Brad Oscar in Barnum
(© Asolo Rep)
Brad Oscar in Barnum
(© Asolo Rep)
Brad Oscar is the first to admit he wouldn't be the natural choice to play the title role in the musical Barnum, now being revived at Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre -- at least not if one saw Jim Dale play legendary huckster and circus co-founder P.T. Barnum in the show's 1980 Broadway production. "Jim was such a physical performer, and that's not what I do. I am not going to walk a tightrope or put myself in mortal danger," says Oscar, who is best known for his work as both Franz Liebkind and Max Bialystock in The Producers. "So when our director, Gordon Greenberg -- who I've known for many years -- asked me about taking the part, my first question was 'how could it be tailored for me?' But once we went back to the piece, we realized it supports a fairly normal telling of the story of his life. And our concept is to have a circus troupe tell the story and do more of the physical stuff. It's almost like I have a 'Dream Barnum.'"

Performing the show at the Asolo, which is across the street from the Ringling Museum of Art -- named for the co-founder of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus -- has helped Oscar in his research. "I've walked through the museum twice to get a sense of the time period, and it's been great working with the people from Circus Sarasota," he says. "But the circus period was really at the end of his life, and the bulk of the show takes place before that, when he created these amazing exhibitions and side shows. I was able to learn more about him by watching this great A&E biography. There's even actual audio of him, and the language of the time is fascinating because it's so much more formal than today."

At its center, though, Barnum -- which moves to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre after the Asolo run -- is primarily about the relationship between the great man and his wife, Chairy. "Gordon has been so strong in shaping this part of the show because it provides its heart" says Oscar. "Barnum was so passionate about his work -- which often took him away from her -- and she was so grounded. But they really had a long, happy marriage. I think the musical stirs up their conflicts a lot more than it really was."