For lovers of musical theater, it doesn't get any better than this weekend's annual Variety Telethon, which features performances by six award-winning Broadway stars. It's not unusual for theater celebrities to appear together at charity events in New York. But to induce six luminaries to fly out to St. Louis -- this is a unique happening. Their Saturday-night concert -- broadcast live on KMOV-TV (Channel 4) beginning at 10:35 p.m. and repeated Sunday morning at 9:30 -- offers the potential for a rare treat.
The company includes stars of such recent Broadway hits as The Full Monty (Jason Danieley) and Bells Are Ringing (Faith Prince). We're also getting the original Millie (Sutton Foster) from Thoroughly Modern Millie, the original Mother from Ragtime (Marin Mazzie, the most sought-after leading lady in Broadway musicals today) and the original Little Orphan Annie (Andrea McArdle) from the now-legendary Annie.
The ensemble is made complete with Brent Barrett, who hasn't originated anything -- yet. But if he's not original, Barrett is certainly authentic. Over the past fifteen years, ever since he took over as the Baron in Grand Hotel (a role he later performed on tour at the Fox), Barrett has established himself as the quintessential leading man of the Broadway musical.
No surprise, then, that three years ago Reba McEntire selected Barrett to be her Frank Butler when she made her Broadway debut as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. Although McEntire had never before acted in a musical anywhere, according to Barrett it only took the company "a couple of days" to realize she would triumph in the demanding part. "She's just a natural," Barrett says by phone from New York. "It was an incredible pairing of performer and role."
Barrett was no stranger to Frank Butler, having performed him eleven years ago at the Muny opposite Cathy Rigby. If playing a cowboy comes naturally to Barrett, perhaps that's because he was raised on the Kansas prairie. As a teen he worked as a real cowboy. "People would come from all over the world to spend a weekend living on a wagon train," he says. "At night we'd circle the wagons and cook in an open pit in the ground. Then we'd gather around the campfire. I'd have my guitar and I'd sing show songs like 'They Call the Wind Maria.'"
Because his aunt owned "the only movie theater for 50 miles around," when it came time to leave Kansas Barrett might have considered heading for Hollywood. "But they weren't making movie musicals anymore," he says. "I love to sing, so I came to New York."
First, though, he attended Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. During his freshman year, he made a weekend pilgrimage to Manhattan to see his first Broadway musical, the original Chicago. "I loved it," Barrett says. Then he hedges, adding, "In contrast to what I had expected to see on Broadway, the production actually seemed rather sparse. There weren't a lot of sets. As for the costumes, it was like they were all wearing underwear. So I didn't really appreciate it, as I certainly came to." Twenty-five years later Barrett found himself starring on Broadway in the long-running Chicago revival.
"I've been in and out of the Broadway production for five years," he says. "I was also on the road with it for nine months [including a stint at the Fox]. We've all learned to never say goodbye to Chicago until it closes its doors."
Last summer Barrett was back in Chicago when Melanie Griffith joined the musical for a brief star turn. Though the actor is too diplomatic to say anything unkind about any of his leading ladies, he does acknowledge the change in the makeup of the crowd. "Whenever there's a celebrity on the stage, you get a very different audience," he says, "because they're coming to see the star. And the byproduct is the show. Then the night after the celebrity is gone, the anticipation and the excitement diminish. Which is very sad, because it doesn't mean that the quality of the production has diminished at all."
This weekend local viewers can be excused for succumbing to anticipation and excitement both. St. Louis Variety is offering a star turn times six. But amid this array of talent, pay special heed to Barrett. After a career spent performing the musicals of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe and Cole Porter, he has assumed the mantle of a 21st-century Alfred Drake or Jack Cassidy. Now, as he provides young audiences with a through-line to classic musicals like Kiss Me, Kate and Candide, Brent Barrett is as deft and smooth a leading man as the contemporary American theater possesses.