DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony-Winning Pippin Star Patina Miller

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26 Jul 2013

Patina Miller
Patina Miller
Monica Simoes

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Patina Miller
It's been an "extraordinary" year for singing actress Patina Miller, who won a 2013 Tony Award for Best Performance By an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for her dazzling work in the Tony-winning revival of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre. Helmed by Diane Paulus, who was also Tony-honored for her direction, the cirque-inspired production casts Miller as the mysterious and somewhat manipulative Leading Player, the role created in the original Broadway staging by Tony winner Ben Vereen. Miller, a true triple threat, offers a performance that is, simply, a tour de force. Whether she's belting out the glorious Stephen Schwartz score, gracefully slithering through the Chet Walker-Bob Fosse choreography or forcefully demanding the company follow her lead, she is never less than captivating. Two weeks following her Tony win, I had the pleasure of chatting with the gifted artist, who made her Broadway bow with a Tony-nominated turn in Sister Act; that interview follows.

Question: Congratulations on the Tony Award!
Patina Miller: Thank you so much.

Question Take me back to Tony night. You’re sitting in your seat. What’s going on in your mind before your category?
Miller: Oh my God, my stomach was in knots! I was so nervous – right before my category, I’d just performed, so I had to rush. I had 15 minutes to get back into my dress, and I’m panicking about that…I wasn’t really nervous until that moment—that’s when my nerves kicked in. I actually thought I was doing well. I had let it go—whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and either way I was going to have a good time. So I literally started to get nervous once I had to go back to my seat because they were [already] on Billy [Porter]’s category. I got dressed and Billy was doing his speech, and in my mind I was [thinking] if this happened how amazing it would be and if it doesn’t, I’m going to be okay. I’m here again, my second time on the [Tony] show, my second Tony nomination. I was just thinking how blessed I was to have this opportunity again to be in this room and to try and enjoy myself no matter what the outcome was. So that’s what was on my mind—whatever happened was going to happen. They could call your name, maybe they won’t call your name, it’ll be fine. I rushed back to my seat after Billy accepted his award, and I got back to my seat just in time, and I didn’t really have time to do anything because before I could, they were already announcing the category. I just reached over to my fiancé and squeezed his hand… I was trying to keep calm. They read out all the nominees, and the moment they called my name, I just lost it. You know, you think of what it would be like if they did call your name, what your reaction would be if that were ever the case. I’ve always wanted to be an actor, be in New York and be in theatre and to maybe one day be on that stage, and when he called my name, there are no words to describe the feeling that I felt, but it was definitely a moment I will never forget.

Miller accepts her Tony.
Photo by Heather Wines/CBS

Question: Do you remember being on stage and giving that speech or is it sort of a blur?
Miller It was totally a blur. Everyone kept pressuring me to have something [prepared]. You don’t want to get up there and "umm, umm" throughout the speech and not know what you want to say if you do get the opportunity. It’s always nice to be prepared just in case… [But I didn't] want to jinx myself by [preparing a speech, but] the day of I got nervous. You know, there’s no reason for me to think it couldn’t go my way. [Laughs.] Up to this point, I was trying to play it safe and not jinx myself. But that morning at the Tony rehearsal, I [thought], "Alright I’ll give in, I’ll just write out names that I would maybe want to say." And it ended up being too many people, but by that time I had gone over in my head something I would want to say about who to thank, and I was thinking whatever comes out comes out. And, I kid you not … I don’t know how it all came out and made sense in such a crazy moment, but I’m so happy because I got out everything that I was feeling and I thanked everyone I wanted to thank. That was the biggest thing was just making sure all these people who helped me get to this point were recognized.

Question: I thought your speech was one of the greatest of the night. Both you and Billy Porter were so joyful that it was contagious.
Miller: Thank you. It was so exciting!!

Question: What does it mean to you now, a few weeks later, to have won the award?
Miller: Oh my God, it means everything! I love the piece that we’ve been working on for almost a year now. I am totally in love with the piece, and I love my castmates. I’ve never been a part of a process that’s been stressful at times but for the most part it’s been the most amazing, amazing experience. And the thing about it is because it was hard, it just makes all of this mean so much more. Whenever you’re trying to put together a piece like this and reinvent it for a newer audience – everyone just works really, really hard, really hard. Everyone…[put] everything into making, telling the story, every single person involved in the show. To be recognized for something you’ve worked so hard on and something you’ve put your all into is really amazing, and it means so much to me to be recognized for playing this role that was a re-creation. It was a role that had already won a Tony for Ben Vereen. And, to have it totally reimagined and to be recognized for it is pretty amazing. I’m still on cloud nine. I still can’t even believe it happened. Standing on that stage every night... you’re just so thankful that Pippin has touched so many people and people keep wanting to come see the show, and people are coming back to see the show. It’s really great.

Question: What was that first performance like following the Tonys after you won, Andrea Martin won, the show won Best Revival?
Miller: Oh God, the excitement was just kind of mind-blowing. Everyone was floating on cloud nine. Right after the ceremony, our party was just great because a lot of people made their Broadway debuts in our show. This is a lot of people's first time experiencing the Tonys, and to experience it in this way – it was crazy for them, and I was just happy to be a part of it. The award, really, was all of ours. Like I said, I could not be standing on that stage accepting that award without everyone in my show, without the cast. Everyone had a major role in it. It’s truly been an ensemble – it really is an ensemble show, and I’m just so blessed to have been singled out for my work in the show.

Question: When did you get involved with Pippin?
Miller: I came on board last summer; it was around this time when I’d learned I’d gotten the role. I was at the Kennedy Center doing First Dream this time last year, and I went in two Mondays to audition, and right after the Tonys last year, actually the day after the Tonys, was when I’d found out I’d gotten the role.

Miller in Pippin.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Were you familiar with the musical? Had you ever seen it?
Miller: To be honest, I was not that familiar. I’d heard other people talk about Pippin, but I wasn’t as familiar as a lot of people. In that month I must have researched everything I could and listened to that album as many times as I could. There were many nights I went to sleep with that album playing, to kind of get a feel for the show. And, it was actually great that I didn’t know that much because I was able to go into it and throw myself into it without any preconceived ideas about what the piece should be.

Question: What stands out in your mind about the whole out-of-town rehearsal process and combining the world of the show and the circus?
Miller: ART, I've just got to say they are some amazing people and how lucky we were to have that time in July of last year to go for two weeks and have a workshop for the choreographer and the director… and the circus choreographer to figure out how all the worlds were going to work together. We worked for two weeks on seeing if the language of these different things could exist in the same world. We worked for two weeks straight on the opening number and "Glory," and the acrobats were starting to learn Fosse, and the actors were starting to learn circus things, and we were all singing and learning music together. So it was really like being in school. We were put into this thing and we had two weeks to just play. I think having that time at ART that summer was really beneficial to the process later when we moved to ART in November to do the production. It was great to just have that time at the ART to work on our show and to figure out these characters and to figure out our world, where our Pippin existed and what it was. You normally don’t get that opportunity to have the time or the place to workshop it, and we got to be in Boston, and Boston loved the show…. And, when we moved to New York we worked on it even more. So it’s nice that we had all that time.

Question: Tell me about working with Diane Paulus, who you had worked with before. What makes her so special as a director? She seems to have the magic touch when it comes to these revivals.
Miller: I think Pippin was a show that Diane grew up with that she had an attachment to. She played the CD all the time, and Hair was one of those pieces as well. … It comes from such a special place in her heart and was something she always wanted to do, [and she was] able to get the opportunity to revisit the piece and make it play out maybe the way [she] saw it [in her] head, or figure out a way to make it different for a newer audience. Diane is just able to make people feel things that you wouldn’t normally feel in the theatre. She really just believes in going all the way and digging as deep as she possibly can and just finding the truth of every moment – that’s all she cares about. All the other stuff she doesn’t really care about, but she really knows how to go dig in layers. That’s how she works. She’s all about what’s underneath the text and playing the subtext of that and really figuring all of that out. And, she’s not afraid – she’s not the kind of director who's afraid. She’s very much in control of the room. She’s very smart; she knows all aspects of what we’re doing. She’s not just involved with the directing; she has strong opinions about the lighting and the costumes and the way that the costumes are going to be onstage and how they help tell the story. All of it is about how it helps tell the story. Musically, she’s very knowledgeable in music, as well. It’s freaky the way she knows all realms of the theatre, and she knew how to make it work, make it all work to come together to tell the story. And, she’s an actor’s director—she knows how to pull it out of you, too.

Patina Miller and Matthew James Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Now that you’ve been playing the part for a while, how would you describe the Leading Player?
Miller: She’s this charismatic...ringleader in our show… The Leading Player is not the mother of the group, but she is the leader of this acting troupe, and she’s charismatic and nice and funny, and she’s a show woman and she likes to have a good time, but she’s very passionate. She’s so passionate about what she wants to get over to the audience with this show and its message. She takes everyone on a journey. It’s not just Pippin’s journey, it’s sort of like her thing to reach the audience, and this is the way that [she's] going to spread this message of what this show is about. And when Pippin doesn’t go through with it and the show starts to go off the path it's supposed to go—she likes things very structured, everything the way that it should be, so when people get out of line, that’s when you start to see her crack. I don’t think of her as this bad dark person.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her? Is there something you look forward to every night?
Miller: Yes – I love the ending. I love the last act of the play, of figuring out what it’s going to be because it changes every night. To be able to have that opportunity to directly address the audience in that way, and to connect with people in the audience and to really tell them what I have to say is something that I look forward to. That whole ending of getting Pippin to do it – I like to try new things every night because it’s happening for the first time every night. Some nights are a little bit more desperate, some nights are not as desperate. I’m really happy that I get to do it. It’s a really special piece and for my arc in the show, where I end up. I look forward to taking that journey every night.

Question: Do you think the show has a message? What does it mean to you or say to you?
Miller I think it’s about examining in your life what matters to you. What’s more important—is love and family more important or is having the glitz and the glam of what they say is the perfect life? Pippin’s journey is everyone’s journey. We’ve all been on that quest to find fulfillment in life, to find your place. Where is your space in this world and what can you do to make a difference? And, as a young person starting out, everyone says that you have to go to college and you have to do this and… My Mom had me very young, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a performer—that’s all I thought I wanted. I gotta be a star. [Laughs.] I’m going to work hard and not talk to boys and I’m going to get it. And I’m 28 now, and I’ve had an amazing journey so far, but I think the most special part of all this is that within all of this I found a different side of myself that I didn’t think would ever happen to me, and that’s love and finding someone to spend your life with … Now I’m just as happy being at home with my fiancé and starting our life together and maybe having a family. Your priorities just change. I think the piece is about identifying that you don’t have to choose between the two, but it basically represents the idea—is it enough? How far will you go to be extraordinary? Basically, that’s what the whole evening is about.

Question: You mentioned your fiancé in your Tony speech. Do you have a wedding date yet or are you still working on that?
Miller Yes, we do, it’s going to be next year at this time. That’s the only thing we have planned for right now! [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on Pippin and the wedding?
Miller: I’m focusing on Pippin and the wedding. I am doing a concert at the Kennedy Center in December – a solo concert, so that will be cool. I’m hoping to do something in the city soon within the year. So a lot of exciting things happening, but for right now my focus is on doing our show and also planning my wedding.

[Visit PippinTheMusical.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.