Michael Harrison prepares Barnum for The Playhouse

Barnum. Pic: Comp
Barnum. Pic: Comp
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MICHAEL Harrison is talking to me from the bright lights of New York’s Broadway.

Now one of the UK’s most powerful theatrical producers he has hopped across the Atlantic to “take in some shows” and “have a couple of meetings” before throwing himself into the annual madness that is the panto season - our own King’s pantomime just one of a number he produces and writes every year.

“New York just fires you up, it really does,” he says, “get’s you ready for it all.”

However, before Aladdin, this year’s King’s panto, another of his blockbuster shows is heading to town, Barnum, which finds Brian Conley playing the great American showman and circus owner.

Further down the line, in 2015, his smash hit musical The Bodyguard is also due to roll into the Capital, X Factor star Alexandra Burke reprising her West End role.

It’s safe to say then that Harrison is a busy man. Fifteen years ago or so, it was a very different story. Then, he could be found on the acting course at Queen Margaret College and working as an usher at The Playhouse in the evenings, with a singular goal in mind.

“I never actually wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a producer but I didn’t know how to go about it,” he says. “I knew I’d have to go to university and it was either acting or stage management, so I went with the acting, but it was an open secret even when I was there that what I wanted to be a producer.”

Drama school in the Capital “toughened him up” he believes; not that he enjoyed the experience.

“They worked by the model of ‘we’ll break you down and build you up’ and I guess I needed a bit of that,” he recalls. “I didn’t find it a particularly pleasant time. I wasn’t in love with it. I enjoyed it more towards the end, but probably, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t very good and was surrounded by some who were very good, although I was also surrounded by some who weren’t as well, it just wasn’t my natural environment.”

While at Queen Margaret, Harrison took a job at The Playhouse.

“I only became an usher because I was in love with Phantom of the Opera. So I was literally an usher for the run of Phantom so that I could watch it every night. And that is the weird thing.

“If you think about dreams coming true, there was me, sitting watching Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Phantom and now I’m co-producing Barnum with him.

“That’s the terrific thing, sometimes the things you dream about really do come true. In this business it really can happen.”

After his training, Harrison became the country’s youngest panto dame, appearing for two years in Carlisle.

“It was a mixture of needing to earn some money and, I guess, trying to prove a point,” he offers, candidly.

“Pantomime wasn’t taken seriously at Queen Margaret, they never did one. When we left, everyone was out getting jobs. I didn’t want to get a job because I didn’t want to be an actor, instead I thought ‘I’ll do a panto’ because panto has always been something close to my heart.”

As anyone who saw Peter Pan at The King’s last year knows, Harrison’s pantos are spectacular affairs. But then so too are his musicals and he admits that his work is his life.

“I have a lot of drive and determination and an absolute love for the business, and have very little in my life outside the business of pantomimes, musicals,” he confesses. “I’m not a theatrical snob. I know there are those who look down their nose at pantomime or shows like The Bodyguard. I don’t. My taste is simple; things that I like to do and that I think other people will like.”

Today Harrison has produced in all three of the Capital’s main theatre, but it’s to The Playhouse he brings Barnum.

The musical follows the irrepressible imagination and dreams of Phineas T Barnum, America’s Greatest Showman. The story of his life and his marriage to Chairy reveals a couple who looked at the world from opposite sides of the spectrum, and also reveals that she was the practical one who made Barnum’s dreams come true. The production charts the legendary showman’s life as he lit up the world with the colour, warmth and excitement of his imagination and finally teamed up with J A Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth.

“I’d always wanted to have a go at Barnum,” says Harrison, conceding, “I didn’t think it could come about in this way... that I’d be co-producing with Cameron.

“The starting point was his production in Chichester. I went down to see him and I said, ‘I really, really think it is time that this went out on tour and that Brian should play the role.’ Thankfully, there was a meeting of minds so we cast him, made some revisions to the book and staging and audiences are loving it.”

Harrison has nothing but praise for his star who follows the likes of Carry On star Jim Dale, Michael Crawford and Paul Nicholas in the role.

“Brian is terrific and has made the part his own. He uses his variety background to connect with the audience and since January has learned the tightwire, to eat fire, and how to fall from great heights and to stilt-walk. It really is a mammoth task, but he has grabbed it with both hands.”

And Harrison will be back in 2015 with The Bodyguard, his musical based on the 1992 blockbuster movie starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.

“We had a fabulous two years on the West End with The Bodyguard. I spent a long time developing it. Trying to get the rights, and then I teamed up with co-producer David Ian,” says Harrison.

“I’m massively fortunate at the moment because on two different projects I have two fabulous co-producers. I’m pleased it’s getting a big tour and delighted that Alexandra is coming to Edinburgh. We are cutting a couple of songs, adding a brand new number, changing some staging, revisiting choreography, improving the design and we’ve reworked the script, so what is coming to Edinburgh is very much the London production with improvements.”

As far as the Capital goes, it seems there’s no keeping Harrison away right now.

Barnum, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £12.50-£49.50,