringed circus. The reason he created the three rings was so that no one could see the show in one sitting, they would have to come back numerous times to see the show” Conley said.

We asked Conley how it felt to back on tour with Barnum, a show that is receiving critical acclaim everywhere it goes on the tour. “Its wonderful being out on the road, Sir Cameron doesn’t do anything by halves and it’s just great being involved with this. There are 28 of us in the company. It’s a full on West End show, audiences won’t be disappointed” he said. When pressed about the show coming into the West End. Conley left us with this thought: “We may make it into the West End, Sir Cameron does own a few West End theatres so he make be able to stick us in one of them”.


3-14 March 2015
Theatre Royal Norwich

17-21 March 2015
Churchill Theatre, Bromley

31 March – 4 April 2015
Kings Theatre, Glasgow

7-11 April 2015
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

14-25 April 2015
Grand Theatre, Leeds

12-16 May 2015
Milton Keynes Theatre

19-23 May 2015
Empire Theatre, Liverpool

26 May – 6 June 2015
Theatre Royal, Plymouth

9-20 June 2015
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

23 June – 4 July 2015
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

7 July – 1 August 2015
Birmingham Hippodrome

4-8 August 2015
The Lowry, Salford

11-15 August 2015
Wales Millennium Centre

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