It’s ten years today since Steve Barton died, and I still miss him very much.
Steve was a hugely talented star of musical theatre, an actor, singer and dancer who had terrific stage presence. An American, born in Arkansas, but as he said “a naturalised Texan”, he met his wife, Denny Berry, when they were at the University of Texas at Austin, and left to forge a career in Europe, first in dance, then in the new forms of musical that emerged demanding not only actors that could sing, but who moved well, and well enough to handle modern dance forms.
He was resident in Vienna at just the right time to premiere Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats (as Jesus and Munkustrap), added La Cage Aux Folles, Company and others to his cv, before landing the plum part of Raoul in the original production of The Phantom of the Opera in London. Which is where I met him… and in the lines of the song All I ask of You, it was a case of “Say the word and I will follow you”.
And I did… to New York, where he originated Raoul on Broadway and then took on the role of the Phantom in 1990, as well as covering for a dearth of Raouls in the Los Angeles production in the summer of 89.
Between those stints in Phantom, he originated the role of Prince Paul in the Anastasia Affaire, which was recorded for posterity and is in the library of the Lincoln Centre, where you can see it if you can think of a suitable excuse for your academic interest (researching use of classical music in modern musicals would be a good reason!). His run as Phantom was cut short by a recurrence of a knee injury which was to plague (and eventually restrict) his career, but he got back on the stage as the professional guest star in a production of The Threepenny Opera at Rutgers University, playing what he described as his favourite part, MacHeath. At that time he also told me he longed to play Sweeney Todd, an ambition which he eventually fulfilled (quite brilliantly, and I’ve seen a lot of Sweeneys) in Pittsburgh.
Before that though he played in Off-broadway shows including Six Wives, where he aged magnificently as Henry VIII in a wonderful production with just four actors playing all the roles.
In 1995 he did a season at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, in Kiss Me Kate, which was a terrific laugh; his opening pose as the over-confident Petrucchio, all ‘look at me’ and gleaming Pepsodent smile got a loud laugh from me, and a personal bow at the end which got my neighbours in the audience asking who that was directed to! I must have a laugh that betrays my English accent. I think it was that evening he said we’d be in the bar adjacent afterwards – well we were, but he walked us in to the back room where some diners were enjoying a quiet evening, and he sat at the piano with plenty of music scores, and the cast not only of Kiss Me Kate but also of Captains Courageous which was playing at their sister theatre a few miles away, proceeded to have an enjoyable jam session. I only remember a few things, including singing Anita in the Tonight medley from West Side Story as not enough of the girls were there, but Steve sang Night and Day, and Charles Pistone, the star of Captains Courageous sang Anthem from Chess and also Joey from The Most Happy Fella which had premiered at Goodspeed a few seasons earlier and had gone on to Broadway. Being in the same small room with those voices was just amazing, and one of the diners gave a lovely speech of thanks afterwards! The next night we were somewhere else after the show and I asked him about The Red Shoes, which had opened and closed on Broadway in the same week the previous December (or rather eighteen months earlier, 1993) and where he had stepped in at the last moment to play the leading role of Lermontov. He said it had never been given a chance; he was obviously hurt by the experience. The only chance I had to hear anything of it was when he performed an absolutely spell-binding extract (possibly ‘Come Home’) at the Jule Styne Gala in London some years later. He was really good at coming back to London to perform in Galas (La Cage, Cole Porter… ) and we loved seeing him there.
Following Steve’s performances took me to a few other places in the USA that I would probably otherwise never have been to, including back to Goodspeed for a work-in-progress Mirette, but eventually he came back to Europe and to an enthusiastic German-speaking following, starting back in Vienna with a wonderful performance as The Beast (in Beauty and…). This was followed by one of my favourite musicals of all-time, the gothic near-masterpiece of Dance of the Vampires, or maybe we’ll stick with Tanz der Vampire as the translated and ‘more comedic’ version that eventually opened after Steve’s death in New York seems to have lost all the grandeur and melodrama that made it great. Steve’s performance in this was outstanding, it was absolutely made for him – perfectly pitched for his voice, which had lost the sort of forced note it sometimes got in the US, and full-blown gothic melodrama that he loved. Something he truly got his teeth into! Fortunately for us there are a large number of Utube extracts or videos of rehearsals, workshops and so on to give us a memory of Steve in a part that was truly his own, and some English-version audio demos for the US producers on Jim Steinman’s website.
I heard he was working on a musical of Jekyll & Hyde in Berlin, and there was also rumour of a Hunchback of Notre Dame in Bremen at some time, but the last time I saw him was at a Night of a Thousand Stars in the Albert Hall in London, where he sang “If I ruled the world” and “All I ask of you” in a gala production that ran way over schedule, some six or seven weeks before I got the shocking news of his death.
That’s all about his career, but the thing that made Steve a star was the way he looked after his followers. He made each person feel like they were the most important person there. He had his demons, but he lit up our lives, and gave generously of himself. That side of him took a toll on his personal life where the demons came out and eventually caught him in their claws.
Thank you, Steve, for all the fun, and love to Denny and Edward. I hope you are well, I still think of you all often.
Think of me, think of me fondly, when you say goodbye.
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