Phil McKinley, in his second year as director for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has two favorite expressions when it comes to improving a concept for "The Greatest Show on Earth": "Let's Barnum-ize it," he'll say. "Let's circus-ize it."
"The circus is elegance, spectacle, like you've never seen," he says. "It's what Busby Berkeley and Ziegfeld did. To me, that's what Barnum would have done."
The 129th edition, which opens Friday in Southern California, serves up a number of innovations that would do the master showman proud: a glittery "Living Carousel" production number, new ways of staging traditional animal acts, microphones of the type rock singers use and an original musical score by theatrical composers.
There is a new ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, who at 23 is the youngest man and first African American to fill the role. And McKinley brought in a new choreographer and set designer, both with theatrical backgrounds, along with mime Robert Shields as director of clowns.
"I feel a great deal of responsibility that the art and institution of the circus is maintained and preserved," McKinley says by phone from Kansas City, Mo., where he is staging a production of "Grease"; he also has a show, "Thwak," running off-Broadway and has directed touring productions of "Hair" and the Kopit-Yeston musical "Phantom," among others.
"But I try to bring in a theater sensibility--in the lighting and sound and music--for the focus of it. When you work in a large arena, the most difficult thing is to get people to feel they're in the ring with the performers. So for instance, with the tiger act, we mike the trainer, so you hear him, which I think is fascinating. All the animals have names, and different personalities--[trainer] Mark Oliver Gebel talks to them all differently."
A Spectacle of Humans and Animals in Harmony
McKinley conceived one idea that combines theatrical spectacle with circus tradition: the "Living Carousel," a six-minute number that took eight months to put together. Its animal and human performers are bedecked in more than 1,000 costume pieces bearing more than 2 million rhinestones.
"After seeing how much the animals are cherished, I wanted to celebrate what Ringling Bros. is--the circus that is the caretaker of the animals," he says. "I wanted to create a moment in the show where you saw humans and animals living in harmony together."
It was McKinley who discovered ringmaster Iverson, a former five-year member of the Boys Choir of Harlem, when he successfully auditioned for the director's Christmas show soon after his college graduation. McKinley was so impressed with Iverson's powerful tenor voice that he arranged a circus audition.
His reaction when McKinley suggested the idea was, "Yeah! I'll do anything!" Iverson recalls by phone from a circus stop in Phoenix. Of this somewhat unexpected career turn, the classically trained New York native says, "Artistry is artistry. Art is about communicating, period. That's what makes an artist: how far we can reach people. Sure, we're entertaining, but the focus is, you're seeing people doing death-defying feats--action, comedy, drama--right in your face."
Ringmaster Uneasy at Being Cast as Role Model
Iverson is uncomfortable about being cast as a role model for his youth and African American heritage. "My main thing is doing what I do well," he says. 'When I got here, for these [cast members], their main thing was, can he do this job? I earned their respect when they found I could."
Also new to the show this year is Catherine Hanneford, a seventh-generation circus performer who works with elephants and liberty horses, so named because they are riderless and untethered.
Her horse act bears one of McKinley's innovations: singing during the performance, so that she must cue the animals by body language rather than spoken commands. "I thought they were crazy. I was a little bit taken aback," recalls Hanneford, 30. "But I'm the kind of person who'll try anything. The horses were all confused, looking at me as if I was crazy. It took a while--but now if I don't sing at that point, they're confused."
Echoing her initial reaction is animal trainer Gebel, who works with tigers, leopards and elephants and is the son of former show star Gunther Gebel-Williams. "You always have a new idea with Phil--he comes up with all these crazy changes," says Gebel, 29. "If I can, I'll do them."
One such change involves the finale of Gebel's act. "I don't want to [give it away]," he says. "But it puts me in proximity with one tiger, and requires a lot of trust between my animal and me."
McKinley plans to continue coming up with ideas that maintain but enhance the circus tradition. "We are the longest-running show in the history of the world," he says. "Something must be going right here. What's wonderful is, it's been preserved not by donations and corporate sponsors, but by the American people. This is what they enjoy."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus runs Friday-Sunday at the Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. Information: (562) 436-3661. Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232. Then Wednesday-July 25 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa St. Information: (213) 748-6131. Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232. July 27-Aug. 3 at the Anaheim Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave. Information: (714) 704-2500. Ticketmaster: (714) 740-2000. Aug. 5-8, Great Western Forum, 3900 Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. Information: (310) 419-3182. Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232. Tickets are $10-$18.75. Show times vary depending on the day. One hour before each show, the audience can participate in the "Three Ring Adventure" on the circus floor.