Hear the name P.T. Barnum and your mind probably paints a picture of flying trapeze artists, tigers leaping through flaming hoops and a man with a handlebar mustache wearing a black top hat.
You’d be right. Phineas Taylor Barnum was the man behind the famous three-ring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, though he didn’t enter the business until he was in his 60s. But even before the Greatest Show on Earth got its start, Barnum led a rich and colorful life.
The 1980 Tony Award-winning musical “Barnum” is essentially the story of Barnum’s life, told from his point of view. A preview of the show will be offered Thursday, before it opens Friday and runs through June 16, by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
“Before the circus, he really was the most famous American in the mid-19th century from an entertainment perspective,” said director Scott RC Levy, CSFAC’s producing artistic director and director of performing arts. “He had a robust life of being a showman and promoter and lots of flimflam and hokum.”
After marrying Charity Hallett when he was 19, Barnum moved to New York City, where he nurtured his talent for hawking unusual folks, starting with Joice Heth, a woman he claimed was 161 and a nurse to President George Washington. After her death, it was revealed she was neither.
“In a lot of ways, the musical exists in sort of creating Barnum as a mythological character in American history,” Levy said. “He was a (expletive) artist. The musical makes you think he was an amazing perfect specimen, and of course he wasn’t.”
Barnum went on to acquire John Scudder’s American Museum in New York and transform the five stories of exhibit space and 2,000-seat theater into a carnival of human spectacles, beauty contests and other sensations. This was where Tom Thumb, a 25-inch-tall man, was introduced to the masses. Thumb happened to be a real oddity, though many Barnum characters, such as the mermaid with a human head and fish body, were fakes.
The musical explores how Barnum intentionally lied to the public not to deceive them, but to widen their eyes and imagination. It’s told through a one-ring circus on stage, with acrobats, jugglers and aerialists.
New York City-based Gil Brady will star as Barnum, and Jennifer DeDominici stars as his wife.
Most of the cast trained for six weeks with professional clown Jim Jackson, who’s also co-founder and executive director of Millibo Art Theatre. They learned acrobatic and sleight-of-hand tricks, and they’ll perform in the aisles before the show.
While Barnum didn’t invent the circus, he and his partner, James A. Bailey, did grow the event in spectacle and popularity, adding an elephant named Jumbo. Expect some form of the animal to appear on the CSFAC stage.
The circus was at the height of its popularity in post-Civil War America, when 150 circuses crisscrossed the country, attracting small-town residents who didn’t have other forms of entertainment and escape.
“In the musical, the last line is him (Barnum) reviewing all these acts and saying, ‘My brand of humbug doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a pity. It’s hard to find a big tent to go under and have an entertainment showcase that shows what humans are capable of,’” Levy said.
JENNIFER MULSON, THE GAZETTE, 636-0270, JEN.MULSON@GAZETTE.COM