DIVA TALK: Chatting With Pippin Star Rachel Bay Jones

By Andrew Gans
September 20, 2013

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



Rachel Bay Jones
Rachel Bay Jones, who made her Broadway debut in Meet Me in St. Louis, is currently bringing her special brand of magic to the role of Catherine in the Tony-winning revival of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre. Jones, who also appeared in the short-lived musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — where she had the chance to go on for two-time Tony winner Patti LuPone — brings a quirky charm to Catherine, the love interest of the musical's title character, played by Matthew James Thomas. Jones, who is one of the shining lights in this celebrated revival, manages to unearth previously undiscovered comedic moments and also delivers a stirring version of Stephen Schwartz's "I Guess I'll Miss the Man." I recently had the pleasure of chatting with this gifted actress, who spoke about portraying Catherine in the Diane Paulus-directed musical, trailing LuPone backstage at Women on the Verge and combining motherhood with an eight-show schedule; that interview follows.

Question: How did your role in Pippin come about originally?
Rachel Bay Jones: Well, I’d worked with Diane Paulus in Hair, and just happened to be talking to my friend Nadia [DiGiallonardo], our musical supervisor for Pippin, and she said [they were] casting this Pippin thing. [She said], "You should come in!" And, I said, "No, that’s a part that's usually played by a woman in her twenties, and I’m not in my twenties." [Laughs.] But she mentioned it to Diane and Nancy Harrington, and they said yes, so I came in and auditioned and booked it.

Question: I loved your performance. You have such a different take on the role. Was that your idea or Diane's take or both?
Jones: Well, I’ve never seen it, so I think that helps when you don’t have it in your head. And, also, because I am a bit older than the typical Catherine, I’m not an ingénue anymore and I’ve lived a little bit of a life, and I think that has something to do with it, and I think that inspired all of us to create something new out of her. I just saw the potential  — there’s so much humor in this person who’s always late and wrestling between realities — we just sort of dug into that and went and saw what happened, and this is what we’ve got. [Laughs.] It was great to be able to develop it over such a long period of time, especially at A.R.T. in Cambridge. It’s a gift to be able to work on a role this long and develop it with the freedom Diane gives you as an artist. That’s really what created her.

Question: Tell me a bit more about working with Diane, since you have done two shows with her.
Jones: She’s not afraid to let you go where you want to go. She doesn’t put up a lot of walls for you, and she’s really open to what everybody wants to bring, and she’ll sift through the wreckage if necessary. [Laughs.] But she’s really open to you saying, "How about this, and how about this? And how about all of these things, too, and a how about some more of this!” And she’ll say, "Whoa, slow down," or "Yes, more!" So that’s really inspiring. We can continue to create, and it doesn’t turn into concrete. It’s always alive.

Question: Now that you’ve been playing Catherine awhile, how would you describe her?
Jones: She’s a delicate mess, who really can’t be contained. I think that’s it; that’s her in a nutshell. She wants so much, and she can’t be contained, and she’s ready to break out of the thing that she's been doing for a long time. She’s ready for something new, and she's ready to blossom finally. She's a late bloomer, but she’s also a clown. I don’t know if you noticed, but the Player that plays Catherine also plays a clown in the first act in this reimagined circus world that Diane has created. I thought that fit in really well with the way that she manages to see through the veil, because clowns typically have that outsider perspective. She’s an outsider.

Jones in Pippin.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her? Is there something you look forward to each night?
Jones: Aside from working with Matthew James Thomas, who I think is just so alive and is rare, I think dealing with the audience as much as I do [is a favorite]. There’s so much direct address, and that’s a completely new experience with each audience. To have that opportunity is quite beautiful. When they break away from everything and I sing “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man," it’s a lovely opportunity to be simple and be with that particular audience in that particular event in that particular moment and see what we both can make out of that together with no music coming in until later, with nothing on a bare stage but one light. Just being with the audience and singing something a cappella is really terrific. Like Church.

Question: What’s it been like sharing the stage with the acrobats?
Jones: What’s so gorgeous about this is Diane has collected this ensemble, a true ensemble of extraordinary people. Everybody is a star, and everybody does something different. Everybody really is a star; everybody has this specialized talent that they do that nobody else can do. We’re this huge bag of tricks. Everyone has different tricks, and somehow they all work together. I feel like I’m in a wonderland when I’m out there on the stage with all of these people. And, I feel tremendously untalented. [Laughs.] I feel like I have no gifts. I have no special skills. It took me a while to not feel that way. But it’s fun; it’s so much fun because there’s no competition among us because we’re all so very different. It's a really great shared experience out there.

Question: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
Jones: I was born in New York, and raised a little bit in Puerto Rico and in South Florida.

Question: When did you start performing?
Jones: I was 12 years old. My parents were Shakespearean actors in New York. They [later] opened up health food stores and had a family. My mother and father both started doing regional theatre in South Florida occasionally. My mom had a script open for something she was auditioning for, and I saw in the script there was a part for a 13-year-old heavyset girl, and I said, “I want to audition!” And my mother said, "You’re not heavyset, and you’ve never done anything before." [Laughs.] I was the shy kid with the book. So my nana, who had been a dressmaker, built me a padded dress, so I would look heavy, and I went to the audition and booked the job and my mom didn’t.… They were surprised to know that I wasn’t a little chubby kid, so they used my nana’s padded underclothes as part of my costume in the play. That was it, and then I just kept doing it. It was fun and rewarding.

Question: When did you get to New York City?
Jones: I moved when I was a teenager. I started working right away, but I've never been completely satisfied with the idea that I was going to be an actor because I just felt like I’ve always been doing it. I never really thought, "Oh, this is what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to be an actor now," and I don’t even know if I’m there yet. We’ll see. It’s going alright for now! [Laughs.]

Question: What was your Broadway debut?
Jones: Meet Me in St. Louis.

Question: What was that first night on Broadway like for you?
Jones: It was really different than what I thought it would be. I’ll never forget the first day of rehearsal – that was amazing. To go to the old 890 Studios and be there in this big room with a big cast and big sets. There was an ice-skating rink... I think I had over a dozen auditions for it. One of them was an ice-skating audition. It was crazy. So the whole process was just all brand new and huge. Everything about the production was huge. I think it was eye-opening in that it was so big that I didn’t know if there was a place for me and the delicate kind of work that I was really interested in doing, that I am interested in doing now. I see now that there is; it just took me a while to figure it out.

Jones on opening night
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: You said the first night was different than what you thought it would be…
Jones: Yeah, because it was big. It was overwhelming! We had a big marching band number. There were like 40 of us in the cast. It was crazy. It was big and overwhelming. It felt like Broadway, Broadway, Broadway! [Laughs.] So different from the intimacy of the theatre that I’d grown up doing, and also very commercial, very competitive. I was just thrown into ice-cold water. It was a big shock. I was a teenager, and it was New York, and I was suddenly on Broadway.

Question: And then you were a swing in Women on The Verge - what was it like being a swing?
Jones: I wasn’t really a swing. My biggest thing was that I understudied Patti LuPone and Mary Beth Peil and Alma Cuervo, all of whom are these incredible actresses who are older than I am. And I thought, "This is completely obscene, but, yes, I'm doing it." [Laughs.] The big thing, I think, I was hired for is that Patti had concert dates, where she was definitely going to be out of the show, so I got to do those [performances], and that was really amazing. It was a completely crazy experience.

I was terrified because it was Patti LuPone. I was scared! And somebody, somewhere said, “Don’t let her catch you watching her, because she’ll get mad” and I thought, "Oh no, Patti can’t catch me watching her!" [Laughs.] But I’m her understudy, so I had to watch her all the time, and I’ll never forget I had to trail her backstage to see what her backstage traffic was like, and I was crammed into a little corner in the wings of the Belsaco Theatre trying not to look at her, but there was only four feet of space between us…She was always so nice to me. I don’t know why I was so scared. [Laughs.] But she just turned and grabbed me by the arm and said, “Come here, I want you around me for the next three weeks.” I was basically her little shadow in her dressing room, talking to her. She was heaven on earth. She just took me under her wing and made sure I knew all the ins and outs of everything about the part, and it was really terrific… And then I went on, it was scary as hell, but it was a beautiful role she created, and it was a joy to step into it as nervous as I was. The music – there’s so much I loved about that show. It was a joy to get to do it. She has a song called “Invisible” that she sings in Act Two, and it’s gorgeous. To get to stand on stage and sing that and to wear all the incredible costumes – they made me all the costumes. She had so many costume changes and wig changes. It was so glamorous. It was really exciting.

Question: You’re also a mom.
Jones: I have a ten-year-old daughter, Miranda.

Question: What’s it like combining eight shows a week with being a mom?
Jones: It’s a lot. I’m still trying to figure it out. I think it has to be a very carefully constructed schedule, sleep being the most important thing to try to figure out when to get it, how to get it, how to set up a schedule where you can actually sleep. Because we’re working at night, and it takes a while to wind down, and then I’ve got to get up for 6:30 and take Miranda to school and somehow come home and sleep, which is not easy to do. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Jones: I’m mostly focusing on Pippin. I’d like to try and get some concert work together. That’s something that now I'm hoping I’ll have the freedom to do, and I’ve just been doing some really nice things in development. I’m not sure where they’ll go. Nothing concrete on the horizon, but some more Pippin for a while, so that makes me happy.

Visit PippinTheMusical.com

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