Michael Crawford's Childlike Roles
- OnStage New York Columnist
On Tuesday, June 7th, the most recent musical to boast Michael Crawford in its cast opened on the West End. The Go-Between, adapted from the 1953 novel by L. P. Hartley, is about an older man looking back on the summer that changed his life. Crawford plays Leo Colston, who spends the musical watching that summer, when he was twelve, unfold before him. The older Colston is described as a man who cannot let the past go, who is stunted by his experiences that summer, when he was used as a messenger between a young society woman and her laboring lover. In many ways, Colston is still a child so many decades later. This is consistent with Crawford’s most well known roles; they always have a touch of the childish.
Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Crawford has been a professional performer since he was eleven and appeared as Sammy the Sweep in Benjamin Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera. He went on to make a name for himself as the youthful, hopeful, often goofy romantic lead. Take his role as the love-struck Hero in the film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or the “attractive idiot” Cornelius Hackl in the Hello, Dolly! film that starred Barbara Streisand. On the BBC, Crawford became famous for portraying Frank Spencer, the accident-prone lead on the show Some Mother Do ‘Ave ‘Em, a role that had him doing many a dangerous stunt, one of which involved a car hanging over a cliff. Perhaps Crawford’s willingness to do his own stunts has played a part in getting him such parts.
In his earlier West End musicals, he continued to play child-like men. As Billy Fisher in the musical Billy, Crawford played a man who has grand daydreams that take him away from his humdrum life, and he lies to people about his life to make it seem more interesting. In a more serious production, he played Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, a mentally disabled man who, along with a white lab mouse, is given experimental treatments intended to boost his mental capacity. Based on the book by Daniel Keyes, the musical is serious, but wouldn’t be as effective without Crawford’s childlike innocence and glee at his prospects, which come across wonderfully on the London Cast Recording. P. T. Barnum, who Crawford played not only in the West End production of the Cy Coleman musical Barnum, but in one of the sequences of his Las Vegas show, EFX, was a man who sewed the top half of a monkey to a fish tail and called it a mermaid. As depicted in the musical, Barnum was at his best when he was getting excited about making the impossible possible, and not so great at being a mature, responsible adult.
Even the villains Crawford has played might be described as childlike. The version of Count Fosco he played in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of The Woman in White is not as sinister as the character in Wilkie Collins’s Victorian novel, freed from the ties that keep the novel’s Fosco on edge to be more of a free spirit who enjoys living without consequences, and being willing to do anything to maintain that lifestyle. Count von Krolock in Dance of the Vampires, like all vampires before they developed feelings, is like a cat playing with his mortal mice, sneaking around, playing jokes, sending mixed signals, and handing out obscenely shaped sponges. Then of course, there is the Phantom, with a “face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing.” Having been shunned all his life, having had no guidance as he came of age, is it any wonder that the title character of The Phantom of the Opera is prone to fits of rage when he doesn’t get his way? He never learned right from wrong. It is the sadder, darker side of childlike.
Prior to Colston, Crawford played various roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s enhanced version of The Wizard of Oz, most notably the Wizard himself and his Kansas doppelganger, Professor Marvel. One is a man who has built a fortress of lies to keep from being found out, the other sings to Dorothy about “The Wonders of the World.” Crawford is great at conveying a feeling of wonder, perhaps another reason he so effectively plays childlike characters, since a sense of wonder the best part of being a child, and what we all envy in the children in our lives. Even at seventy-four, Crawford can still inspire that sense of wonder in an audience, giving us all a sense of what it’s like to be a Michael Crawford character.
Aaron Netsky writes the blogs 366 Days/366 Musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com), and his writing has been published on AtlasObscura.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and TheHumanist.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.