Many legends come to mind when one thinks of Pippin. First there's Wicked and Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the musical about young prince Pippin who is looking for his way in the world after graduating from college and is guided by a "greek chorus" of sorts as he figures out how to make his life "extradordinary," while still in school at Carnegie Mellon. Then there's Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the musical's Broadway debut in 1972 and Ben Vereen, whose portrayal of the Leading Player, Pippin's chief advisor, launched him into Broadway stardom. And don't forget Michael Jackson, whose recording of the first act finale, Morning Dew, brought the soundtrack's catchy song book to the masses. Now, 30 years later, the first Broadway revival of the musical is opening at the Music Box Theatre and, from the looks of it, another legend is about to be born: Patina Miller. Miller, who first became known for her role as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act: The Musical, is taking over the role of the Leading Player and holds her own performing much of Fosse's choreography (recreated by original Pippin castmember Chet Walker) and belting out Schwartz's legendary tunes against a backdrop of actual circus performers. Here we chat with her about taking over such a legendary role, ditching her nun's habit and the dangers of working with circus folk.
I heard you had never seen a production of Pippin before signing up to play the Lead Player...
I was very familiar with Stephen Schwartz, but was just waiting for the opportunity to do something with him. Pippin was the first thing he wrote out of school, and we actually went to the same school, so I did kind of feel a little bad that I wasn't as aware of the show as I should have been. But it's great because I came into this with a blank canvas and I was able to kind of create on my own and be surprised and just let it all happen in the moment, and not have it be, "Oh it should be like this because this is what I remember it being."
Was this your first time dancing Fosse's moves?
This is my first foray into Fosse. You know that's one thing that people are surprised about. Everyone keeps asking me like, "Have you ever danced before?" And I have to say, I'm a mover and a dancer. I studied in school. I wouldn't call myself a ballerina, but dance is a language I know and Fosse just works so well with my body. I love everything about it and when I got the role I worked day in and day out to perfect it the best way I knew how. I'm still learning, but it's such a good language, dance, and the fact that I get to do it on Broadway is pretty fantastic.
What's your favorite Broadway show in general?
Well listen I grew up in the South and I wasn't afforded the opportunity to see a lot of theater but I do remember looking at stuff in the library and watching the Tony Awards to get my snippet of the shows that were going on. I think one of my favorites, because it was just one of the shows that I thought, 'Oh my God I could be a part of this,' was Dreamgirls. I've always loved it. And Annie was the first musical I was in. I played Miss Hannigan when I was 13. That was when my mom was like, "Ok she's serious about this." From there everything just kind of happened and she was on board.
The chorus in this adaptation is played by circus performers. What was it like working with them?
The one thing that I love, and that I've learned about them, is that they are so committed to their craft. Their skill set is very, very risky. A couple of them come from circus families so it's all they know and to watch them do something that they've done since they were 10 and not have any sort of like, "Oh I'm frightened by this." They just do it. I think that's why the show is the way it is now, because we're all there together and we're all doing this piece of theater together that is kind of death-defying. Pippin is all about being extraordinary and taking risks and everyone is physically taking risks.
In one part you're holding up a hula hoop that an acrobat jumps through -- was that scary?
In the beginning I was like, "Oh my God, please don't let me mess this up for him," but then it became this sort of trust. I'm not from the circus, but he trusted me from the beginning--everybody has. It's the trust that you have to put into the other people on stage and that's been the most amazing thing. I put the hula hoop up, someone on the side whispers and lets me know if it needs to be higher and he just launches himself. But I gotta tell you when we first got into that room I was like, "Ok how is this going to work? How is this person going to be doing flips and I'm right here under them? Are they going to fall on me? I know they're good at what they do, but things happen so it was a lot of like watching out and being cautious and a little scared--but that all went away very quickly. We all became a team.
The thigh-high boots you wear in Pippin are amazing! Your costume's a little different than your costume in Sister Act...
It is! Let me tell you, it's nice to be out of that habit. I mean no offense, but I was in the habit a long time. I love my Pippin costume -- it's so slick and I feel like it has an attitude to it with the boots and glued-on pants. You know who's in charge.
What's the worst costume you've ever had to wear?
Oh Jesus lord, let me tell you. I did this show in school called Marisol and, I don't know why but someone had the nerve to put it on YouTube, so I went back and I saw this costume and it was the rattiest. I was supposed to be a war angel and and I was a little bit chubbier because it's college and things happen in college and I had these acid wash striped huge jeans, baggy and tom boyish with these huge angel wings and this makeup -- I think I had pastel purple eye shadow. And then the biggest white t-shirt with paint splattered all over it. The fact that someone let me wear that for a show--I was a little upset about it. I can't believe it's out there. If you try to look it up, you're welcome.