Kyle Dean Massey and Ciara Renée Are "On the Right Track" as New Leads in Broadway's Pippin

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05 May 2014

Kyle Dean Massey
Kyle Dean Massey

Meet Kyle Dean Massey and Ciara Renée, who recently took over as the new Pippin and Leading Player, respectively, in the Tony Award-winning revival of Pippin.

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Following a yearlong run, Matthew James Thomas and Patina Miller — who received her first Tony Award for her turn as the Leading Player in the Diane Paulus-helmed revival of Pippin — exited the Tony Award-winning revival of the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson musical. Kyle Dean Massey and Ciara Renée assumed respective lead roles April 1 and are the latest actors to jump through hoops and soar above audiences to guide Pippin down the road to self-discovery. Massey, who has been seen on Broadway in Wicked, Xanadu and Next to Normal, and Renée, who made her Broadway debut earlier this season in the Andrew Lippa musical Big Fish, caught up with Playbill.com following their first week of performances.

Kyle, before we begin, I'm so interested that when it was announced you would take over as Pippin, you tweeted that you sang "Corner in the Sky" for your college auditions and didn't get accepted to any of the schools. 
Kyle Dean Massey: When I was auditioning for colleges 15 years ago, that was the song that I sang. I auditioned at Syracuse, Ithaca, CCM [College-Conservatory of Music], Carnegie Melon — and nobody accepted me. [Laughs.]

So, how does it feel now to be playing Pippin on Broadway?
KDM: Well, that feels pretty cool, I must say! [Laughs.] I don't know… I just love that when that happened, I remember feeling really discouraged — like feeling really hurt for the first time in my life. I had never had negative feedback in that way. But, in a weird way, I think it set me on the right path — in the right direction. I thought that it was an inauspicious start, and it actually ended up being the way for me — the path for me.

Ciara Renée

Was Pippin a role you always wanted to do?
KDM: You know, I'm not going to lie, I loved the music, and I had the cassette that I played in my car when I was in high school, and I loved all of those songs. I had that video that they recorded in '81… It's kind of weird, and I [thought], "What is this show? I don't get it." It wasn't until I came and saw the show here last summer that I [thought], "Okay, I get that show now." It wasn't necessarily a role that I aspired to, but when the audition came about, I [thought], "I might actually be right for this."

Ciara, tell me about your experience with Pippin. This production has redefined the Leading Player. Did you ever think you'd take on this role?
Ciara Renée: No. I had seen other productions — regional and little high school productions of it — [but] I had never really understood the show… It was kind of like what Kyle was saying — I didn't get it. For the longest time, this show was completely off of my radar, and then seeing Patina [Miller] in it and looking up to Patina — in college I used to watch all of her videos back when she did [Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond's] Homemade Fusion, I was like, "Oh my God, I love her!" So [after seeing that she was in Pippin, I thought], "Maybe I can do that eventually." But, still, it didn't register until the audition came, and I said, "Okay, I'll go see the show because I have these weird thoughts about it. I don't really understand it; I should just go see it." So I went and saw it, and I was like, "What?! It's amazing." It made so much sense, and the whole acrobat [concept] and the circus theme was really awesome, and it just added so much to it. It made sense with the story, and I [thought], "This is something I really want to do now." And, here I am.

Kyle Dean Massey in Pippin
Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm really curious about being put into this show. This production is very precise and intricate. Was it a challenge to rehearse essentially on your own?
KDM: You know, it's always tricky being a replacement. I've only replaced on Broadway, so I'm so used to the process of it, but it's always a tricky thing because you're coming into an existing show where people did readings and workshops and labs and out-of-town tryouts and previews…and then you're expected to come in and just slide right in. We've been given a crash course to get us on the stage. I'm not going to lie, I still go to training every day because I'm still working on the acrobatic things. They're show-ready — we're obviously in the show and running it — but our work has just begun. We've got a lot of catch-up to do. They actually gave us five weeks [of rehearsal], which was incredibly generous. You don't usually get that, and we really needed it. She and I are just onstage almost the entire show, and we just do so many different things. I mean, Ciara's on the trapeze…
CR: I never thought in a million years that I would be learning the trapeze.

Ciara Renée and Kyle Dean Massey
photo by Joan Marcus

Did either of you have any cirque or circus experience?
KDM: No! [Laughs.] They had to teach me how to do a somersault!
CR: I could do a cartwheel. That was about it. I was totally clueless. The first time I got on the trapeze, I was [nervous]. It was a stationary one, the first time — thank the Lord. I was so bruised. I mean, I still am — the bruises aren't going to go away, but at the beginning I was like, "Ow! My back! Everything hurts!" But now I think it's so much fun, and I want to do more.
KDM: It is really fun. I really enjoy all of those elements.

What I love about this production is that the stakes are always so high. Is it nerve-wracking to perform the acrobatic stunts?
KDM: It's weird. In Act Two, once I'm on stage, I never leave the stage. I don't have that moment to go off stage and [think], "Okay, this scene is coming up." I literally will get to, "Okay I have to do a backflip now," and I'm like, "Here it comes!" There's something nice about not getting to worry about it because it just happens. You just have to do it, but, yes… There are things that I stress over, for sure.
CR: Sometimes I think the smallest things are the things I stress over though. There's this little hula-hoop [trick] I do that's super simple, and it's not really dangerous, but for some reason, I just freak out about it every night! [Laughs.] The trapeze now — I'm not afraid to fall or anything… I guess it's within the realm of possibility, but I feel like we've been trained so well, and I keep working out, trying to make myself stronger in my whole body, so I can protect myself. That's what all these [acrobats] do — they have to constantly be working, so that if something does go wrong, [they can] hopefully stop it from being a huge disaster and save themselves.
KDM: It's safe, but I know what you mean… I stress over throwing the knives…
CR: But, you're so good at them! Everyone says you're so good.
KDM: I stress about playing the guitar, actually — little things like that, where you're thinking, "No one's going to die if you mess it up."

Renée and Massey following their first curtain call
Photo by Monica Simoes

Tell me about working together in the second-act number "On the Right Track." Are either of you experienced in Fosse-style dancing?
CR: No. No!
KDM: I mean, I kind of was. I had a little bit…
CR: He's a better dancer than I am. [Laughs.] It's a work in progress, and I think it might always be, but it's fun! I like it, it's just I've never done Fosse dance, no! [Laughs.]
KDM: And, it's really specific.
CR: Yeah, it was a super crash course in the weirdness of Fosse. I had to pick it up kind of quick.
KDM: From doing Wicked for so many years — [choreographer] Wayne [Cilento] was a Fosse dancer — there's a lot of that referenced in Wicked, so part of that [style] is in me from that, perhaps.
CR: I had coachings with Fosse teachers at Steps [on Broadway] and at BDC [Broadway Dance Center]. I was calling people up for my auditions because I was like, "I don't know what I'm doing."
KDM: She's smart!
CR: I [said], "Tell me what to do!" because it's nuanced. It's a very specific, interesting, hard way to hold your body. If you don't naturally turn your feet inwards, that's hard to do and to keep because you want to turn [them] out — I've done ballet. I want to have turnout, but that's not the style… I had quite a few coachings before my callbacks.
KDM: And, we got to work with [choreographer] Chet Walker quite a bit.
CR: Which is nice.
KDM: We definitely worked on that number more than anything else I would say, don't you think?
CR: But it was really fun, so I was always glad to do it.
KDM: I was, too… There's kind of like "The show before 'Right Track'" and "The show after 'Right Track'." What's after is a real turning point in the show, so that number is really important, which I didn't really realize until we started running.
CR: We're learning!

Having seen this production several times before being put-in, what was the challenge in making the roles "your own" and making your own choices?
CR: Well, we had to watch it every night, so for me that was a little difficult because you unconsciously start to mimic. I vocally was mimicking at the beginning, and I [thought], "No. I just need to do my own voice," but it's helpful to watch them and to see the show and to see how everything fits together…
KDM: I think every single show that we have done since our opening, there's a little [sense of], "This is how I do this." There are little parts of the show that I'm still discovering how I do it because, like I was saying, you're expected to kind of fit into the show. There's definitely artistic license there, but when you're a replacement, your main objective is to get into the show and keep it running, so as we get more and more of our first performances [completed], we're both finding our own things.
CR: Yeah, it's just going to be a discovering process, continually.
KDM: I changed the key in one of the songs. There are little things that we figured out in rehearsals… "Well, that key was good for Matthew [James Thomas], but that's not a good key for me" — things like that.

Ciara Renée in Pippin
photo by Joan Marcus

When did each of you get bit by the theatre bug?
CR: I got bit really late — like junior-year-of-high-school late, and I was like, "Oh! Okay… I guess I want to do this!" [Laughs.] I didn't really know about music theatre colleges, I just knew NYU [New York University] was like a "thing," so I auditioned there and a couple of other places that I wasn't really interested in, and then I auditioned at BW [Baldwin Wallace University], and I kind of fell in love with the place, even though it wasn't really where [I wanted to be]. I wanted to be in New York. I dreamed about being in New York forever, but I went to BW, and I really think it was the right choice for me. At 18, I was not ready to be here! [Laughs.] And, I didn't know enough about the business, really, to be here, so it was good to have those four years to really buckle down and study and get immersed in this culture and this business because I just didn't know it was even a job until high school.
KDM: I was the same way — 100 percent.
CR: Broadway was not an idea. For most of my life, I thought I was going to be a recording artist, so I had been singing and actually working on a CD with a producer during high school, and [when] I did the high school musical, I just quit it. I said, "I don't want to do the CD anymore. I want to do musical theatre."

What was the high school musical?
CR: Smokey Joe's Café… I did a mixed track I think, but it was mostly [the songs performed by] B.J. Crosby.
KDM: "Fools Fall in Love" ... Nice! That's fun!
CR: Oh my God… It was cute. [Laughs.]
KDM: I started taking dance class. I took ballet and tap class. Maybe when I was five I started… My older sister was in dance classes, so I went and saw The Nutcracker in Arkansas, where I grew up, and there were boys in The Nutcracker, and I thought, "Oh. I want to do that," so my parents signed me up, and I did that until I realized it was not cool for boys to dance, and then I quit doing that. I think I was probably 12 — something like that. I was in the choir in junior high — that was the cool thing to do — [and] I took piano lessons. I did my first musical when I was 16, my sophomore year of high school, Shenandoah, and I had a speaking line! But, yeah, I grew up in Arkansas. There weren't actors there. That wasn't something that you "grew up to be." It wasn't until Matt Cavenaugh, who's another Broadway performer — we grew up in the same town, I think he's like three years older than me… When he graduated, he was going to Ithaca to get a degree in musical theatre, and I thought, "That's a thing? People do that?" It suddenly legitimized the whole thing, and by the end of my junior year, I said, "Okay, that's what I want to do." I got a BFA in musical theatre, but I went to a school that you did not have to audition to get into the program — Missouri State, as it's called now — I did sing "Corner of the Sky" for the scholarship audition, [but] I didn't get that either! [Laughs.]

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)