It's been over 35 years since Broadway has seen a production of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's classic musical, Pippin, but that oversight will be corrected on March 23, when Diane Paulus' critically-acclaimed, circus-inspired production arrives at the Music Box Theater after a seven-week run at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre (which concludes on Sunday, January 20). While the show's multi-talented cast have all been lauded for their work, special praise has been bestowed on Tony Award nominee Patina Miller (Sister Act), who stars as the show's Leading Player, and Tony Award winner Andrea Martin (Young Frankenstein), who steals the piece in her one pivotal scene as Pippin's grandmother, Berthe.
Miller, who spent close to four years playing Deloris in the hit musical Sister Act in both London and New York, admits she was considering take a break from the stage when Paulus – who had directed her in the Public Theater's Hair at the Delacorte Theatre – called her last summer to audition for the role of the Leading Player. "I am not sure I would have considered it if Diane hadn't asked me, but she is so amazing at what she does," said Miller. "One of the things I admire about her is that she always wants you to go deeper. In fact, the one thing she said to me before I auditioned was, ‘Go as far as you can and don't be afraid."
The actress says she was also intrigued by the possibility of taking on a project she was unfamiliar with. "I was eager to do something I hadn't been done before," she said. "I had no history with the show, so auditioning was my first exploration of Pippin. [That was] the first time I heard the music. I got addicted immediately by listening to it."
Miller added that the biggest challenge, however, was learning the show's choreography, most of which is based on or recreates the original by the legendary Bob Fosse. "At first, I didn't know if I could do Fosse, so I watched a lot of his work on YouTube, like the movies Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and The Little Prince," she said. "But it turns out, it totally agrees with my body. And it has been amazing to work with Chet Walker, our choreographer, and to be surrounded by people like Charlotte D'Amboise [who plays Fastrada], Stephanie Pope, and Brad Musgrove, who know so much about the Fosse world and its history."
And while Miller may initially have been nervous about taking on a role made famous by the great Ben Vereen – and one traditionally played by a man – those trepidations quickly disappeared. "I know there are people who wonder why the Leading Player has to be a woman this time, but one of the great things about revivals is to be able to do things in a new and exciting way," Miller said.
Martin was equally excited about Paulus' concept for the show – which includes the actress showing off some acrobatic skills as Berthe, Pippin's elderly grandmother. "I wanted to explore the circus world that's part of this production, and Diane was completely for that," Martin said. "It's a small part for me, for sure, but I looked at this project differently than many others. Usually, think about whether it's a good career move or how lucrative the part is, but this was different. I studied mime in Paris with the great Jacques Lecoq when I was younger, so doing a show like this is something I can kick off the bucket list. What's been so exciting is having these different worlds meld together -- to see these kids dance Fosse and to watch the cast do acrobatics and gymnastics. In the end, everything we all do is telling a visual story."
She has been equally excited to delve into Schwartz's lyrics for her big number, "No Time at All," which becomes an audience sing-along. "I am old enough to be Berthe, which is completely shocking, the lyrics say she's 66 and I am 66 this month," Martin said. "And even if I don't feel it, I know what it's like to have less life left than what's come before. I also believe in a lot of the positive sentiments of the song. At one point, Berthe sings, ‘I believe if I refuse to grow old, then I can stay young til I die.' And I believe in staying fit, being healthy, being enthusiastic, and saying yes to life."
Indeed, Martin laughs about the possibility of Berthe being her musical theater swan song -- the role's originator, Irene Ryan, had a stroke during her run in the Broadway production and died a month later. "You know, the first show I ever did in my musical career was Stephen's Godspellback in Toronto. I sure hope Pippin doesn't end it."
For more information about the return of Pippin, click here.