Wednesday, January 21, 2009

on the couch with captain jack

Anything Goes: John Barrowman

The first time I heard the name John Barrowman must have been in 1999, when I became a Phantom phan and acquired as many of the musical’s cast albums as I could, including one with Ethan Freeman as the Phantom, Claire Moore as Christine, and John Barrowman as Raoul (at the time, I thought he was pretty cute and sang a very good Raoul). The next time was whenever the Hey, Mr. Producer concert of Cameron Mackintosh-produced shows was shown on PBS—he was there singing something from The Fix. Next it was in 2004, when I learned he was going to be playing a part in the new Doctor Who. (When I found out Doctor Who was coming back, I stayed as much out of the loop as possible. I knew the US wouldn’t get it for a long time, so it was better not to spoil myself and get too excited if I had to wait a long time—which I did. It was a strategy that paid off, but I had to keep pestering my friend Sarah as series 1 was airing, “When is Captain Jack going to show up?”) Then I went to Wales, where I was in time to see the first season of Torchwood, go to Cardiff to “the Hub” and where “Boom Town” had been filmed, etc. Then I saw the man himself in Jack and the Beanstalk in Cardiff—more on that later—and then he was plastered all over TV, radio, he was ubiquitous! (The coda is that I had a job interview in September in the Splott area of Cardiff—I was scared to walk there, but the interview basically consisted of me telling the interviewer how much of a fan of Doctor Who and Torchwood I was and him telling me that Burn Gorman’s son was his son’s friend and that they filmed Torchwood in that area and that the mixing studio was the building next door, etc. I didn’t get the job, but the interview was memorable!)

In any case, despite being a fan—I’m on the BarrowmanOnline listserv—I didn’t exactly jump out and buy his autobiography. Part of it, I guess, is a lingering distrust of not only “celebrity” biographies, but autobiographies of anyone under the age of 60. I was really surprised, though. John (and yes, I’m going to call him John) admits that he is foremost an entertainer, and the book is above all entertaining. It’s well-written, well-paced, very funny, covers a ton of ground without being confusing or dead boring, and most of all, his very passionate personality screams out of each page. It’s co-written with his sister Carole, and who can tell who had the bigger part of making this a very readable book—she’s the English professor, he’s the gregarious, outrageous personality. The first three or so chapters had me glued to the page. While the rest of the book tapered back a bit for me, I must say I found the structure very impressive
[1]. John’s not had a harrowing life by any stretch of the imagination, nor does he spend as much time as you might think on his adventures with the rich and famous. It’s mostly about his family life and experiences in musical theatre. It’s not a book I would recommend to the easily shocked, either—John’s a potty mouth and notoriously open about his (and everyone else’s) sexuality. He describes the book as you’ll feel as if you and I are lounging in our pyjamas on the couch in my Cardiff living room, sharing a bottle of champagne or a pot of tea[2], and it really does.

I write many reviews, regardless of whether people read them. I’ve had three courses in memoir writing/creative nonfiction/writing the self, quite different in tone and lesson plans, and though I’ve churned out the memoirs and personal essays, it’s not a form I’ve had particular success with. (In high school I had to write an autobiography, which made me sputter, but in the end I titled it “The Lifetime of God” because my boyfriend at the time told me it would take the lifetime of God to tell my beauty. See, I was loved once …) Structuring memoir is, in my opinion, difficult. Do you do it chronologically? If so, how do you keep it from being boring? If you do it topically, how do you keep the reader from going insane? Either John or his sister Carole has a lot of finesse in this department. Each of the chapters in Anything Goes are titled after songs, the first one being “I Hope I Get It.” It’s a superb starting point, as it describes the moment when John found out he’d gotten the role of Captain Jack. He was in a revival of Anything Goes in Covent Garden with his niece Clare, and it’s a perfect nexus of much of essence of John: the musical theatre bit, the importance of his family, the role that would make him famous, his humor and joie de vivre. Camera cuts quickly to our leading man jumping off the ground, punching the air with his fists and letting out a rebel yell. Actually, what I screamed was, ‘I’m going to be in the TARDIS!’ The first chapter also lets you know that John is Glaswegian by birth, his childhood connection to Doctor Who (he was a Star Wars freak first and foremost)
[3] , describes his audition for the part of Jack, that his favorite companion is Sarah Jane, his favorite villain Davros and his favorite episode “Terror of the Autons.” (All important things to know!) It ends spectacularly with his scene dancing with Billie Piper on the top of that Chula warship: I danced to my own tune, to my own steps, the way I’ve been dancing for most of my life.

From that moment, the autobiography seizes you
[4] and doesn’t let you go. The second and third chapters are about his earliest years in the Glasgow suburb of Mount Vernon, and as a chapter it’s suffused with warmth, humor, and moves effortlessly back and forth through time with virtuoso references that come out of nowhere but never make the reader scratch her head. For example, he uses a Bosch painting he and his partner Scott saw in Madrid to tell us he was the baby from hell. He was a prankster like his dad, the victim of his older siblings’ friendly wrath; we’re introduced to his beloved Murn (grandmother on his mother’s side), who fed sweeties to “Wee John.” There’s a wonderfully atmospheric, nostalgic look back at Christmases and Hogmanys both in Scotland and in Illinois, where the family moved in 1976. He got his voice from his mother, who has her own spectacular story which involves preemies and ovens!

John knows this memoir isn’t a dark one. I suppose it would be easy to see this experience as having some kind of symbolic signifance in my life. . . . it was my first manifestation of the Barrowman risk-taking gene. He describes how he inherited this gene from his father and uncles and how it helped him in TV shows like Dancing on Ice
[5], How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?[6] and on a plane ride with Shirley Bassey, as well as when he flew in the RAF Tattoo in 2007. Very entertainingly, he quotes Oscar Wilde; the flying experience was “Defying Gravity” (and less scary than Janice Dickinson on Jonathan Ross[7]). Chapter four follows him to America (Aurora, then Joliet, Illinois), and he somehow finds time to make fun of Cardiff-ers who have never been in the Castle! Due to teasing, Wee John not only learned how to swim, but reveals his phobia of having his face or neck touched! (Apparently not his lips!) He was a flautist before he was a singer, and I think my sister might have a cow if I told her he was a high school drum major. He spent his American summers in the pool. During one of these summers he realized he was gay, though he didn’t tell his family until 1992 when he was playing Raoul (need I say more??). They, of course, were supportive—‘John . . . I have to say that we’re hurt you’d think that because you’re gay we’d not want to be part of your life anymore.’

High school is when John began performing, acting, and singing, though he experienced “the Dues and Don’t Syndrome,” which even I, in my brief theatre tenure, am familiar with. When I got John’s self-titled album for Christmas this year, I saw that his accompanist for several pieces was Bev Holt, who turns out to be his high school drama teacher. John’s Forensic Competition must be what Academic Bowl was to Johanna and English Expo was to me, though his description of bluffing his way through a scene from The Lion in Winter (and winning awards) is much funnier than anything I ever did. (This is also the chapter he offers us the following advice, . . . sings songs like ‘Dip Your Cock in Vodka’ (readers, please don’t)!) John and Bev Holt also tried to give back to schools like his once he became successful with the Dreamers Workshop before lack of funding and support killed it.

Somehow, I never knew before that John performed in Opryland in Nashville over his summers after an unsuccessful run at the University of Iowa. You find this out in a chapter called “The First Man You Remember,” which gives you a full dose of John’s potty mouth, potty humor, mania for shopping, self-confidence, and of course, his first gay kiss (it was very romantic). He also gives you his two cents on nature vs. nurture in the debate on homosexuality (which you already know if you saw his very manic programme on it on the Beeb last year). This was followed by education at the United States International University in San Diego, which came with more exposure to Dues and Don’t—Peter cross[ed] the line from professional rivalry to personal wankerdom—before John got his first big break in Anything Goes
[9] in 1989, a true fluke as he went from only in London on a semester’s study of Shakespeare to leading man in the West End. Wow! Somehow I also completely missed that John was in the film of The Producers playing the Nazi lead tenor. His conclusion about this whole experience could sum up his life, ‘Barrowman is happy and gay!’ (set to the tune of “Springtime for Hitler,” of course.)

Only chapter nine, about John’s friend’s Midge’s depression and suicide, feels slightly out of place, though he ties it together by titling the chapter, “No One Is Alone.” Were there more chapters like “High Flying Adored,” which describes John’s relationship with Valentino (!), John’s life would be a very different one. Only John could have worked the Donner Party
[10] into a chapter about meeting the love of his life, Scott Gill. In fact, it was only after the terrifying experience of nearly running out of petrol/gas in Yosemite that made John want to participate in the civil ceremony with Scott (in Cardiff Bay, by the way; I remember when it happened). “Anything Goes” gives some outrageous stories of life on the superstitious stage (Andrew [Lloyd Webber] wrote, ‘Your penis may not upstage my music’). I hadn’t realized John’s repertoire was quite so impressive: Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and the Beast[11], Phantom, Godspell, Putting It Together, Miss Saigon, Company, Evita, some British kids’ shows, the film De-Lovely, and the short-lived American TV shows Titans and Central Park West[12] (and, good man, he’s tried on several occasions to get RTD to write a musical episode of Doctor Who or Torchwood—I can so see it as a Christmas or Children in Need special, can’t you?).

A chapter is devoted to John’s relationships with his nephews and nieces (should he ever want to father children, Suranne Jones of all people will be the surrogate mother!). His nephew Turner had this to say, ‘You know, Uncle John, I’m straight, and if you think about all the times when I was a kid that I’ve been dressed up in women’s clothing and made to sing and dance, I’ve got to be proof that you can’t turn someone gay.’ He describes his fear of flying, insane adventures with Cameron Mackintosh, filming Shark Attack 3 (no, he’s not exactly proud of it), and advice from Sondheim.

If you
[13] were expecting to find out a lot about John’s experiences in Torchwood and Doctor Who, you might be a bit disappointed. He mentions things throughout the book, but focuses on the shows only really during the first and penultimate chapters. Maybe he feels his audiences know enough about that part of his life already, or maybe he doesn’t want to say too much too soon (he describes Eccleston as “angsty”). Fortunately for me, what John does have to say about Doctor Who involves filming “Utopia”! He mentions the birthdays he had on set while filming Doctor Who, the story about the manky chips in “The Sound of Drums,” nearly killing Gareth Lloyd-Jones in the Brecon Beacons with an antique brass bell, and Eve Myles’ thong. That’s probably enough for most people[14]. The end of the autobiography praises RTD and announces this is only intermission. My ending’s not written yet, my show’s not over.

John Barrowman has been very lucky. He had a family who, despite their quirks, loved him unconditionally and let him follow his dream. He has dual citizenship and got to attend (or not attend) the educational institutions of his choice. But he also works hard, clearly loves what he does, doesn’t take crap from the detractors, is good to his fans, and is—honestly—very talented. I’ve told this story before, but it bears mentioning: the first time I went to see John’s panto in Cardiff, he was ill with a chest infection and was gone. I was seeing it with a fan from BarrowmanOnline who’d come down from Manchester several times already to see the show. She convinced me to buy another ticket and see the panto again. This time, John was performing despite still being sick. His poor understudy did his best, but John literally lit up the stage. He was just a joy to watch, his voice was great despite being ill, he was gorgeous, and I just grinned the whole way through.

It goes without saying that Anything Goes has a plethora of entertaining, priceless photos. A couple of the most memorable are John, nephew, and niece in drag for Hogmanay; in a dance belt that looks like a nappy/diaper backstage at Phantom; showing his bum in a kilt; looking like an action figure on the set of “Bad Wolf.” But my personal favorite is John watching Torchwood with his mates Naoko Mori, Burn Gorman, Eve Myles, and David Tennant. (Watch this space, I’ll try to scan this one.) All I can say is: can I marry David Tennant yet? Please? Please?!

I think writing autobiography is challenging. I never expected John Barrowman’s to be one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever read.

[1] He (or Carole) had the chutzpah to use footnotes, and to very good effect, I might add!
[2] Certain readers will note I am fond of both.
[3] He informs us by footnote you can’t get jelly babies in the US, which is true.
[4] Or just me?
[5] I didn’t know he was in it.
[6] Somehow failed to watch it when it was on.
[7] THAT I did see. I’ve seen John do some strange things on TV—marrying two dogs on Loose Women comes to mind—but this particularly episode of the Friday night talk show really took the cake.
[9] With Bernard Cribbins.
[10] I had no idea he was such a fan of nineteenth-century American history. He should persuade someone in charge of Torchwood to write an episode set there.
[11] I would have expected him to play Gaston, but he played the Beast (and quite well judging from the “If I Can’t Love Her” track on the album I got).
[12] No, I didn’t see them either.
[13] *Cough*
[14] Poor Freema. I don’t think I could deal with standing around in the TARDIS with my two co-stars carrying on a farting competition. Grow up, boys, grow up!
[15] If he tries any farting competitions, I would naturally punch him hard in one of his scrawny biceps. Problem solved.


Anonymous said...

"[3] He informs us by footnote you can’t get jelly babies in the US, which is true."

Not quite true. If you live near a Cost Plus World Market or have a place like Fremont's (which is a food specialty store), jelly babies can be found. Esp. around Christmas!

Or you can order them on line... Hmmm. If I gave you money next round, would you send me some? ;oD


Le Mc said...

How many do you want? I'll bring a couple bags back with me in July, and since I don't like them much, I won't be in danger of eating them. (My sister loves them, though.)

I guess Clan Barrowman didn't live near a Cost Plus!

Anonymous said...

A bag will do it for me tempting as it is to ask for more.

Back in July? For good this time or just a visit?