John Barrowman Is an Entertainer with a Capital E

John Barrowman proclaims that he is an Entertainer with a capital E. As visually and vocally illustrated in his 2010 concert tour, that E also could stand for both Everyone, as in “something for”, and Empowerment.

On two recent October evenings (16 October 2010 in Cardiff, Wales, and 17 October 2010 in Bristol, England), Barrowman’s incredible voice alternately brought thousands to their feet to dance and cheer or mesmerized fans to listen so attentively that even the softest note could be heard in the back row. Barrowman’s pop stylings covered a wide range—Barry Manilow, showtunes, superhero themes, Owl City, Pink—but the concerts were more than a collection of songs. Each show also was Vegas extravaganza, empowering revival with personal testimonials, ode to drag, homage to Doctor Who, and an evening with the family.

This range is impressive, albeit rather loosely tied together thematically as a musical autobiography. Among his many talents as singer, actor, dancer, presenter, and co-author, Barrowman’s greatest is the ability to make his audiences feel at home. For nearly three hours each concert night, fans become part of Team Barrowman, and they take home more than musical memories. They gain a sense of empowerment.

“I Know My Demographic!”

As anyone who read his autobiography, Anything Goes, knows, Barrowman grew up watching variety shows, especially Carol Burnett’s. Perhaps not so ironically, he later sang alongside her in the stage production of Sondheim hits, Putting It Together. He learned from the best; his concerts had that “variety show” feel. As he reiterated during the performances, he wants his audiences to be entertained, to kick back and have a good time, whether in living rooms across the UK as they watch his make-dreams-come-true Tonight’s the Night or in the Cardiff International Arena or more intimate Bristol Hippodrome where they participate in his similarly-themed concert. Barrowman is in many ways a throwback to an earlier era of entertainers, but he clearly knows what his audience wants and works very hard to provide it.

After risqué innuendo caused the Cardiff crowd to groan, Barrowman grinned unrepentantly. “I know what you want,” he promised. “I know my demographic!” Indeed he does, and a strange mix they are.

In Cardiff, the crowd included mothers and daughters of all ages, Torchwood fans, couples wearing matching PRIDE shirts, neighbors from nearby Sully, and tourists from around the UK (and, in my case at least, from the US, but I suspect I wasn’t the only American in the audience). In Bristol the next night, teenaged screamers wearing tiaras, flocks of older women, and parents with young children chatted together before and after the show.

When the singer reminded the Cardiff audience that “You know where I live. You came to my garage sale,” he meant it. That familiarity can be a good thing; not just any man could get away with singing Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like a Woman” or become teary when the hometown crowd refused to stop stomping and chanting his name. With Barrowman, those moments are an accepted, perhaps even expected part of the show. His comments might be a bit TMI at times, but his fans look forward to his reactions and interactions.

Barrowman’s fans are more than an interesting demographic. Their commonality is not related to age or economic strata or even a love of music. These fans are often looking for something besides a good time; they gravitate to this performer because they know they will be accepted. For a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday evening, they listened to the promise that they can be who they are and it’s OK to dream. For just a little while, they became part of a united front, an “us” against “them,” whoever or whatever force is trying to limit their individuality.

Part of the Family

The concert began with images of very young John—as a child, on the way to prom, on stage for the first time—leading to a visual and musical montage of the adult performer in his best-known roles from Sunset Boulevard, La Cage Aux Folles, Tonight’s the Night, and Torchwood. Images from home movies and family photographs flashed across the large screen. The family dogs shared the spotlight with human members of the extended Barrowman clan: parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, personal and professional partners. Most in the audience didn’t need an explanation of who’s who; Barrowman is so open about his personal life that fans easily recognized the people on screen. By the end of the evening, they, too, will become part of JB’s personal scrapbook of memories that likely will be shared with future audiences.

“Family” may be biological, work related, or widely extended, according to the visual definitions offered up in Cardiff and Bristol. Before Saturday night’s show, parents Marion and John Barrowman were escorted to their seats a few rows back from stage. Almost immediately they were surrounded by fans, some requesting a photo op. Eve Myles, Barrowman’s Torchwood co-star, hugged friends but also chatted with followers determined to say hello. In Bristol, the murmured chorus of “There’s Scott!” followed Scott Gill as he quietly entered the theatre and took a seat near his partner’s parents. Whether seated among the fans or dancing romantically on stage, the senior Barrowmans shared the spotlight with their son throughout the concert. Son John often commented on wise words from his parents, sharing their recipe for a good life with his widely extended “family” in the audience.

Even those family members absent from Cardiff or Bristol played a part in the show. The glossy program, full of personal photos, also features text written by Carole Barrowman, who co-authors books with her brother. Cute impressions of a young niece’s questions for “Uncle Don” vied with unscripted asides about an older niece’s job (and her driving).

As well, Barrowman’s work “families” quietly took part in the show. Barrowman impersonated friend and business partner Gavin Barker and humorously described the creation of the Barrowman Barker production company’s logo. Photos of the Torchwood family of actors were mixed among the many snapshots shown on screen. The tour “family” of talented J4 dancers and the backing musicians alternately were teased and praised. The concert’s featured guest, Jodie Prenger, dueted with the star and praised his involvement in her career. The talented Prenger can belt out a song, but her most endearing moments occurred when she and Barrowman chatted off topic. In Bristol, they joked about Prenger’s misadventure the previous evening in Cardiff. The concerts were certainly glitzy, but the best moments often were these personal ad libs.

Throughout the performance, Barrowman made a point to include his fans as part of this extended family, not only through the often-personal anecdotes but repeated thanks for fans’ support. True, the concert is All About John, including its self-title, the self-titled CD it promotes, countless photos, patter between songs, and self-promotion of his TV shows, stage roles, books, or CDs. Yet Barrowman insists that he is living his dream only because of the support of family—including his fanbase. He thanked the crowd more than once each evening.

“I Am What I Am”

The man knows how to work a crowd. Like Carol Burnett, who, in her variety show, turned up the house lights to take questions from the audience, Barrowman asked for the house lights to come up so he could see his fans. In Bristol, he commented on their appearance: “Hi, Princess,” to a tiara-wearing teen in front; “You look like the Golden Girls—fabulous,” to the four ladies seated in one of the third-tier boxes. He asked those in the topmost balcony how they were doing. He even instigated a group hug and watched to make sure everyone got a squeeze.

Like Burnett, he can laugh at himself or be sidetracked during a performance. In Bristol, Barrowman’s finale was his personal theme song, “I Am What I Am.” During a dramatic pause after he sang, “Come have a look,” a female voice piped up, “Yes, please.” Barrowman cracked up a second before the audience did, and everyone laughed together.

During that finale, the Cardiff and Bristol audiences sang along, the mass chorus crescendoing at the last “I am what I am.” United in song, audience and entertainer affirmed the power of being oneself. Then Barrowman waved goodbye from each corner of the stage, saluted the crowd, and ran off toward the next night’s waiting audience.

In an age of cynicism and surcease, Barrowman’s concerts remind his often-politically or socially dispossessed fans (e.g., ladies of a certain age, the LGBTQ community, SF geeks, the young and still impressionable) that dreams can come true, that you have to be yourself or life isn’t worth living, that there are others, sitting all around you, who feel the same way. In their mutual lovefest, JB and his audience created a little bubble of acceptance and mirth far removed from the literally and symbolically dark autumnal night into which the crowds soon returned. It’s difficult to remain jaded in the presence of such over-the-top enthusiasm and positive thinking.

On the way out, I bought a Team Barrowman t-shirt.