DIVA TALK: Tony Winner Priscilla Lopez Reflects On Pippin, Then and Now

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez
Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez

Priscilla Lopez
Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez, who created the role of Diana in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, is back on The Great White Way in the Tony-winning revival of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre. The acclaimed singing actress recently succeeded Annie Potts in the role of the wise, spirited (and high-flying) grandmother Berthe, the part created in this production by Tony winner Andrea Martin. Lopez, previously on Broadway in the Tony-winning In the Heights, has a long history with the Stephen Schwartz musical, having stepped into the role of Fastrada in the original Bob Fosse-directed Pippin in the early 70s. The celebrated artist, in fact, boasts a lengthy stage resumé that also includes a Tony-winning performance in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine; a Drama Desk-nominated turn in the one-woman show Class Mothers '68, which allowed the actress to inhabit six diverse mothers of a graduating class of high school students; and roles in Company, Lysistrata, Nine and Pulitzer Prize-winning Nilo Cruz's play, Anna in the Tropics. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with the Broadway favorite, who spoke about her latest stage outing as well as her role in the new drama Somewhere, which was penned by her nephew, Matthew Lopez. That interview follows:

Question: How did this role come about for you?
Priscilla Lopez: Well, I guess, casting was looking to hire someone… through the regular channels – the agents, [and then] I auditioned for it.

Question: Had you seen the production?
Priscilla Lopez: I had not. I was away for some parts of the year and then I got back and I never got around to it. I heard a little bit about it, and I thought, "Well, you know, I could do that." And then, after I auditioned and after I got the role, I went to see the show and I thought, "Holy sh*t! What did I get myself into?!" [Laughs.]

Question: Did you know about the acrobatic stunts?
Priscilla Lopez: I did, but you know what I thought it was? My imagination went, "You know, she probably goes up on the trapeze and swings back and forth and goes back on her knees and swings back and forth and then comes up again." That's what I imagined in my head.

Question: What has the rehearsal process been like in terms of learning that aspect of the part?
Priscilla Lopez: It's been quite a challenge. I thought, "Well, I'm a dancer. I'm strong." And, yes, I did dance, but I haven't danced in a long time, and I'm not as strong as I thought I was. One, I hadn't been using the muscles I would have been using as a dancer, let alone the ones I needed to do this. So I was in a state of shock. I thought, "I can't believe I'm that weak. I cannot believe I'm that weak." And they kept saying, "It'll be better! You'll get stronger!" And I have! So I'm happy about that. And, finally, last week I nailed the acrobatic routine — now it will be a matter of consistency. One thing is trying to do it, [another] is understanding how to do it, and in your psyche be willing to do it. It's all of these things that have to come together at once. So, I’m happy to say that during last week's rehearsal, they all came together, and then I did it three times in a row. I thought, "Okay, if I can do it three times, then I can do this!" So I tried to give myself a break and relax and know it's going to be fine. Right after I talk to you, I'm going into the city to continue to rehearse. So first I'll head to Pearl Studios to rehearse the songs and the scenes and the little choreography for the opening, the Entr'acte and the Finale, and then I'll go to the theatre and work on the trapeze, thankfully with my partner who will be doing it with me. 

Lopez onstage as Berthe
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Tell me about approaching ["No Time at All"], which is such a great …
Priscilla Lopez: I know, it's wonderful. I was surprised because Irene Ryan was the original woman in the show, and she was probably in her eighties when she did it, but the script says 66. So, I thought, "Oh! So I don't have to be an old granny person." [Laughs.] … Her physicality in the show is who I am. I thought, "No, I'm not going to do the old lady routine." I don't know, maybe it won't work, and if I don't get any laughs, maybe I'll switch to the old lady! [Laughs.] We'll see. I am of an age anyway, so we'll see – who knows. I did not see Andrea [Martin] do it. I've been watching Annie Potts. I think she's wonderful — she's funny, she's adorable, she's great. But my energy is a different energy, and we'll just go from my point of view; we'll see how that turns out.

Question: How would you describe Berthe or your portrayal of her?
Priscilla Lopez: Well, I see her as someone who's gotten the short shrift. She'd been done in by her stepdaughter, Fastrada, and at one point in time I imagine she had that position in this troupe, and she was usurped by Fastrada. So she's got this little competition in her head – and, physically, with Fastrada in a sense: "I've still got it, I can still do it." So she's competitive and vain, but she adores Pippin. He's her only saving grace. She hasn't seen him for a long time because he's been off to war, and she's been exiled, so when she sees him she's just so delighted to be with him and truly happy and truly wants to impart some wisdom because he's confused, and she's just saying, "Hey, c'mon! Now's the time, do it now! … Take it from me who's been through all this stuff. Do it now!" And when I see you do it, it just makes me feel fabulous when I see you living. She says, "It's time to keep living in the time we're given." It's a very positive message, I think.

Question: You were also in the original production as Fastrada.
Priscilla Lopez: I was, so I know all about her! [Laughs].

Question: What are your memories of that experience? Did you get to work with Fosse?
Priscilla Lopez: I did. I was not put into the show by him. I was the first replacement for Fastrada. I replaced Leland Palmer, and so I worked with the dance captain, who put me in the show, and then he came and worked with me, but I auditioned for him, and it was probably one of the best auditions of my life. Because at that point in my life I was like 23 years old, and I had gone to school with Ben Vereen and Christopher Chadman, who were in the show, and I was supposed to be his stepmother.

Fosse, no matter what he does, takes so much energy to do physically, even if it's a finger wiggle. It was very strict. There was no leeway, there was no, "Well, I think I'll do a little more of this or a little less of that." It's what it was. So it was very precise, and he always had that little dark cloud over everything. [Laughs.] Even though they're all smiling, there's that little dark cloud. And what surprised me about this production was – I love the circus aspect of it, I think it's fun. I like that – the second act, the role of Catherine, she's hysterical. I never knew that part was so funny. But then, too, I also miss the darkness. At the end … in the original I remember it was very dark and very scary and very fast —when everything starts to unravel. And there wasn't the Theo part [at the very end], unless I'm blocking it out. I just remembered that they were left alone on the stage, the three of them, and it ended that way, sort of bare on the island. It ended in a very stark [way] in the original production. 

Lopez with original Pippin star John Rubinstein
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: I know you've been involved with Somewhere in different productions for a while. What's happening with the play at the moment?
Priscilla Lopez: I think they're trying to get it happening. They're in the process of trying to work out figures.

Question: Tell me a little bit about the play because I know you have a few connections to it.
Priscilla Lopez: [Laughs.] Just one. Just one connection: the playwright, [my nephew]. Well, it's based very loosely on some family history… Matthew Lopez is the playwright. [When his father was 14 and] I was 12, we were extras in the movie of West Side Story , and that had fascinated Matthew, so that was the germ of the idea. He has built this play around a family that lives in San Juan Hill in 1959, and they're being evicted from their home. I don't how much you know about the play, but I won't tell you a lot because it would be nice for you to have some surprises when you do see it. [My character] is gung-ho to get her kids into show biz, and it just deals with a lot of stuff. It deals with a mother's love for her children, inequities of social situations, and it's funny and it's touching… It's gotten such a wonderful response everywhere we've gone, and I would love, love, love, love, love, love – have I said it enough? [Laughs.] Love, love, love for this play to happen in New York. It's such a New York play. People in New York would love it. There are so many references to what we know and then the theatre, and there are lots of nice jewels in the play.

Question: Since you were in the original cast of A Chorus Line, I was wondering if you have any memories of working with Marvin Hamlisch, who we lost last year…
Priscilla Lopez: Oh, Marvin Hamlisch was someone who always had a smile on his face. He was a 24/7 entertainer; he couldn’t be in a room near a piano or he would jump on it and start making up – whatever. He used to do that in his act; people would give him words, and he would make up a song. He was always doing that. He was a bright light in all senses of the word and was very caring about us. When we all got sick before we opened [ A Chorus Line] – not me, I didn't get sick [laughs]. But before the opening downtown, he was mother hen. He brought food, brought the doctors to the theatre, got us humidifiers — just a very generous soul, very generous, and very sweet and very funny and very talented, and he worked and he created in front of us. You know, usually a composer goes off and does his stuff privately and brings it in. He did that whole montage section on each person in front of everyone figuring it out – all the notes, the words, it all happened as we went along. Now some songs were written. He went off and wrote "Nothing." That was a big push from Ed Kleban – Ed Kleban wanted that story. "Nothing" had a different idea, in terms of what the song was going to be about. It was going to be a song about how I used to feel being onstage, and Ed Kleban said, "No, this is the story. We've got to do this story." Marvin was great – it's hard when you lose all of these people, and we've lost a lot of people.

Question: I know you're only performing in  Pippin through the end of August. Do you have other projects in the works or are you focusing on this?
Priscilla Lopez: Right now, just focusing on this and, you know, it's show biz. Whatever is in the works for me next, I have no idea. But it's out there somewhere, and we'll meet up together somewhere. [Laughs.]

[Visit  PippinTheMusical.com.] *

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

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.