July 15, 2008

Playing Down a Leading Man’s Notorious Past


It was a typical press release, announcing the cast for the new Broadway musical "A Tale of Two Cities," which begins previews Aug. 19 and opens Sept. 18 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

The performers didn't include any big stars, but one name jumped out: James Barbour, who'll play Sydney Carton, the lead role in the adaptation of Dickens' novel of the French Revolution.

In the past two years, the 42-year-old actor, a native of Cherry Hill, has been front-page tabloid news.

It began when a woman accused him of having sexually molested her in his dressing room when she was 15, after she and her parents had visited him backstage at "Jane Eyre."

He was charged with felony sex offenses, which he plea-bargained in January to the misdemeanor of endangering the welfare of a child.

Barbour served two months in jail, and is under three years probation, during which he is subject to a number of conditions.

He must inform potential employers of his conviction, get permission from his probation officer or the court to work in a production that has child actors and cannot visit schools, playgrounds or other areas where children are likely to be present without permission from his probation officer.

Putting aside questions of crime and punishment, Barbour's reappearance on Broadway in addition to "Jane Eyre," he's had leading-man roles in "Beauty and the Beast" and "Carousel," among other productions raises the question of what effect, if any, his life will have on his show.

It's not the first time there's been speculation about the impact of offstage behavior on ticket sales.

In a situation that was political, there was the brouhaha over Vanessa Redgrave's pro-Palestinian activism. The controversy didn't seem to have a major effect on the box office, and, in recent years, with Redgrave having become a familiar presence on Broadway, it's become old news.

Barbour's situation, involving sex and a minor, is different, of course.

Will it turn people off to "A Tale of Two Cities," whose target audience includes families? Will there be a reverse, curiosity effect? Or will most people either not know or not care about what happened in the actor's past?

The show's producers, most of them Broadway newcomers, have apparently decided to try to low-key the issue. They didn't respond to several phone calls asking them to comment on their decision to stick with Barbour, who played Carton last fall in the show's pre- Broadway tryout in Sarasota, Fla.

It's hard to believe the production won't have to address the issue at some point. At the least, not doing so creates marketing problems.

Press agents work hard to get pre-opening publicity for their shows, and one of the chief ways is setting up media interviews with their stars. Will Barbour be pitched for interviews? If yes, will journalists be told his offstage problems are off-limits?

Or will the production at some point simply decide to respond to any questions, and hope that that allows the show to move forward?


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