The flashy and enigmatic Leading Player from Broadway's Pippin opens the show with the words "Join us," inviting the audience into her tent and promising that there's no less than magic in the story she and her troupe of performers are about to tell you.
Those familiar with Stephen Schwartz's famous 1972 musical — and its debonair star Ben Vereen — may be asking, " She?"
Yes, while the Leading Player was a role created for and by Ben Vereen (snagging him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical), for Pippin's Broadway revival, two-time Tony Award-nominated director Diane Paulus (known for her Broadway reinventions of Hair and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess) is doing a little gender-bending. In her new production the talented ensemble, bowing at the Music Box April 25, is led by a lady.
Patina Miller was picked by Paulus to spread Pippin's magic to today's audiences. As one of Broadway's rising stars, Miller made her Broadway debut just last season as the gutsy nightclub-singer-turned-nun Deloris Van Cartier in the stage adaptation of Sister Act, which earned her her first Tony nomination. Miller says she caught wind of Pippin's return while performing in a Kander and Ebb revue, First You Dream, at the Kennedy Center this past June.
Having previously worked together on the pre-Broadway revival of Hair during its 2008 run at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Miller was interested in the project primarily because Paulus was at the helm.
Miller admits, "I wasn't familiar with the show prior to signing on." She laughs, "Maybe that makes me a bad musical theatre person. But going into the audition, I knew what kind of director [Paulus] is; so I couldn't just wing it. I had to do my homework."
After a few rounds of callbacks, and what Miller calls "making a fool" of herself in the audition room, she eventually scored the part.
Pippin marks Miller's second Broadway credit — one she admits is similarly pressure-filled, considering the legacy of the performers who have preceded her in well-known roles. "I've been filling everyone's shoes in musicals," she says. "It's just like when I took on Deloris in Sister Act. I was doing a role Whoopi [Goldberg] created." She admits being "scared out of her mind" during rehearsals for Pippin's out-of-town run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. Vereen and Bob Fosse, the show's original director-choreographer, crafted the character of the Leading Player during their rehearsals. According to Vereen, his agent at the time called the role a "nothing part" and advised him not to take it.
"There was no role of the Leading Player when I started the show," admits Vereen. "But Bob had the character in his mind. He told me 'I want you to go to the library, look at the old dancers and their style,' and as we began to rehearse, the role evolved during the process. Bob created the Leading Player on me."
In the musical, the Leading Player introduces the audience to a troupe of players who set out to perform a coming-of-age play about the life and times of a young prince named Pippin ( Matthew James Thomas). The venerable show opener "Magic to Do" professes that the company has "miracle plays to play." The miracle here is perhaps the stamina required to play the part of the show's emcee. The Leading Player is ever-present on stage in the show.
Not only did Miller find herself in Fosse boot-camp — Paulus is weaving the original Fosse dance style with circus art — but she spent time in trapeze school, as well. Miller credits the show's Fosse consultants, choreographer Chet Walker and assistant choreographer-swing, Brad Musgrove, along with circus director Gypsy Snider, for getting her up to speed.
"It's been a team effort," says Miller. "I'm a perfectionist. I told everyone at the very beginning, I want you to teach me and really show me. I can move, I can dance, but I really set out to get the Fosse choreography." The most challenging aspect of learning the role? Miller fesses up to the subtleness of Fosse's legendary choreography. "The style is very contained," she says. "As performers, you want to be big. Hit every moment hard. With Fosse it's about making it look like a walk in the park. When there is a jolt of a move, it's on purpose."
She says, "Having Chet Walker in the rehearsal room was a real gift. He was able to explain all of the stories behind the movement." Walker, a Fosse protégé and one of the creators of Broadway revue Fosse, was part of the original 1972 production.
While Miller admits to not having any contact with the show's original Leading Player as of this writing, the seasoned Vereen says he wholeheartedly gives her his support and is thrilled to see the show back on the boards after more than 40 years.
"I pass the role onto you, baby," Vereen says. "Do it baby, do it."
(Frank DiLella is the theatre reporter for NY1 News.)