“He was a superstar. He was a pin-up,” David Campbell says enthusiastically when asked about John Wilkes Booth. “As a Confederate, he hated the Civil War and was very much a dissenter of Lincoln’s presidency. He wasn’t a crazy man, and the funny thing is, the rhetoric he styles himself in is scarily very much like you hear nowadays”.
Campbell has been steeping himself in all things John Wilkes Booth, in preparation to playing Booth in a new Australian production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins (opening Sept. 15, 2017, at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre.
Campbell is no stranger to stardom. With a string of starring roles in high-profile musicals behind him, at the age of 44 he’s at the top of his game, respected and admired as one of Australia’s hardest working, most successful and bankable entertainers. His amazing career trajectory is one that very few entertainers in the world could match.
Currently Campbell co-hosts a popular daily television show for the Nine Network, has his own weekend radio show, writes a column for a weekly women’s magazine, has a string of award-winning albums, and is in constant demand as an entertainer for corporate events. He has his own production house, Luckiest Productions, which he runs with his producer/casting agent wife, Lisa, which produces national tours and live theatre at the Hayes Theatre.
Together with Lisa, one of the producers of Assassins, he’s a founding board member of Independent Music Theatre, the production group behind the Hayes Theatre, devoted specifically to musicals and cabaret. Since it opened in 2014 with an innovative, multi-award winning production of Sweet Charity, the theatre has built a reputation as the place to do interesting, edgy, smart versions of classic musicals. Many of its award-winning productions have toured nationally.
History with Sondheim
Campbell’s unique relationship with Sondheim makes his casting in this production of Assassins intriguing. “I first met him in 1999,” Campbell says, “when he came along to see me in Encore’s Babes in Arms at the New York’s City Center. I was cast by Kathleen Marshall, and Stephen had seen me do that. I’m not sure who brought him along. But at that stage they were going to do his Saturday Night at Second Stage Theatre. He came along and basically approved me for the role of Gene.”
Pressed for more details Campbell recalls, “I did an audition, but I don’t think it was much of an audition. It was basically a pre-approved audition, just to see me. Stephen said, ‘Yes that’s fine,’ and it was done. Which was fantastic, because who wants to audition for Stephen Sondheim? You’d be a puddle. You’d be an absolute mess.”
“Steve is very quiet when you first meet him,” Campbell says. “He doesn’t waste words, and he doesn’t waste energy. He means what he says, and I was probably over-compensating. I was this young Australian who’d just done this great role in Babes in Arms, and here I was in this casting room helping him cast the leading lady. It was an extraordinary experience, and I think I was a bit over-whelmed.”
“It wasn’t just me and him. There was the incredibly talented Rob Fisher. There was Kathleen Marshall. There was this room full of people. It was bizarre. Especially for me, a young performer, a young man of the theater, doing all these nerdy things — like subscribing to The Sondheim Review, which used to come to Australia, and all these things. Then a couple of years down the tracks, sitting in a room with him. It was crazy.”
I interrupted Campbell to give him the news that The Sondheim Review no longer existed, replaced by Everything Sondheim. He replied, “Well I’m sorry I stopped subscribing. Maybe I’ll start subscribing to “Everything Sondheim.”
I wondered if Sondheim was involved in the rehearsals for Saturday Night. “Yes, he was. He was in rehearsals a lot. He was less active in it and more sitting back and enjoying it. It seemed that a lot of reminiscing was happening. It was the first musical he wrote, and he wrote it with two brothers [Julius and Phillip Epstein]. One of them was still alive; the other had passed on I think, by this time.”
Campbell continued, “There had been a production in London. I don’t know how much Steve had to do with that, but he was very much in the room all the time [with us]. He would laugh at things in the script. He seemed to be having a good time. It didn’t seem to me that he was under a lot of pressure with this show. He seemed to be enjoying the memory of the show and where it came from. Like a lot of Sondheim shows, it had a real youthfulness, and I think he enjoyed that. He had a stack of books, and a stack of crosswords. He’d sit there, and you would see him look up and laugh at something and then go back to his crossword.”
Campbell recalls receiving a very specific note from Sondheim during rehearsals. “It was almost reprimanding, or maybe I was being paranoid. But if felt to me that it had to be this way … that this is the way I wrote it and you must do it this way. And I thought to myself, ‘Yep, I absolutely will. I will do exactly as I’m told.’ Then he came up to me three minutes later and said, ‘That was wrong. Go back to doing what you were doing before.’”
Asked if it be fair to say he became friends with Sondheim, Campbell is non-committal. “I don’t think you become friends with Stephen. I think he just knows who you are,” he laughs. “Hal Prince would be a friend of Stephen. He would be someone he would acknowledge as knowing. I’ve certainly had some email correspondence with him from time to time, and as anyone who’s had correspondence with Stephen knows, one of the amazing things about Stephen Sondheim is that he responds. He always asks how you are. And he’s honest.”
Back in Australia
Sondheim came to Australia in 2007 — his first visit in 30 years — for the opening night of Kookaburra’s production of Company. Campbell played Robert in a production staged by Gale Edwards, who had earlier directed him in a tenth Anniversary production of Les Misèrables. Company was well received by the press and by audiences.
“I don’t think he came out just to see me,” Campbell responds modestly. “He was aware I was starring in it. He approved of me being in it, and I think he enjoyed the production. But I think he came out because they paid for his flight, and he wanted a trip to Australia, and I think he flew up to the Great Barrier Reef. He enjoyed the trip and he seemed to like the production.”
Sondheim came backstage and expressed surprised that the ending had been handled as high drama. “He said, ‘I haven’t seen it done like that before. That was really interesting.’ Then we hung out at the opening night party, talking at the back with cast member Simon Burke, my wife Lisa and myself. He tends to gravitate towards people he knows. Well, from what I know of him, he’s polite and if he knows you then he’ll hang with you.”
This production became infamous when later in the season one of the female leads was out sick for one performance. As there was no understudy available, the producer insisted that the show be performed anyway, but without the character of April. This involved cutting several numbers and scenes with no explanation, and that night’s performance ended 20 minutes early. Following complaints from the audience, there was considerable negative press attention to the decision, and Sondheim threatened to revoke the production rights to the show.
Following Campbell’s success in Babes in Arms, and despite the possibility of Broadway roles, he returned to Australia. “When I went to New York, it was on a whim. I was going to be for three weeks. Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘You ought to move here.’ The big opportunities were coming. Within a week I’d auditioned for Hal Prince and Lloyd Webber for Whistle Down the Wind. People were going, ‘Do you have a green card?’”
He didn’t. “There was a lot of energy, but there was no grounding. There was a lot of raw talent, so part of it was very exciting. But at the end of the day I didn’t find that it was going to keel me in the way that I could have if I was to come home.”
The illegitimate son of Cold Chisel front man and Australian rock legend, Jimmy Barnes, Campbell had commenced his performing career as a cabaret singer. By the time he appeared in the New York Cabaret Convention in 1997, he had already racked up an enviable string of theater credits including a Mo Award nomination for his 1995 performance in the musical Only Heaven Knows and appeared in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Away.
His New York Cabaret Convention performances led to sold-out performances of his one-man cabaret show in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago, climaxing in a three-week engagement at New York’s prestigious Rainbow & Stars room. He was the youngest performer ever to headline at that venue.
He starred as Marius in the tenth anniversary Australian production of Les Misèrables, performed in the Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza, Mr. Producer, and of course, in Encore’s City Center production of Babes in Arms.
“When I went over, there was no path. I see [Australian] kids going to America now and I know there’s a path for them. But back then, I didn’t know there were paths. There was me, and before me, Judi Connelli, and that was it. Russell [Crowe] was only taking on Hollywood then, and Nicole [Kidman] was over there. Hugh [Jackman] was over in London. There was no clear path as to what was attainable. I was offered Broadway leads, and I could have gone down that path. But by the time I’d finished Saturday Night I was emotionally burnt. I didn’t want to be there anymore. It was time for me to go. I’m glad I did, because I got Shout.”
Johnny O’Keefe and Bobby Darin
That new bio-musical charted the tumultuous career of Australian rock singer Johnny O’Keefe. During its yearlong national tour, Campbell’s dazzling performance as O’Keefe made him a household name and earned him both Mo and Green Room Awards. He went on to win more awards for his performances in Carousel (Green Room Award) and Sunset Boulevard (Helpmann Award).
Recently he has concentrated on his television and concert career. But in 2016 he originated the role of Bobby Darin in another bio-musical, Dream Lover, opposite Caroline O’Connor, currently appearing on Broadway in Anastasia.
Dodd Darin, Bobby Darin’s son, was impressed by Campbell’s performance in Dream Lover. “David Campbell is, in a sense, channeling my father. He’s got it. I didn’t understand the depth of his talent before this project, but I do now. I’m blown away quite honestly.” Dodd hopes the show might transfer to Broadway but because of Campbell’s television commitments, it’s only had a Sydney season. It’s being remounted in Melbourne in December 2017 with Campbell and Marina Prior replacing Caroline O’Connor in the dual roles of Darin’s mother and mother-in-law.
“There’s a great interest in Bobby now,” Campbell points out, “with Kevin Spacey closing the Tony Awards with Bobby’s song, and Jonathan Groff to do a Bobby Darin concert at the 92nd Street Y. It seems like Bobby’s coming back to life. I know Dodd would love that. Dodd is very much in my camp, which is very flattering. But I don’t know how that travels. Broadway is so expensive. I don’t know if it’s even possible.”
Logistics including kids — he and Lisa have three— and a television career make it tough. “Channel 9 has been very good to allow me to do Dream Lover again [in Melbourne]. They work with me, and they’re very accommodating. I don’t take too much time off, but they allow me the privilege of doing it. There are a lot of things to juggle. It’s a long way away and there are lots of maybes.”
Why play John Wilkes Booth?
With all these commitments, why take on this production of Assassins? Campbell’s answer is concise and unequivocal: “Because it’s a stretch. I’ve never been asked to do a role like [John Wilkes Booth] before. The roles of Johnny [O’Keefe] and Bobby [Darin] are everyman, living-guy roles — close to me in a way and built around my skill set. If I get [Assassins] right, I like to think this will bring about the maturing of my acting work. Maybe I’ll start getting some different roles. I can’t go on playing the young juvenile lead forever. I relish it. Maybe I’ll become the Paul Giamatti of Australia.” He laughs, and then plunges back into the topic with enthusiasm.
“Assassins has one of the most perfect books for a show that I’ve ever seen. That’s one of the things that draws me to it most. It’s such interesting subject matter. It’s done in a revue style, which I’m never really of fan of; I think it’s sometimes a bit of a cheat. But this is the most perfect version that I’ve ever seen or heard.”
He adds, “[The show] says so much about America, and especially what America has become today. [The show] seems to have become more relevant than ever. America is the shining city on the hill, and yet it’s built on this incredible political violence. I think that the most interesting thing about Assassins is that it’s so bleakly funny, in a way that only Sondheim can be, with a kind of black humor that he can tap into to make us laugh, and make us laugh at America especially”.
Dean Bryant is directing Assassins. He also staged Hayes Theatre’s multi-award winning debut production of Sweet Charity. Bryant has no doubts that Campbell is perfect casting as James Wilkes Booth. “David is very charismatic onstage,” he says. “You just want to watch him onstage. John Wilkes Booth was an actor. He also has to be the driving force throughout the show. He has to be someone you want to be associated with, to hang with. He’s seductive. He has a nine-minute aria at the top of the musical, ‘The Ballad of Booth,’ and a great scene at the end, the climax of the piece when he talks Lee Harvey Oswald into assassinating JFK. You need someone who the audience has a relationship with, believes is a star, and of course has the chops to sing that song and do that material.”
Campbell and Bryant haven’t worked together as actor and director, but they were both involved in productions of Urinetown and 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and know each other’s work well. They also share a Sondheim bond: Bryant’s first directorial opportunity was a production of Company when he was just 17 years old. What can we expect from this production of Assassins?
Campbell is in no doubt. “Knowing Dean, knowing Lisa, knowing the cast, and having seen the set, I think this [production] is going to blow people’s mind. It’s a very powerful piece of theater, and Dean doesn’t do things by halves. It’s going to be very challenging for us as performers. But, gee whiz, it’s going to be amazing to be part of, and amazing for the audience. John Wilkes Booth was an actor, a very good actor of the time, very Shakespearean, very grand. He did Julius Caesar and was obsessed with that piece. So there’ll be wigs. There’ll be mustaches. There’ll be lots of Southern accents.” Then he laughingly adds with a Shakespearean flourish, “There’ll be grandiosity.”
BILL STEPHENS is a member of the Canberra Critics Circle in Australia and a recipient of the medal of the Order of Australia. He reviews music and dance for Canberra’s City News and Australian Arts Review. He provides interviews for a weekly radio program broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7.