Tony Barton has a beautiful baritenor voice – dark and rich in the lower range, bright and free on the top. But voice is only part of a great performance. When talking to Barton, I heard a refreshing perspective.
He is more interested in his audience than in himself. “It’s not a performance,” he says. “It’s an experience for the audience.” He pauses, and laughs. “It could be a bad experience!” Not likely. I’ve heard Barton sing and know what a good experience it is. Rather than impress, he’d prefer to connect, focusing on eye contact, reading the mood, readying to shift pace in the moment. “It’s about where the audience is. I want to stay open to them.”
Barton is used to thinking of others. He and his twin sister grew up the youngest of seven children in Prophetstown, Illinois. His musical career was launched calling square dances in the fifth grade. He taught himself to play piano, guitar and harmonica, and now he’s working on the banjo. Formal training began with a degree in education from Illinois State. “I loved teaching,” Barton says, and teaching was his profession for a number of years. But he also loved singing, having studied voice while at Illinois State. His first performance as a trained singer was in opera. He has the requisite big voice and believes the highly technical training of opera provides a good base.
Barton went on to pursue a Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Las Vegas, and sang lead roles in university opera productions. “Then,” he says with intensity, “Blue Man Group came to Vegas, and I auditioned.” The audition was a long one. “Three weeks in New York … but I didn’t make it that time,” he says ruefully, “so I became a gondolier for the Venetian Hotel in Vegas. I rowed people around the canals for a year.”
But talent is tenacious, and the gondolier moved on. Though he’d cut his teeth on opera, it wasn’t a fit for him. “I could do it but it wasn’t the right glove. Opera is all about the self, the voice. I wanted to take the ego out of singing and understand my audience better, understand people better.” With this kind of empathy, Barton found musical theatre more appealing. “There’s more engagement with the audience and fellow cast members.”
In Chicago, Barton appeared in the premiere of “Ragtime,” singing the role of the father. By now he was seriously committed to musical theatre and New York City was the next step. “I got a lot of different roles,” Barton says, and it was from his base in New York that he was cast in a production of Oklahoma! in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus. Famous for its murals, Chemainus is a tourist mecca that produces highly polished theatre. Barton was cast as the cowboy hero Curly McLain, and I can’t think of a better fit for a big personality. Barton fills up the stage like he fills up a room. He’s edgy, confident and quick.
During one performance, a man in the audience forgot to turn off his cell phone. When it rang the first time, Barton carried on singing. When it rang the second time, he sauntered toward the audience. To their great amusement, he casually opened his jacket and ever so subtly nudged his holstered gun at the unfortunate cell phone owner.
After Oklahoma! Barton joined the cast on a cruise ship, becoming a production singer on the Crown Princess. In what he describes as a “couch moment,” he discovered it was okay to be alone. In a small cabin on a huge ship, he got to know himself. There was time to think. “I had the idea of investing in myself, developing my own show. In musical theatre you learn a role, and then it’s over. It’s too temporary a life.”
On the cruise ship, Barton had developed a Sinatra tribute show, “Blue Eyes Too.” He brought his show on shore and worked hard to promote it. With its success came new opportunities. With the backing of Moon Coin Productions, his next show launched a tribute to Michael Bublé, called “Sway.” Barton loves singing standards. “People want nostalgia,” he said. “It’s about a connection to what they were doing when they first heard the song.”
Point Roberts is Barton’s “gateway to Vancouver” where he has access to highly talented musicians. “I’m half as good as the people behind me,” he says of his band. Barton is a rare blend of confidence and humility. It takes confidence to create and humility to connect. He welcomes honest opinions on his work. “I’m lucky to have people in my life who’ll tell me the truth.”
And Point Roberts means more to Barton than opportunity. “I was raised in a small town; it’s familiar here and one of the most beautiful places in the world.” And he can’t say enough about the local businesses. “They’ve been very supportive of me.” He practices in the church’s windowless storeroom. “It’s great,” he says. “No distractions.”
Barton’s newest production is “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which he will perform on July 4 at the Pier Restaurant with an All-American fireworks display. On July 13 he’s doing a live concert video shoot at the Tsawwassen Arts Centre, in a co-production with the Delta Arts Corporation and Tony’s own company, AEB Productions. That’s Anthony Emory Barton.
“Some Kind of Wonderful” is an eclectic mix of swing, rockabilly, opera, Elvis – all the things Barton loves. He modifies it for events such as weddings and reunions, creating a tailor-made celebration. As always, he is responsive to his audience, and in my experience, his audiences love him. Barton does it his way and in many ways reminds me of a young Sinatra. Same lean appeal, same charisma, same blue-eyed warmth.