• 2016 True West Award: donnie l. betts

    by John Moore | Dec 07, 2016

    True West Awards donnie l betts




    30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS

    Day 7:
    donnie l. betts

     
    Radio, film and theatre practitioner donnie l. betts is a black man who has been making a personal statement about the marginalization of black Americans for decades with the intentional lower-casing of his name. But in 2016, as protests over ongoing racial inequities in America spilled into stadiums, streets and reservations across the country, the lower-cased betts was having a decidedly upper-case artistic year.

    As America's simmering racial divide was being  ripped open from the Dakotas to Dallas, betts was directing two culturally significant and achingly relevant productions for the Aurora Fox: The first local production of the seminal Native American tragedy Black Elk Speaks since it was premiered by the DCPA Theatre Company in 1994; and the first staging of the classic opera Porgy and Bess by any local theatre company in at least 20 years - and certainly the first since it was reimagined as a more accessible Broadway musical by Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks in 2012.

    True West Awards donnie l betts Black Elk Speaks Black Elk Speaks recounts with wrenching rawness the systematic genocide that wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the Native American population over a century. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess tells the story of a reckless, drug-sniffing woman who turns to a disabled street-beggar for rescue from the clutches a violent and possessive lover in the oppressively racist slums of Charleston, S.C.

    No one but betts gets either of those productions to a Denver stage. No one but betts gets the level of cultural authenticity he achieved in Black Elk Speaks with a cast made up largely of indigenous actors. And no one but betts collects the deep cross-section of talent he has on display at the Aurora Fox in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess through Jan. 1.

    Our report from the set of the Aurora Fox's Black Elk Speaks

    We're talking well-known local veterans like Leonard Barrett Jr. as the cripple Porgy, Dwayne Carrington as Crab Man and Michael Peters as the odious Crown, alongside the sensational second generation of Anna Maria High, Faith Goins-Simmons and Tyrell Rae, who all three continue to be lightning on any stage. All of this matters not without a Bess who can off the equal challenges of properly singing - and playing the wounded Bess. Enter the heart-breaking and ear-seducing Tracy Camp from the San Francisco Opera.

    Porgy and Bess, newly opened in these final breaths of 2016, will certainly go down as one of the most significant achievements of the Colorado  theatre season. This production has it all - a rollicking onstage band led by Jodel Charles; an evocative and fluid slum set from Jen Orf; masterful (as always) work from designers Linda Morken (costumes), Shannon McKinney (lighting), and El Armstrong (sound). And perhaps most seductively: It has living, pulsating, innovative choreography from Laurence Curry. It's a dream team.

    Betts Quote "This is a production that must be seen — for the sheer scope of its ambition, among other things," wrote Westword's Juliet Wittman. "Consider what it took for director donnie l. betts to assemble his terrific small orchestra along with a large cast of tuneful and talented African-American actors, and to meld voices that range from operatic to musical theater into a harmonious, soul-swelling whole."

    No one but betts, whose roots in the Denver theatre community go back to the very beginnings of the Denver Center. When the DCPA Theatre Company was created in 1979, betts was the first local actor hired, working  alongside the likes of Tyne Daly, Delroy Lindo and Tandy Cronyn. That ensemble would later be joined by Mercedes Ruehl, Annette Bening and many other future stars.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Betts was a DCPA regular for nine intermittent seasons. But of all the shows he performed in, it perhaps was one he did not appear in - Black Elk Speaks - that would most impact his future life. Betts was performing in another play on a nearby Denver Center stage nearby, but he would watch Black Elk Speaks from the wings every chance he got. Twenty-two years later, he brought it back to life at the Aurora Fox.

    It's been a long road for betts preserving the culture and voice of the disenfranchised, underrepresented and underserved. But as the protagonist of Black Elk Speaks says: "The longest journey is to the heart."

    donnie l. betts/At a glance

    • Born in Dekalb, Texas, the 12th child of 12
    • Attended Angelo State in San Angelo, Texas, on a football scholarship and later Metropolitan State College in Denver and the Yale School of Drama
    • Founding member of the DCPA Theatre Company, City State Ensemble and the Denver Black Arts Company
    • Performed on Broadway in The Gospel at Colonus, 1988
    • Founded No Credits Production, Inc., a film and video production company that launched his monthly Destination Freedom radio series for KGNU in May 1998
    • Occasionally appeared in the Perry Mason movies that were filmed in Denver in the mid-1990s
    • Directed more than 30 theatrical productions in the Denver area

    ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
    The True West Awards, now in their 16th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2016 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center's Senior Arts Journalist. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    THE 2016 TRUE WEST AWARDS (to date)
    Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
    Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
    Day 3: After Orlando
    Day 4: Michael Morgan
    Day 5: Beth Beyer
    Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski

    True West Awards donnie l betts Porgy And Bess Photos: Top of page, Leonard Barrett and Tracy Camp in 'Porgy and Bess.' Inset right: Doug Good Feather in 'Black Elk Speaks.' Above: A scene from 'Porgy and Bess.' Photos by Christine Fisk for the Aurora Fox.
  • James Graham on 'Peter Pan' as true theatre anarchy

    by John Moore | Nov 14, 2016
    Finding Neverland. Photo by Carol Rosegg
    "There was an idea about what art should be, and J. M. Barrie contradicted that by suggesting there was possibly a value to learning from children," says 'Finding Neverland' writer James Graham. Pictured: Laura Michelle Kelly and Aidan Gemme of the original Broadway cast. Photo by Carol Rosegg.


    EDITOR'S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the principal cast and creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in a seven-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 4: Book writer and playwright James Graham. Next: Tom Hewitt, who plays Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook.

    J. M. Barrie not only put children on the stage - he made them the focus. And that gave them the power of the storytelling.

    By John Moore
    For the DCPA NewsCenter

    Finding Neverland is the story of how playwright J. M. Barrie found both the inspiration to write Peter Pan, and the courage to put his story on the turn-of-the-century London stage.

    James Graham, a 34-year-old British playwright who has been cutting the edges of the London theatre himself with a series of timely and political plays, understands why modern audiences might be a bit baffled to hear that it took actual courage for Barrie to stage what has become one of the most beloved myths of the past century.

    “Yes it's easy to forget now, because Peter Pan is so ingrained in our popular conscience,” said Graham. “But when J. M. Barrie wrote that play in 1904, it was incredibly radical and actually quite dangerous.”

    What Barrie was doing 100 years ago just wasn’t done in London. He not only put children on the stage - he made them the focus. And that gave them the power of the storytelling.

    James Graham Finding Neverland Quote“The idea that J. M. Barrie would, first and foremost, give children voice, rather than the grownups, was a complete reversal of the hierarchy and the status quo,” Graham said. “He was famous for flipping those power dynamics. He even made their nanny a dog. All of that was quite anarchic. It was quite shocking to the theatre establishment when he delivered that play.”

    This was, he further explained, a very rigid, post-Victorian society. “And if you look at Downton Abbey, which began about 10 years later, it’s all about social structures and hierarchy and knowing your place and never going above your circumstances,” said Graham. “There was a proper way of behaving, and that did not suit Peter Pan in any way.”

    Finding Neverland recounts many amazing backstage stories we probably can't believe now, Graham said. “They wouldn't even hand out the whole script of Peter Pan to the actors at first because they thought they would rebel. They had to have security on the doors in the rehearsal room because they thought that if it ever leaked out that this was a play about flying pixies and fairies and dogs and pirates, it would destroy the theatre’s reputation - and Barrie’s.

    “There was an idea about what society was and what art should be, and Barrie contradicted that by suggesting there was possibly a value to learning from children, from returning to that sense of innocence and make-believe from childhood.”

    Graham 's recent plays include the acclaimed Privacy at London’s Donmar Warehouse and This House at the National Theatre. This House, which was nominated for the Olivier Best Play Award and later was broadcast to cinemas worldwide, took a hard political look at the House of Commons. The more recent Privacy, which starred Daniel Radcliffe and became a hot ticket at the Public Theatre in New York, investigates the consequences of living your life online in the post-Snowden era. Variety’s David Benedict called Privacy “theatrically sophisticated, deeply researched, sharply structured material that’s as fascinating as it is unnerving.”

    Which might not make Graham Director Diane Paulus’ most obvious choice to write the book for the Broadway musical adaptation of Finding Neverland. But when you think of yourself not only as a kindred spirit but a direct literary descendant of Barrie’s – Graham was perhaps the perfect choice.

    “Everything about it appealed to my slightly anarchic side,” he said. And Graham evidently appealed to Paulus.

    “Diane has an incredible forensic knowledge of how you build a musical and how musicals work in terms of their structure and their effect on an audience,” Graham said. “I think she does apply some pretty out-of-the-box thinking when she puts a show together. That was certainly the case with this process.”

    Here is more of our in-depth conversation with ‘Finding Neverland’ book writer James Graham:

    John Moore: Congratulations on Privacy.

    James Graham: Thank you. It's such a crazy play.  We're really pleased that people have taken to it. It's cool. It's great.

    John Moore: How was it received in New York? 

    Daniel Radcliffe in 'Privacy.' Photo by Joan Marcus. James Graham: Really well. It was furiously sold out, which was good and bad, because obviously you always want to get all of the people in who want to see it. It's such a strange show. The form is quite experimental. We ask the audience to keep their cell phones on during the play, and to share every night on social media. It was a tough one, but it was fun to do something a bit crazy and a bit different. 

    (Pictured: Daniel Radcliffe in 'Privacy' off-Broadway with Michael Countryman, left, Raffi Barsoumian and Reg Rogers. Photo by Joan Marcus.)

    John Moore: I find it fascinating that Diane Paulus thought to pick you for Finding Neverland. I mean, you’ve just written this very timely new play about the impact of social media, and yet Diane looked you to adapt this century-old story. Why you?

    James Graham: That’s a very good question. I often ask that myself. I write political plays in the U.K. about obscure British historical events that would not normally interest anyone else. So I was as surprised as anyone. But as you say, my roots are very much in theatre, first and foremost. I love writing television dramas and screenplays, but I started on the stage and that's where I feel the most comfortable. I had a reasonable success at the National Theatre about four years ago with This House. (Finding Neverland producer) Harvey Weinstein saw that show and then we imagined we might make a movie together at some point. Then I was incredibly surprised with the call I got from him a couple of weeks later inquiring about the writing of a book for a Peter Pan musical. I didn't quite imagine that’s what that conversation was going to be. But I'm so thrilled he asked, because it's been extraordinary. I love being tested and challenged in different parts of my creativity and my brain. I loved the challenge of going from one production that features what I think is the biggest socially political issue of our time - how technology is eroding our privacy and our sense of self - to writing a pop musical with these guys that explores childhood, fantasy and imagination. Most of us have never had the joy of working with a composer or a lyricist or a choreographer. And we’re all from such different disciplines, like TV dance shows or the U.K. pop circuit. It's been awesome. It’s been cool.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    John Moore: So you're a writer, and J. M. Barrie was a writer, But what specifically interested you most about the story you were being asked to write?

    James Graham: First and foremost, I would say I related to the plight of the main character, J. M. Barrie, as a writer who is feeling slightly trapped and blocked, and a writer who yearned to return to an age of living in his head and imagination at a time when life was more fun and playful and free. I think we all have a bit of Peter Pan in us, and I think I probably have more of a child than most of the people I know my age still. I spend my life making up characters and living in my own head. So I associated with that, because in real life, I'm not very exciting.

    John Moore: When you talk about J. M. Barrie’s anarchic spirit, it begins to seem as if Finding Neverland has more in common with your plays Privacy and This House and than meets the eye.

    James Graham: I hope so, because I think if you are going to ask people to leave their homes and come to the theatre and watch a show like Finding Neverland, I think it has to mean something and have some value in their lives. But equally, I won't pretend it was also anything other than what we hope is a sort of raucously entertaining, thrilling night at the theatre. It's such a comical and sparkly show. I think visually, Diane Paulus has created some of the most beautiful and thrilling effects on stage that I've ever been a party to.

    John Moore: What was it like working with your pop-star composers, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy?

    James Graham: We tried to take the spirit of J. M. Barrie and do something that felt sort of intentionally incongruous. Having upbeat British pop music in an English, Edwardian setting was really exciting to me. There are some incredible numbers in the show from these guys. That has nothing to do with me, but I think the audience hopefully should be leaving the theatre singing at the end of the night.  

    John Moore: I know that in the theatre, the playwright is God. When you sit down to write Privacy and This House, that all comes straight from your laptop. So what are the challenges when there is not only a source film to be faithful to, but you also have these other creators saying to you, “Hey, we need to stop your story and sing a song right here”?

    James Graham: It's an entirely different writing process. I say this in the best possible sense: You kind of have to leave your ego at the door of the rehearsal room every day. As you say, there is tradition in the theatre world that the author is God, and your name is above the door, and there is kind of a reverence around you. That’s not the case when you write a musical. Because you're only one part of a team, or a machine, and all of it has to be functioning. I really, really loved that because I have never had to incorporate other people with my art, and here that might be dance or music or sound or visual effects or anything else that goes into the show. That's such a good discipline I think for a playwright to have to work at. It's very humbling to see other peoples’ skills, and then try and bend your own work around theirs - and see them bend theirs around yours.

    John Moore: What did you think of the 2004 source film with Johnny Depp?

    James Graham: I absolutely loved the film. I watched it when it came out. I found it really moving and beautiful and funny. So that was another reason to sink my teeth into it as well.

    James Graham Finding Neverland QuoteJohn Moore: What was it like watching the film again, knowing that your challenge now was to bring that story to the stage?

    James Graham: I wasn't really intimidated by it. I always feel quite free when I'm adapting anything, whether it be historical events or source material. I think I convinced myself that you can only really take the essence of a film or a book that you're adapting, and then you really have to find what it means to you personally and how you might find theatrical language for that. And I was super, super keen to find a theatrical language to this show, because it is a play about the theatre and the power of storytelling to inspire and change things. So I was keen to move it as much away from the film universe and toward the theatre universe as possible. 

    John Moore: Was Peter Pan part of your childhood?

    James Graham: Oh my gosh, yes. Hugely. I had it from age 4 or 5. I have a very vivid image of me in my house as a kid in the 1980s standing on the arm of my sofa and genuinely believing that if I closed my eyes and had a good thought, then I would be able to fly off the thing. Obviously, I crashed and burned. I remember that very vividly. Here in London we have a tradition which you don't really have there in America. It’s a Christmas show called pantomime, where we take on legends and stories and myths like Robin Hood or Cinderella and Peter Pan. It’s a very specific type of silly comedy show that we've been doing here for hundreds of years, and everyone goes to watch at Christmas. My favorite one to go and watch at my local theatre was always Peter Pan.

    John Moore: There have been so many variations of Peter Pan in books and film and on stage. What can I tell people so they don't mistake Finding Neverland for any other Peter Pan story?

    James Graham: This story tells the origins of one of the greatest works in our shared culture. We're getting used to that in the theatre now, when you think of the huge popularity and success of Wicked. Finding Neverland is almost like the Star Wars prequel. It's not the story of Peter Pan itself - it’s the story how Peter became Pan. And it's a really, really brilliant and funny and amazing and moving story of how this playwright, finding himself in a condition which I think every audience member will understand, of suddenly feeling like you've gotten slightly older, without meaning to. You’ve taken on all this responsibility, and life just isn't quite as much fun as it used to be. Meeting this extraordinary family, as Barrie did in real life, turned him into this brilliant, silly kid again. And then he took on London society and created this play that inspired them all. It's a real-life story and it so brilliantly exciting and funny and moving that I think hopefully people should love it. 

    John Moore: Sadly, we, we don't get to see it here in Denver it until December.

    James Graham: Oh, but that's the perfect time to come and see it - Christmas.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    Finding Neverland: Ticket information
    • Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
    • Buell Theatre
    • Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
    • ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
    • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

    Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
    Finding Neverland
    creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
    Finding Neverland creative team, Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels
    Finding Neverland creative team, Part 3: Composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
    Diane Paulus on the rise of 'adventure theatre'
    Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center's 2016-17 Broadway season

  • Take That! How Barlow, Kennedy wove pop sensibility into 'Finding Neverland’

    by John Moore | Nov 04, 2016



    EDITOR'S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the principal cast and creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in an eight-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 3: Composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Next: Book writer and playwright James Graham.

    'Pop-Tart' composers set out to create a big, heartfelt and emotional musical without irony or apology

    By John Moore
    For the DCPA NewsCenter

    It might be surprising for Americans to learn just how popular Finding Neverland composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are in the United Kingdom, says the Broadway musical’s book writer, James Graham.

    Kennedy has written No. 1 hits for Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Aretha Franklin and more. And Barlow was only voted the single greatest British songwriter of all time in a 2009 national survey. Yes, from a field that included a couple of Liverpool lads named John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney.

    Barlow is both “furiously well-known and well-liked” in England, Graham said. He is the frontman of the enduring British pop group Take That - and while the group has only No. 1 song in the United States, Barlow and the boys have topped the charts 12 times in the U.K.

    “Oh, my God, I was so nervous just before I met Gary because he’s just this massive star here,” said Graham. “My sister had posters of him on her bedroom wall when I was growing up. He can fill stadiums and arenas when he tours. We're talking the stature of Elton John. He's a national treasure in the U.K., for sure. And equally Eliot Kennedy, who is part of that tradition of British pop music writing that is just so impressive. He knows his stuff inside out.”

    That success and notoriety in the rock world made Barlow and Kennedy unlikely candidates to pen the score for Finding Neverland, the stage adaptation of the Johnny Depp film about how J. M. Barrie brought Peter Pan to London life in 1904. But as part of a creative team filled with anachronistic artists from a variety of creative backgrounds, Kennedy and Eliot were the perfect choice for Director Diane Paulus and Producer Harvey Weinstein.

    (Pictured above and right: Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme of the Original Broadway Cast of 'Finding Neverland.' Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

    Weinstein is one of the most famous film and theatre producers in the world. Except perhaps to Barlow, who bluffed his way through the initial call from Weinstein, then phoned Kennedy.

    Barlow whispered to Kennedy: “Eliot … who's Harvey Weinstein?"

    Kennedy’s response: "Whatever he wants, tell him yes, we'll do it. Because whatever he's doing … it'll be big."

    Kennedy knew Weinstein, all right. Kennedy had been nominated for a Grammy Award for co-writing a song for Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige in Weinstein’s film Bobby, about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. And what Weinstein wanted, Kennedy said, was a more youthful and unconventional approach to the Finding Neverland score, which was already under development by other songwriters.

    Finding Neverland Gary Barlow QuoteWeinstein had a modest request: Just one song. “Yes, it started that innocently,” Kennedy said with a laugh.

    “Now I'm going to be honest here,” Barlow added. “If Harvey would have called and said, ‘We need the whole score,’ I'd have told him I was too busy. Because I had been told how long the process of writing musicals can be, and I thought I was just too busy to dedicate four years of my life to writing a musical. Now I don't know whether this was Harvey's plan all along, but one song turned into two songs. And then, before you know it, we've replaced all the music for the whole musical.

    “And of course the one thing I've learned getting involved with musicals is that once you enter that world, you become a part of that world. Once you've fallen in love with the piece, and you've fallen in love with the director and the choreographer and everyone else, then all of a sudden you're like a responsible part of the musical body. So once we were in, we were in. There was no going back.”

    That first song they wrote turned out to be the title tune. And it came to life with almost no labor pains.

    “Both of us watched the movie. And the next morning I had an idea for the song,” Kennedy said. “I was just strumming along in a sort of folky way, wanting it to sound a little bit Celtic, what with J. M. Barrie being Scottish and all. And then on the way down to pick up Gary, I got a little idea for a chorus, and that turned out to be the duet “What You Mean to Me.” So by the time I got to Gary's, I already had a couple of ideas. I sat at the piano and sang the chorus of “What You Mean to Me” to him, and Gary just went, ‘El, move over.’ So Gary sat down, and within 15 minutes, we had that song pretty much nailed. 

    “Then I grabbed a guitar and sang him the chorus to “Neverland.” And, again, we just fired it off very quickly. Those were the first two demos straight out of the bag. Within 15 minutes of sending the songs to Harvey, he called back and said, ‘We're going to need some more of these.’ And we just got so inspired by it all. We watched the movie again a couple of times, and from that point onward, all we were doing really was imagining writing a soundtrack to a film with a lot of songs in it.”

    Fundamental to Barlow was that he and his partner not appreciably change their songwriting style to fit the Broadway genre. They are, after all, Kennedy said, “a couple pop tarts” -  and pop tarts they should want to stay.

    “At the very start of the process, I said, ‘Look, if you want a Broadway musical, there's thousands of people who do this every day. I don't do that,” Barlow says he told Weinstein. ‘But what I can give you is my version of how I think it should sound. And it won't sound like it's from Broadway. It'll sound like it's from a pop album because that's what I've done for 25 years. And if you want to employ me to do this, that's what you're going to get.’ ”

    And what they got, as Barlow describes it, “is an entire score of these 3-minute, carefully crafted British pop songs.” And that was music to Paulus’ ears.

    “In fact, there was only one song we wrote that we thought Diane would really love, because it sounded to us like really ‘musical theatre,’ ” Kennedy said. “But she hated it.  She just said, ‘Look, guys, don't think about this too much - just do what you do.’ ”

    So they produced a contemporary score that was ahead of its time to tell the story of an author whose mind, Barlow said, was a century ahead of its time.

    “Listen, J. M. Barrie was such a visionary that if we can imagine being in his head - he wouldn't be hearing this pompous 1904 music,” Barlow said. “He'd be hearing pop music. He'd be hearing what we're all listening to right now. And so that was our excuse to go, ‘All right, we can make this feel modern. We can make it feel like part of the fabric of the world we are creating, even though it’s set 100 years ago.’ So we used conventional instruments like a piano and a guitar, and over the top of that we wove it all in with these magical, mysterious melodies you hear in everyday pop music.”

    And that, Graham said, is the songwriters’ true strength.

    “I think they're some of the best melody writers in the world,” Graham said. “And you can hear it in every song of Finding Neverland. They have so much heart in their music. And I am certainly aware that there's been a creeping incursion of what I would call 'ironic' or 'insincere' musicals in the U.K. I really embraced and enjoyed Diane's and the boys’ commitment to unapologetically do this very heartfelt, big, emotional musical without irony or apology.”





    Here’s more of DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s wide-ranging conversation with Eliot Kennedy and Gary Barlow:

    John Moore: Your title song strikes me as evidence that a song can convey a magnitude of emotion just as powerfully if it is performed by a singer with a guitar, or by an ensemble with a full orchestra.

    Eliot Kennedy: I really like that you said that, because that song has all the elements we love about classic singer-songwriters. There's a folkiness to it. There's a James Taylor quality that I really love. The songwriters I really admire are those who are able to just sit down with a guitar and make a song work. We needed songs in Finding Neverland that could do that. And it’s funny you say that because whenever Gary and I perform that song, we do it very much as you describe: Just a piano and an acoustic guitar and two harmonies, and it really works. I think that gives it a bit of a timeless quality, I hope. Let's hope that never goes away.

     Gary Barlow: We've always had a theory that if a song can work well with just piano or guitar and voice, then it can work well with anything. I always think of "Yesterday," by The Beatles. It couldn't be more simple - and it's probably the most perfect pop song ever written. You know a song is flawed if you can't make it work with a piano and a voice. That's how we wrote all of our songs for Finding Neverland. The title song works in a community center or a village hall with just someone sitting at a piano and singing it. Now, the thrill of hearing an orchestra on top of all that is just fantastic. But fundamentally, underneath it all, the foundation has to be a well-written, crafted song.

    John Moore: What are your first recollections of encountering Peter Pan as a boy?

    Eliot Kennedy: It’s almost like Peter Pan is in our DNA, and I wonder if that’s the reason it's been so successful. It's like we're born already knowing the story. All those insecurities about growing up and getting older and wanting to hold onto your youth. It's one of those incredibly human stories that we've all somehow experienced, no matter what whereabouts in life you're from. That's why I think this story really transcends.

     John Moore: I imagine that when you come from the rock world, you never want to grow up, either?

    Gary Barlow: It's a funny thing, isn't it? When you're younger, you want to be older. When you're older, you want to be younger. It's a strange thing. But it's funny. I'm 45 now. I've got a group of friends and we've all decided that we'd actually be quite happy stopping time at the point where we are at now. So if I was in Neverland, I'd stop it at age 45. That would be absolutely great. That's the perfect age.

    John Moore: But isn’t not wanting to grow up an essential ingredient in both rock and roll and the story of Peter Pan?

    Gary Barlow: I know, I know. Yeah, I think so, absolutely.

    Eliot Kennedy: And I think that’s because this is such a young story. Even if it’s 100 years old. It's about youth and young energy. And I think  pop music resonates with that, too. To use a Peter Pan-ism: That's the cleverness of Harvey Weinstein. He was the one that got that, I think, when he chose us.

    Gary Barlow: We have a very famous pop star here called Cliff Richard, and he’s called ‘The Peter Pan of Pop.’ I always think of him when I think of Peter Pan. He's one of those people who's never aged and never grown up.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    John Moore: When you started to do your research and learn more about J. M. Barrie as a creator, did you relate to the conflict he felt as an artist who was trying to find his true voice?

    Finding Neverland Gary Barlow QuoteGary Barlow: It's every songwriter's story. Forget that. It's everyone's story. Anyone who's ever created. A creative lifetime is a very difficult one because you're always constantly, every day, trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That's the truth. Whether you're a photographer or an artist or whatever. A creative life is tricky. It's very blessed, of course, because we do amazing things and we see the fruits of our work come to light in incredible ways. But that doesn't happen every year. For every one success, we have all these other things that perplex us and curse us. It's a hard life. It really is. So as we all watch and learn about J. M. Barrie, we definitely can relate to him.

    John Moore: Can you give me a sense of how you work together as a songwriting team?

    Eliot Kennedy: Gary and I work very closely, but rather differently than other co-writers. We do the same things. We're both lyricists and musicians and producers, and we both play. I'm either the guitarist or the keyboard player, depending whether Gary is in the room. Or the lyricist,  depending on who's got the laptop on them. We tend to divide and conquer quite a lot. We'll sit together and come up with four or five ideas. I'll take two or three of them, and he'll take two. And then halfway through the day we'll swap ideas. By the end of the day, we've got five songs. A lot of that comes from the fact that we've known each other for 25 years. We know each other inside out. We trust each other implicitly, and we think the same way. Essentially, we approached Finding Neverland as if we were in a pop band, and I think that's been one of the reasons it worked so well. 

     John Moore: I'm pretty sure Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't work that way.

    Eliot Kennedy: I'm pretty positive they didn't.

    John Moore: How does your score evolve as the actual show progresses?

    Finding Neverland Eliot Kennedy QuoteEliot Kennedy: I think that for the first 10 minutes, the music serves to set the whole thing up as a typical musical-theatre performance. Because you start with J. M. Barrie, and he’s frustrated that he is doing the same old thing. And then all of a sudden these kids and this woman turn up into his life, and everything changes. When we get to the point in the story when J. M. Barrie is in with the kids and Sylvia, it becomes a real emotional journey. I think it changes everything. So when the show gets to the song “Believe” onwards, I think it's  just a magical moment where they are all in. And I think the songs become much more significant because we've really bought into Barrie and his journey. Literally everything changes. He dares to do things he never would do normally as a writer, or as a human being. He just puts himself out there. You know, when we look back on our lives, I'd like to think we don't regret not doing that. Do you know what I'm saying? It would be really sad to get to the end of your life and kind of go, ‘Do you know what? I never just went for it. I never put myself out there. I never expressed myself.’ Because that's what eventually led to the creation of Peter Pan.

    John Moore: Does that in any way match your journeys in writing your first Broadway score?

    Eliot Kennedy: One of the things I discovered in the writing of this thing is that just about anything that is really truly amazing was born out of an incredibly painful process. And a whole lot of heartache and a whole lot of upset. It's an unfortunate human trait, but anything that's been brilliant in this world usually has been born out of a great deal of pain and confusion and insecurity. That's what makes this so triumphant: It’s the human spirit. I think that's what this story represents more than anything. The odds were against J. M. Barrie. No one wanted his Peter Pan play. His producer didn't want it.  His wife wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. Yet somehow, out of these children this inspiration came, and we have this incredible thing in the world as a result that everyone relates to. That should give you inspiration to keep going. These stories need to be told over and over again to remind people not to give up. I got a great deal out of that realization. 



    John Moore: Gary, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about Take That.

    Gary Barlow: We've got a new record this Christmas, and we're doing another big tour next year. It changes as people come and go, but those people have been a part of my life and my family for a quarter of a century now. Take That lives in me somewhere in a place that's very safe. I feel like I have my brothers with me when I go up on stage. Finding Neverland Take ThatBut it’s also been a great experience to be free of being in a band to do the music for Finding Neverland. For someone who writes for the radio to write for the theatre, it's almost like my keyboard has grown three times. I feel like I've had a kind of freedom I haven't had for a long time. And it's nice to use some of my training as well. There are some techniques I've used in this score which I've never been able to use in my pop music. So it's been really nice to push the boundaries of my musical journey, especially at this place in my life. I never dreamed I'd be hitting 45 and opening a brand-new musical door. I thought those days were well behind me. So it's been fabulous for all of that. I feel very blessed to have been involved in this whole thing.

    Finding Neverland. Take That. John Moore: What did it mean for you to be voted the greatest British songwriter of all time?

    Gary Barlow: I wrote that. Yeah - that's my quote. 

     John Moore: Is there one Take That song that’s your favorite?

    Gary Barlow: Well, the only hit we ever had in America was a song called "Back for Good" in 1995. That was the only record we ever had that was sort of like a semi-sort of big hit there. It's funny. I come to America a lot, and I often hear that song on the radio still.



    John Moore: What did your children think when they saw Finding Neverland for the first time?

    Gary Barlow: Ah, well, I took my 11-year-old daughter with me to the very first read-through and she loved that. It was really interesting because Harvey wants perfection. And so he actually sat there talking to my daughter for half an hour after the reading, getting her take on who she thought was good, who wasn't, and what she didn't understand in the story. So she's followed this whole thing right through and she still loves to go and see the show with me now. She knows every word.

    Finding Neverland Eliot Kennedy: I have two teenagers, a 14- and an 18-year-old. Obviously they knew it was about the creation of Peter Pan, but it was just the best thing to be able to sit with them in the audience and say, ‘Check this out. This is what we did. This is why dad has been away so much.’ It was a highly emotional moment. I was in tears at the end, because all of Gary's family was there with us, too. It was just magic. It was like, ‘Wow, we've really done something cool here - more than just making a great album or having a hit in the charts.’ It felt like this was going to be around for a long time, and that people are going to enjoy it for a long time.

    John Moore: Diane Paulus has always been an unconventional director, which was again born out in her choices for the Finding Neverland creative team. How was she the right person to shepherd you through your first Broadway musical endeavor?

    Finding Neverland Eliot Kennedy QuoteEliot Kennedy: She is a genius - and I have to say, I think that's an overused word. But she is. She's a genius - and not in the way that those dudes in an Apple shop are geniuses. She is a visionary. I learned a great deal from just sitting and watching her work things out, and then translating her ideas to people. That was inspiring. And I'll be honest with you. Near the end of the musical, when the children perform their play in the bedroom for Sylvia, who is dying, I remember thinking at the time, ‘I don't get this at all. I just don't know what Diane is thinking.’ And then we got to the workshop, and I saw it all play out in front of me. All of a sudden it was just like, ‘Oh my God, how on Earth did she see this working this way?’ There were so many moments like that for me. And it's not just because I was naive and new to musical theatre. It's because she is just really clever. She interpreted our music in ways I never would have dreamed of. I mean, we had Harvey Weinstein and Diane Paulus. Talk about being spoiled. We had just an incredible creative team. And on top of that, we had Mia Michaels as our choreographer. Just ridiculous. The riches were absolutely amazing.

    John Moore: So how do you think musicals like Finding Neverland and once are changing things for the next generation of theatregoers?

    Eliot Kennedy: I would imagine that in any sort of changing circumstance, there's a little bit of a pull away from what is traditional. Now there’s certainly a lot of traditional musical theatre out there. But I think Finding Neverland falls into a similar kind of place as once  - and then the extreme of that being Hamilton - where you've just got a different medium to help tell the story, and that medium being contemporary music. Now there have been a lot of musicals with contemporary writers and scores, but it does feel like there is a groundswell right now for more of a pop influence in musical theatre. Younger people are starting to relate to it. I think that can only be a good thing. Listen, if it brings kids to the theatre, then it's got to be a brilliant thing, because we need to keep it alive, you know.

    John Moore: So has this whole experience turned you into a musical-theatre fan?

    Eliot Kennedy: Oh, God, Gary and I totally got the bug of it all. We've seen loads of shows, and we've written two more musicals since Finding Neverland. Yeah, we're really into it. We're really excited about the next thing we're doing. We're doing Around the World in 80 Days and another musical that's starting in the West End soon which is called The Girls. It's a musical based on the 2003 film Calendar Girls. It's primarily Gary and the writer of the story, Tim Firth, although I wrote the main two songs with them for it. It was a fabulous thing to be a part of. So we've really got the bug. We love it now.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    Finding Neverland: Ticket information
    • Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
    • Buell Theatre
    • Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
    • ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
    • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

    Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
    Finding Neverland
    creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
    Finding Neverland creative team, Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels
    Diane Paulus on the rise of 'adventure theatre'
    Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center's 2016-17 Broadway season

  • Breaking all the rules: Exclusive interview with Mia Michaels

    by John Moore | Oct 26, 2016

    EDITOR'S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the entire creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in a five-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels. Next: Book writer and playwright James Graham.

    Finding Neverland choreographer shares rebel spirit
    with Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie

    By John Moore
    For the DCPA NewsCenter

    Mia Michaels, the Emmy-winning choreographer best known for her work on “So You Can Think You Can Dance,” did not have a normal childhood.

    Mia Michaels Quote How not normal? She never knew the stories of Peter Pan or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland until she was an adult. 

    “I was in my 40s,” she said. “There were no fairy tales. I never knew what that was. That just wasn't my growing up.”

    Instead, Michaels was usually in a dance studio as a kid. “So nothing else really existed,” she said. Which might make her childhood the saddest story in all of Neverland - if not for the fact that wee Michaels was carving out her eventual place as one of the most acclaimed and highly sought choreographers of the modern dance generation.

    “You know what?" she said. "Because I didn't grow up with fairy tales, I just create my own. That’s what I do.”

    It was only when Director Diane Paulus approached her about choreographing the new Broadway musical Finding Neverland that Michaels started to discover not only the story of Peter Pan, but of J.M. Barrie, the like-minded playwright who created him.

    “It was another world, and it was so brilliant,” Michaels said. “I fell in love with stories that take you to all these wonderful worlds.”

    The stage was Michaels’ first love, but her rocket guided her toward television, where she spent five seasons as a coach and judge on “So You Can Think You Can Dance.” But after only one season, Michaels remembers saying to herself: "I'm bored. I'm bored. I'm bored."

    She found her calling – and new direction – in her grief. On the 100th episode of the show in 2009, Michaels introduced her now iconic “Bench Piece,” danced by Travis Wall and Heidi Groskreutz, as a response to the death of her father. It told the story of a woman meeting her father in Heaven, and it won Michaels the first of two Emmy Awards.

    Using dance to tell stories was a new idea in modern-dance circles. “When I started, it really wasn't so much about storytelling,” Michaels said. “It was more about concept.”

    But breaking rules is something Michaels does organically, she said, “without even trying.” That comes, she said, from her need to constantly seek newness. “So it should come as no surprise that Paulus, who is known for assembling creative teams from non-traditional backgrounds, called Michaels and invited her to attend an early reading of Finding Neverland, which was then a budding musical about how Barrie came to bring Peter Pan to life in culturally repressed Victorian England. Thus began Michaels’ introduction to the boy who would never grow up.

    “I was at the reading, and all I remember was sobbing in my chair because it was about this artist who was stuck, like me,” Michaels said. “It was just a very raw, human story that I felt everybody could connect to because it was about loss and love and creativity. I knew that I had to do it in that moment. And the rest is history.”

    Michaels related to the story of Peter Pan. But she really related to the story of the man who created him. “J.M. Barrie’s story is about that child within,” she said. “He was an artist who was always creating, and he got stuck, just like me. Once he had his breakthrough into this unknown place of his imagination, everyone thought he was crazy. I mean, not even Barrie knew what he was doing. He was making what seemed like madness at the time. And he became legendary for it.

    “I just find that as an artist, that should be the goal every single time: To go to the unknown and go to the scary place and go to the places that don't make sense because they will make sense at the end. And I think Peter Pan is that.”

    Finding Neverland. Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Carol RoseggLaura Michelle Kelly from the Broadway company of 'Finding Neverland.' Photo by Carol Rosegg.


    Here, in greater detail, are more excerpts from our in-depth conversation with 'Finding Neverland' choreographer Mia Michaels:

    John Moore: Peter Pan has been so iconic in our pop culture for 100 years. But not for you. When did the story finally come into your consciousness?

    Mia Michaels: When I was asked to do Peter Pan, that’s when I first started doing research on it. It was another world, and it was so brilliant.

    John Moore: Now that you have discovered Peter Pan, why do you think the tale continues to fascinate storytellers 100 years later?

    Mia Michaels: I find stories like Peter Pan to be very “out there.” They challenge your imagination. They challenge your child within. They challenge everything that we know because they take you somewhere else. When you read about Peter Pan, you just have to go on that journey and try to understand it. Peter Pan is one of those things that makes you go "hmm." What’s the backstory? What does it all mean?

    John Moore: When you left the TV show, you specifically talked about wanting to expand your creative horizons and take on new challenges. What is it about Broadway that fulfilled that need in you?

    Mia Michaels: Well, I did almost 10 years of television, and when I started the show, I was very much a concert choreographer. Dance then was all about complexity and phrases and human movement. It really wasn't so much about storytelling. It was more about concept. I did one season of “So You Think You Can Dance?” and I remember just going, "There's got to be more.” And so I started exploring storytelling. I fell into it so organically. The first story that I told was the Bench Piece, which I won an Emmy for, and it came out of me so naturally. I mean, I started exploring storytelling as a concept in a matter of 90 seconds: Trying to tell a story with the human body, and really make sense of it. I just fell in love with storytelling and didn't even know that was inside of me until I did “So You Think You Can Dance?” And then after a couple years of that, I knew I wanted to go back to the stage.

    Mia Michaels QuoteJohn Moore: You mentioned the Bench Piece, and that was obviously a watershed moment in your career. It was written of you: "That was a turning point for the show, and Mia Michaels changed the game forever." When you set out to do with the Bench Dance, were you out to change the rules of dance?

    Mia Michaels: I didn't, no. I'm one of those people who is always breaking rules, but I'm not ever setting out to break rules. It's just that I'm constantly seeking newness. I'm constantly seeking the unknown. That's very scary for a lot of people. Some people would call me a Banshee rebel artist, because I'm not afraid to break new ground. I didn't know, honestly, that I was going to create the Bench Piece when I went into rehearsal that day. I'm very instinctual, and I create in the moment. I create from my truth, and from what I know, and from my life experience. I tend to think that when you are an artist, and when ego and self get out of the way, then you're a vessel for something much greater than yourself - and something much greater comes through you. I try to get out of the way. When the Bench Piece was created, it was a moment in time that was like, "Boom, OK, there it is.” It’s interesting because, yeah I don't even remember a moment of how it was created.

    John Moore: Well, luckily it lives forever on YouTube.

    Mia Michaels: Yes, I can always look at it there.

    John Moore: You have said you created that dance as way to work through your grief after the loss of your father. How did the Bench Dance help you?

    Mia Michaels: That was my therapeutic outlet. When my father died, I was like, "Where did he go?” I watched him take his last breath, and it was like his spirit just went out, and there was this empty shell there in his place. It was clear that this was not my father. Where did he go? And so I was kind of obsessing over that question, and the fact that we'll never know the answer until we get to the other side. When people who lose loved ones, you just have to believe that you're going to see them again. That's what you hang on to. You have to believe that, because that's what gets you through the morning. And for me, that means reuniting in Heaven with my dad. And so, in the dance, sitting on one side of the cloud and him seeing me and waving - that moment was very consoling for me. It was very hard for me to create that piece because I couldn't stop crying the whole time. But it was really important for me. I really think all of my work is just my life through my art.  It’s a part of me, and it's a part of my therapy.

    John Moore: So Diane Paulus approached you. I imagine it must have been intimidating to get a call from someone who’s been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.

    Mia Michaels: Yes.

    Finding Neverland, Denver Center_Finding Neverland, Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme.  Photo by Carol RoseggJohn Moore: But part of her genius has to be in knowing who to call. Like you and other members of your Finding Neverland creative team who don’t come from a traditional theatre background. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is part of what makes her great, isn't it?

    Mia Michaels: I totally agree. I think that's why we get along so well, and why we create so well together - because she's not afraid, either. She likes to surround herself with really creative people. It’s like this very powerful force that happens between her team and herself. She is not one of those directors who stifles creativity; she encourages it. She never, ever stops any creativity. We throw it against the wall and see what's right. She loves to see it all, and hear it all before she makes her decisions. I think the people who make the greatest directors are those who hire really creative people and then they let them create.

    (Pictured at right: Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme in 'Finding Neverland.' Photo by Carol Rosegg)

    John Moore: So I'm curious about the approach you took to Finding Neverland. If you’re a rule-breaker, tell us what are those signature rules that you have broken here?

    Mia Michaels: Ours was definitely not a traditional Broadway approach. The choices we made musically, directionally and choreographically were just not traditional. Finding Neverland is its own thing and it has its own unique voice. And I think it's very unexpected. It has humor to it. It has emotion. And there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns. When I was creating the vocabulary for it, it took on a life of quirkiness. It lives in its own world in Neverland. Every project has its own personality. It tells you what it wants to be. For me, because this is my work, I don’t really think of it as different. But people who see the show go, "Wow, it's so different." And they are right. Everything about Finding Neverland is very different. 

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    John Moore: Can you tell me one generally accepted dance rule that you would love to see obliterated?

    Mia Michaels: I come from a very trained background. But as much as I love technique, and I know how important it is - there's a part of me that thinks technique also stops creativity.  You can get so caught up in the technique of it that you lose the freedom of being a true artist. I wish sometimes I had no knowledge of technique at all. I hate technique, actually, because it never leaves your body. I wonder what my creativity would be if it was just some kind of wild animal.

    John Moore: The list of stars you have worked with is a bit boggling, starting with Madonna and Celine Dion. But you are also known for your passion for quality dance education. It must be a lot of fun for you to choreograph for kids who don't know who you are. 

    Mia Michaels: It definitely is. Sometimes it's better when you're working with kids who don't know who you are because then they don't get caught up in the celebrity of it. It's not for any other reason but to come into the room and work and grow and become a better artist. I love it, actually, when nobody knows me. Inspiring the next generation is really, really important for me. In fact, that is more important than any actual step I could teach them. I teach them about professionalism and work ethic and seeking out your own voice as an artist and not trying to conform to anyone else. Those are lessons you can't learn in any school. My whole career has just been trial and error. I really had no guidance other than my instincts, and I've learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. So if there's anything I can do to help the younger generation avoid those pitfalls I hit along the way, then it is very important for me to do that. I tell them to stand in their own uniqueness.

    John Moore: Speaking of celebrities you have worked with, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you your thoughts on the passing of Prince.

    Mia Michaels: Shocking. Very shocking. Big loss. Huge. I worked with him for a very short time, but it was a very impactful time for me as an artist. He was incredible. He was just free. He's a genius. That word shouldn’t be thrown around easily, but he is a genius, by far. Even though he's gone, what he left behind was awesome. What he did is just mind-blowing. He changed the game. He was a rule-breaker and he was a rebel and he wasn't afraid of change. He was a chameleon. I think it's important to constantly be evolving and changing. That's the only way we continue to grow, instead of doing the same thing over and over again.

    John Moore: So we have established what you, Prince and J.M. Barrie have in common there.

    Mia Michaels: That's not bad company. Not at all.

    John Moore: Finding Neverland is going to be new for most people who see it on the road. What kind of theatrical experience are people in for if they come to see this show in their town?

    Mia Michaels: What I love most about our show is that it's from the heart. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s also important to point out that Diane made a deliberate decision not to fly people on rigging. We decided to do it manually through the human body and doing lifts as dancers and movers. So they fly through the air that way instead of using wires. It feels so homemade. I'm Italian, and our version of Peter Pan feels to me like Grandma's Sunday sauce for the soul. One of my favorite scenes is at the end. That’s all I that I am going to say. But it takes you to a place that is so unexpected and so beautiful. It's not glossy. It's very real. And I love that.

    Bonus coverage: Thoughts on Colorado's Mandy Moore:

    Mandy MooreJohn Moore: I also feel I would be remiss if I didn't point out that one of the favorite daughters of Colorado dance is Mandy Moore.

    Mia Michaels: I love her. That's a special life force, right there. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is a warrior, she is smart and she continues to do great things. She's a teacher - a great teacher - and she's an inspiration. I love her. She's a powerful woman who's out there making it happen and inspiring generations, as well as directing and creating in the industry. I have a lot of respect for her. She's a special, special girl.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    Finding Neverland: Ticket information
    • Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
    • Buell Theatre
    • Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
    • ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
    • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

    Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
    Finding Neverland
    creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
    Diane Paulus on the rise of 'adventure theatre'
    Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center's 2016-17 Broadway season

  • How Peter became Pan: Exclusive interview with Diane Paulus

    by John Moore | Oct 12, 2016
    Finding Neverland. Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Carol RoseggLaura Michelle Kelly of the original Broadway cast of' Finding 'Neverland,' which comes to Denver on Dec. 20. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

    Acclaimed director calls Finding Neverland

    'a complete love letter to theatre'

    EDITOR'S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opened Oct. 7 in Buffalo, and will come to Denver starting Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the entire Finding Neverland creative team this summer, and he will post his extensive interviews in a five-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 1: Director Diane Paulus. Next: Choreographer Mia Michaels.

    By John Moore
    For the DCPA NewsCenter

    Acclaimed Broadway Director Diane Paulus was drawn to Finding Neverland because as an artist, she says, “It is a complete love letter to theatre.” Because as a mother, this was a show she could create through the eyes of her two young daughters. Because as a storyteller, this was the first story to fully explore how author J. M. Barrie first imagined Peter Pan and brought his iconic character to life.

    But mostly, she was drawn to a line from the show that Captain Hook says to Barrie himself:

    Diane Paulus Quote Finding Neverland"You can go back to being what everyone expects you to be. ... Or you can find the courage to write your own story."

    That resonated deeply with Paulus, the director, mother and artist who previously brought the launch of the national touring production of Pippin to Denver in 2014.

    “That could mean literally, ‘write your own story.’ Or it could mean, ‘write the story of your life,’ ” said Paulus.

    The story of Peter Pan, she says, is a call to anyone of any age to ask themselves: “When do we wake up and live the life that we know we need to live - not the life we think we should be living?” That, she said, is the story of Finding Neverland.

    The innovative Broadway musical is based on the 2004 Oscar-winning film of the same name. The story follows Barrie as he summons the courage to become the writer – and the man – he yearns to be. Barrie finds the inspiration he’s been missing when he meets a widow and her four young sons who inspire him to conjure the magical world of Neverland. And it was surprisingly risky for him to put the resultant play on stage before high-minded, high-society London theatergoers.

    “I love stories that take us backstage, that take us through all the trials and tribulations and the fear that go into making art,” Paulus said. “All sorts of people who have seen Finding Neverland have then said to themselves, ‘Oh my goodness - what am I doing with my life? I've got to wake up, do what I love and take a risk. That's where the riches of life will lie.”

    The lasting influence of Peter Pan on popular culture is vast and continuing. There has been the 1953 animated Disney film, of course; the 1954 Broadway musical; and countless movies and songs. It has been suggested that Peter Pan influenced J. R. R. Tolkien's creation of his Elves of Middle Earth. And in 1983, psychologists even gave a name to young men with underdeveloped maturity: The Peter Pan Syndrome.

    “This story has been part of our psyche and in our zeitgeist and on our peanut-butter jars for so long that it’s hard for us to imagine a time when there wasn't Peter Pan,” said Paulus. “It feels like an archetypal myth, and yet it didn't exist until J. M. Barrie took this artistic plunge in 1904. And in doing so, he really comes into his own as an artist. And at the same time, he discovers himself as a father. And so in that way, Finding Neverland is also a story that redefines family.”



    Here is more of our conversation with acclaimed Director Diane Paulus. It took place the morning after the 2016 Tony Awards:

    John Moore: Last night was a certainly celebration of diversity in the theatre.

    Diane Paulus: You know, I'm so excited to be part of this theatre community, and particularly this last season on Broadway - the artists that it embraced and of course the many landmarks that were reached.

    John Moore: Congratulations on Waitress. What did it mean for you to direct the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team?

    Diane Paulus: I've said it time and time again: Every artist is in their position at Waitress because they were best person for the job. There was no agenda to only consider women. It's just a reflection that women are at the top of their fields in composing, in writing and in choreography. This is the 21st Century, and we all have benefited from the generations of women behind us who actually were told that they couldn't be the directors or the writers. We all have benefited from their mentorship and their example. I hope more than anything we can provide that same example to the next generation of artists wherever they are across America. We need to say, “Look, this is a place for anyone, if you work hard and you work with integrity. If you tell important stories, this is not a closed door.” I mean, we still have a long way to go for women. But, yes, this was a great landmark - and let’s hope it continues.

    Diane Paulus on Broadway's response to the Orlando massacre

    John Moore: How does this sudden proliferation of women storytellers tangibly manifest itself in what we see in the theatre?

    Diane Paulus: One out of three women in the United States experiences some form of intimate-partner domestic-violence abuse. This is a syndrome in our culture. It's a crisis in our time and in our world. So the fact that the stories being told this year are stories like Eclipsed, Black Bird, Waitress, The Color Purple, Spring Awakening -  these are all stories about women who have encountered some form of abuse or violence. We need to be telling these stories - not because that's all we care about as women, but because it's actually happening in our world.

    Finding Neverland, Denver Center_Finding Neverland, Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme.  Photo by Carol Rosegg
    Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme from te original Broadway cast of 'Finding Neverland,' which comes to the Buell Theatre in Denver on Dec. 2. Photo by Carol Rosegg.


    John Moore: Switching gears, can you give us an idea of what kind of theatrical experience we're in for with Finding Neverland?

    Diane Paulus: I was so drawn to Finding Neverland because it operates on so many important levels for me. One, it's about the creation of a seminal work of theatre: J. M. Barrie’s play of Peter Pan. He had a producer named Charles Frohman who committed, come hell or high water, to make it happen. So Finding Neverland is the story of how Peter became Pan. And of course, inextricably threaded through that is the discovery of love and family.

    John Moore: Speaking of family: When we last talked, you said you wanted to take on this particular project specifically for your two daughters. How has this experience impacted their lives?

    Diane Paulus: I did think this would be one that I could really create with my two daughters in mind. They are 9 and 11 now, and they were always present with me throughout this process. You know: The spirit of what it means to be a kid, and how kids see the world, and their honesty, and their imaginations, and their ability to see things. I've seen it in my own living room. A blanket literally becomes a magic carpet, and you can go anywhere you want just by being pulled through the hallways of your house. That is so much of a part of my life as a mother, and it is so much a part of Finding Neverland. I think they've grown through this, especially my younger daughter. The story also deals with how you survive hardship. It's about resilience. It's about overcoming some of the hardest challenges in life. It’s sort of like when children experience the heartache of Bambi. They understand that, and they move through that, and then they find comfort in that. We've experienced so much of that as a family. We have had people of all ages come to see Finding Neverland, whether they're kids or grandparents, who have experienced loss. If a kid has experienced the loss of a grandparent, there is something deeply comforting about this story and the power of metaphor and how we use metaphor in stories to help us in life. Theatre is metaphor. This idea of the ticking clock chasing you constantly was obviously so central to J. M. Barrie. And the idea that there is this place called Neverland where you never grow up. Peter Pan has really become this archetypical myth, and these myths are there to help us. I have really come to appreciate the power of Finding Neverland as a piece of theatre. 

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    John Moore: Between Finding Neverland and Peter and the Starcatcher and so many others, why do you think Peter Pan myth is remains such a good source for new stories?

    J. M. Barrie QuoteDiane Paulus: Because I think Peter Pan is such a classic archetype. The definition of a classic is, for me, that you can take it and twist it and interpret it and re-interpret it - and no matter what you do to it, it survives all the tests of time. You can have any number of productions of Hamlet, and it stays Hamlet. Hamlet will survive. There's something about this story, and our fascination with it, and people wanting to get inside of it or look at it from a different angle. That’s what we do with classics. We want to feel them and explore them and get inside them in different ways. And I think this one is so powerful because it applies across generations. This is not just a kids show. Adults have grown up living with Peter Pan and love Peter Pan and remember their childhoods through Peter Pan.

    John Moore: Can you tell us how the stage version is not a mere replica of the source film?

    Diane Paulus: It's a beautiful film, and Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp give a sublime performances. But film has a certain pace that is completely appropriate for that medium, and that doesn’t always necessarily work on a stage. I knew it was the imagination of J. M. Barrie that we had to explode on that stage. That is really what led me to understand how Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's pop score could function in the story. Because J. M. Barrie’s imagination is timeless, I learned that we could be in 1904 London and have the juxtaposition of this very British pop score representing the timelessness of J.M. Barrie’s imagination. The musical takes small moments in the movie and makes them into whole numbers - like the dinner party where the kids, through J.M. Barrie’s instigation, misbehave. That becomes this disastrous dinner-party number called “We Own the Night.” To me, the movie felt like it should become a musical because I could see these portals into musical theatre where we could dig deeper than the film ever could because we have music to take you there.

    Kevin Kern. Finding NeverlandJohn Moore: What can you tell us about the actor playing your J.M. Barrie, Kevin Kern? (pictured at right) 

    Diane Paulus: Kevin played the role on Broadway so much this past year. He's just a genius in the role. He sings it like no one else, and he knows this role inside and out. And he's such a generous soul. He is an incredible father of a huge family, and God bless him. I think it’s all going to work out, and we are so lucky he's going to be leading the tour. 


    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    Finding Neverland: Ticket information
    • Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
    • Buell Theatre
    • Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
    • ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
    • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Groups: Call 303-446-4829 
    Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:

    Diane Paulus on the rise of 'adventure theatre'
    Diane Paulus on the Tony Awards' response to Orlando massacre
    Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center's 2016-17 Broadway season
    The Pippin Profiles: Diane Paulus on directing without a net

  • Diane Paulus on the rise of 'adventure theatre'

    by John Moore | Jul 26, 2016

    A video look at 'Sweet & Lucky.'


    Theatre that does not take place in a traditional performance space has been called lots of ambiguous things, including “immersive theatre,” “environmental theatre” and even the primly phrased “promenade theatre.”

    But Diane Paulus – one of the nation’s leading purveyors of this emerging form and, according to Time Magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world - may have nailed it.

    “I call it adventure theatre,” said Paulus.

    diane-paulus-quote-sweet-and-luckyThis fun and fluid new theatregoing genre essentially describes tales that are being told in new spaces where audience are fully integrated into the storytelling. In short, it’s theatre that gets you on your feet. And it can happen anywhere.

    And much of the American theatre braintrust is banking on this growing phenomenon to seduce sensory-overloaded millennials into becoming the next generation of live theatregoers. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, for example, has captured the fancy of adventurous attendees of Sweet & Lucky – at once the company’s first foray into immersive theatre, as well as the largest physical undertaking in its nearly 40-year history.

    Sweet & Lucky takes place in a sprawling, 16,000-square-foot warehouse on Brighton Boulevard where audiences step into a mysterious antique store and plunge into a labyrinth of dreamlike encounters. The unusual experience has sold out nearly every performance since its May opening, and has been extended through Aug. 7.

    Paulus thinks she knows why.

    (Photo at right of Diane Paulus by Susan Lapides.)

    “We are at a moment where the ‘presentness’ of theatre is more important than ever,” said Paulus, who brought the London theatrical phenomenon Sleep No More to America in 2011 on its way to New York, where it has been playing in an abandoned, five-story warehouse in Manhattan’s meatpacking district since 2011. It’s a movement-based piece (meaning lots of dance) that takes its story from Macbeth and Hitchcock's thrillers. The audience is let loose to follow stories and characters at their own pace. So they may or may not discover the lunatic asylum, the padded cell or the taxidermist’s menagerie. And they may or may not witness a hanging, an act of domestic violence or boldly peer over the shoulder of a lone actor typing out a letter at his desk.

    “The idea is that as the audience, your presence matters. That is the definition of immersive theatre,” Paulus told the DCPA’s NewsCenter. “You get up. You walk around. You chase Macbeth down a hallway after he has committed a murder. You are a character. You, as an audience member, are as important as the action.”

    sweet-and-lucky-diana-dresser-patrick-mueller-photo-credit-adams-visual-communications
    Diana Dresser and Patrick Mueller in 'Sweet and Lucky.'  Photo Credit: Adams Visual Communications.


    Paulus got her start 20 years ago in the first New York International Fringe Festival with a piece called The Community Show that played out on Lower East Side fire escapes. She is known to Denver audiences for having launched the kinetic, gymnastic new national touring production of Pippin in Denver in 2014. Her work returns in December when her newest touring production, Finding Neverland, arrives at the Buell Theatre. That Broadway musical tells how playwright J.M. Barrie found his inspiration to create Peter Pan.

    When Paulus was named artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 2009, she made waves with her unorthodox first two shows. One was a disco-themed, avant-garde nightclub experience called The Donkey Show. The other was Sleep No More, which requires audience members to wear anonymity masks throughout.

    Purchase Sweet & Lucky tickets here

    Sweet & Lucky was developed by Off-Center, the DCPA's  unconventional programming arm, in collaboration Brooklyn’s Third Rail Projects, which since 2001 has emerged as one of the nation’s foremost companies in creating site-specific, performances. Its still-running, breakout hit is titled Then She Fell, an intimate exploration of Lewis Carroll’s writings set in a cramped hospital ward – an experience so intimate, it can accommodate only 15 audience members per performance. Then She Fell was named one of the Top 10 shows of 2012 by The New York Times. Third Rail Projects has since opened The Grand Paradise in New York and Sweet & Lucky in Denver.

    Sweet & Lucky explores the fragility of memory by having audience members follow performers through a wide array of intricately designed environments, where they witness a series of seductive and haunting flashbacks involving characters they catch glimpses of over decades.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter


    Denver native Zach Morris, one of Third Rail Projects’ three founders, believes there is an appetite for stories that allow an audience to explore various kinds of storytelling threads that are happening simultaneously. “I also think that because of all of the amazing advances in our technology, we’re craving human-to-human interaction,” he said.

    Paulus could not agree more. “I think it's satisfying a desire in our culture right now for audiences to participate in their entertainment, and not just on their computers and their laptops, but in life,” she said. “People want to be present in a room with other people. And they want to have their hearts beat. This is ritual, and the human condition needs ritual to survive.”

    And while that idea might seem sort of radical - it really isn’t.

    “This kind of things really goes back to the very roots of theatre,” she said.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    Sweet & Lucky: Ticket information
    Sweet & Lucky plays through Aug. 7 at 4120 E. Brighton Boulevard, with newly added performances. Only 72 audience members per performance. Wear comfortable shoes. Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

    Note: Sweet & Lucky has its own web site. You should check it out here. 

    Please note that each performance is limited to 72 audience members.

    Sweet & Lucky production photos:

    Sweet & Lucky
    To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by Adams Visual Communications.


    Previous NewsCenter coverage of Sweet & Lucky:
    Sweet & Lucky extended through Aug. 7
    Photos: Opening night coverage
    5 things we learned about Sweet & Lucky
    Zach Morris is home to seize the cultural moment
    Casting announced; tickets onsale
    DCPA to create new immersive theatre piece with Third Rail Projects
    Kickstarter campaign allows audience to dive deeper


    More photos: The making of Sweet & Lucky: 

    Making of 'Sweet & Lucky'
    To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA's NewsCenter.

  • Video and photos: Opening Night 'Pippin' festivities in Denver

    by John Moore | Sep 13, 2014


    Denver hosted the launch of the national touring production of Pippin the Musical on Sept. 10, 2014, at the Buell Theatre. It marked the 11th national tour launch by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Broadway division.

    The video above includes video and photo highlights from the celebration that followed the opening performance in the Seawell Grand Ballroom.

    Pippin, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, features choreography in the style of Bob Fosse and breathtaking acrobatics. The "Pippin" tour runs in Denver through Sept. 20. Call 303-893-4100 or go to www.denvercenter.org. Video by John Moore, David Lenk and Emily Lozow.

    To go to our full gallery of free, downloadable photos from the evening, click here.

    This video features a montage of scenes from the national touring production that just launched in Denver.


    Pippin
    : Ticket information

    Sep 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org


    'The Pippin Profiles' interview series:
     


    Our previous Pippin coverage on Denver CenterStage:

    Video: 5 questions for Composer Stephen Schwartz

    9News anchor Cheryl Preheim has a walk-on cameo on Sept. 16
    Video: Audience testimonials reacting to seeing the show
    Video series: The 'Pippin' Personalities: Five questions with creatives
    'Pippin' meets Denver: Media Day photos
    Broadway's Matthew James Thomas to play Pippin in Denver
    Hello, Denver! 'Pippin' cast and crew arrive

    Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

    Pippin_Opening_Night_800

    Photo by John Moore. To go to our full gallery of free, downloadable photos from the evening, click here.
  • The 'Pippin' Profiles: Kristine Reese on keeping up with the Jones

    by John Moore | Sep 10, 2014

    Pippin_Kristine_Reese_5

    For many audience members, Catherine (played by Kristine Reese), walks away with the show, even though she doesn’t even show up in the story until the second act. Photo by Terry Shapiro. Photo below by Peter Hurley Photography.



    Pippin_Kristine_Reese_4Kristine Reese went to see the Broadway revival of Pippin and, like pretty much everyone else in the audience …  she fell in love with Rachel Bay Jones.

    Jones was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Catherine, the quirky widowed mother   who awaits young prince Pippin at the end of his quest to find meaning in his life like a curvaceous, open-armed human grail. 

    She was, by composer Stephen Schwartz’s assessment, nothing short of “amazing,” “heartbreaking” and “transformative.”

    Boy. And you thought Sasha Allen had a tough task trying to follow in the magic footsteps of Ben Vereen in the role of the Leading Player.

    Reese has been cast to play Catherine in the national touring production of Pippin now launching in Denver. She is doing her best to keep up with the Jones … by not trying to keep up with the Jones.

    “Obviously, what Rachel has done with the role is really amazing, and I think she has made it really special,” said Reese. “But whenever you take on a role (that you didn’t originate), you have to be true to who you are. I want to honor what Rachel did, but I also want to be me.”

    Reese must be doing something right. Schwartz’s first impression of Reese: “I have to tell you that we have found a really wonderful young woman to play Catherine on the tour who brings a lot of the same qualities that Rachel brought to the role," Schwartz  said. "I am really enthusiastic about our new Catherine.”

    How great is it to hear that?

    “That makes me want to actually cry with happiness,” Reese said. “That means so much to me. All I've ever wanted is for Stephen and (Director) Diane Paulus and everyone involved with the show to be enthusiastic about what I bring to the role. To have him say that is really amazing, so, thank you. You made my day.”

    Reese hails from the Midwest and graduated from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. She’s played Nessarose on the national touring production of Wicked and Sophie in Mamma Mia.

    Pippin_Kristine_Reese_1


    Here are excerpts from our conversation with Reese, who plays a character many audiences think walks away with the show, even though she doesn’t even show up in the story until the second act:

    John Moore: So I have seen Pippin many times and in many shapes and sizes …  and I have to say, I think Catherine is almost always my favorite character.

    Kristine Reese: Yeah, a lot of people say that, actually. A lot of people.

    John Moore: How do you see this woman’s place in the story?

    Kristine Reese: She is genuine and she is pure and she is natural. And yes, she’s got a quirk to her -- especially in this production -- and I think I do as a person, too. When you play Catherine, I think you have to find that quirk inside you, because that's part of why Pippin falls in love with her. And I think that is actually the essence of who Catherine is. Even though she says in her song, ‘I'm just a plain, ordinary girl …’ she’s actually not. I think that's the point of all that silliness for the actor (who gets to plays her). She’s so special and so different, and she's not coloring in the lines like almost every other character in the play.

    John Moore: I know we can't tell people specifically about the new ending in this version of Pippin, but your character is certainly a key part in it. I think if you’ve ever seen the original Pippin, it's possible to misconstrue what the writers are actually trying to say about Pippin's ultimate choice -- in my opinion. I talked to Diane and (Circus Creator) Gypsy Snider about this, and part of their point, as mothers themselves, is to say that society needs to look again at how we perceive a young man who, after a life of pure adventure, sees marriage and fatherhood as an extraordinary life choice. … Which actually doesn't even give anything away about the new ending, I am happy to say! What's your take?

    Kristine Reese: I think that's a great way of saying it. I got married a couple of years ago, and I wasn't all that young when I did. But people would say to me, 'Why are you settling down?' No. I don't see it that way. When you live in New York and you work as a performer, some people see marriage as being tied down or restricting you -- and I  think it's the opposite. When I saw Pippin the first time, I think that's why the Catherine character resonated with me. It’s because of the connection she has with Pippin, and because of the choice he makes. I can relate so much of that to my real life, and how much my relationship means to me. I don't have children yet, but when I do, I would imagine the same thing for myself. That's the life I want.

    John Moore: What I like about the new ending is that it really takes the focus off of our looking at Pippin's choice as the ultimate point of the show and shifts it ... shall we say ... onto something different for us to chew on.

    Kristine Reese: Absolutely.

    John Moore: But I think it makes sense to acknowledge how family has changed as in institution in this country over past 40 years. When you look at all of our social problems, there is something kind of odd about a man who chooses family being seen as a bold choice.

    Kristine Reese: It is very interesting. You wouldn't think that would be a controversial thing still. But it is.


    kristineQ2Pippin_Kristine_Reese_2


    John Moore: OK, so here is your really hard-hitting, important question: What do you do for the whole first act while waiting for Catherine to enter the story?

    Kristine Reese: Actually, I am a Player in the circus troupe, and not actually Catherine. So in the first act, I am playing a silent clown. And in the second act, my job is to play Catherine in the story of Pippin that we are putting on for the audience. You may not really notice me in the first act, or know, 'Oh, she’s going to be Catherine' -- but I think that's the point.

    John Moore: We think of Pippin as this quintessential coming-of-age story about a boy becoming a man. But I see so much female empowerment going on with this production. What it's like for you to be in the room with all of these strong women?

    Kristine Reese: I am so glad that you asked me that, because that is really important to me. Like you said, Diane is a mom, and Gypsy is a mom, and Nadia DiGiallonardo, who is our music supervisor, is a mom, as are many others. I am not a mother myself, but I think that is a really special thing to have around you. I remember when Diane won the Tony Award (for best direction), and how much that meant to me as a female watching. Here was this woman up there who has this great career, but she also has children and a family. That means so much to me. And it means so much to her. I have really wanted to work with her. Not to take away from (Choreographer Chet Walker) or anyone else on the team, but I think there is something about being able to speak with a woman director about motherhood and love and family, and what those things mean. Not to say that if I had a male director the show would not be good, but I think the connection that women share is special, and I am so honored to be working with these respectful, strong women who have children and have love in their lives. They understand what my relationship means to me, and how I can use that as an actor.

    Pippin_Kristine_Reese_8


    John Moore: Many who see Pippin in Denver will be seeing it for the first time. And for those who have seen it before, it will in many ways be new for them as well. Help me to articulate what kind of a theatrical experience they are in for.

    Kristine Reese: The story is told through the circus lens, and you haven't really seen a lot of Broadway shows that have that aspect to it. I think what makes it so magical is the excitement that the circus element brings to it, contrasted with these really intimate, grounded, emotional scenes. For all the spectacular, dangerous things these performers do in these beautiful, sparkling costumes, you also have these almost naked acting moments. This show has everything. And that's why I fell in love with it when I first saw it. It was so special when they sang Simple Joys and they started jumping through hoops. But then to see this beautiful connection between these two actors playing Pippin and Catherine, I thought, 'That's really what this play is about.' I think people can take both of those things away from it. 


    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    'The Pippin Profiles' interview series:
     


    Pippin
    : Ticket information

    Sep 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org

    Our previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    Video series: The 'Pippin' Personalities: Five questions with creatives
    'Pippin' meets Denver: Media Day photos

    Broadway's Matthew James Thomas to play Pippin in Denver
    Hello, Denver! 'Pippin' cast and crew arrive

    Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

  • Video: The 'Pippin' Personalities: Five questions with cast and creatives in Denver

    by John Moore | Sep 06, 2014


    In this fun video series, we will pose several personality questions to the cast and creative team behind the national touring production of Pippin The Musical, launching in Denver this very night: Sept. 6, 2014.

    The ‘Pippin’ Personalities video series:
    Video 1: What makes YOU extraordinary?
    Video 2: If you could run off with the circus …
    Video 3: What was the first big show you saw?
    Video 4: What has ‘Pippin’ taught you about yourself?
    Video 5: First impressions of Denver

    Our guests include Director Diane Paulus, Sasha Allen (Leading Player), Matthew James Thomas (Pippin), John Rubinstein (Charles), Lucie Arnaz (Berthe), Circus Creator Gypsy Snider and Choreographer Chet Walker. 

    Videos by John Moore and David Lenk for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.


    Video 2: If you could run off with the circus …




    Video 3: What was the first big show you ever saw? 




    Video 4: What has ‘Pippin’ taught you about yourself?


    ​ 


    Video 5: The ‘Pippin’ Personalities: First impressions of Denver





    Pippin
    : Ticket information

    Sept 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org

    'The Pippin Profiles' interview series:
     


    Our previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    'Pippin' meets Denver: Media Day photos
    Broadway's Matthew James Thomas to play Pippin in Denver
    Hello, Denver! 'Pippin' cast and crew arrive

    Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

  • The 'Pippin' Profiles: Sasha Allen finds her voice in the raw art of live theatre

    by John Moore | Sep 02, 2014

    Pippin_Sasha_Allen_400It’s not like the prospect of performing in front of nearly 3,000 people in Denver to launch the national touring production of Pippin doesn’t make Sasha Allen a little nervous. But intimidated? Hardly.

    “Try sitting there calmly when they are you counting you down from 5, 4, 3… and that, 'Oh, by the way, 30 million people are watching,' ” said Allen. “That’s scary.”

    The Harlem-born Allen has sung backing vocals for Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, John Legend and Usher. She rose to fame in her own right last year as a finalist on the fourth season of NBC’s singing competition, The Voice. (Photo right by Matthew Murphy.)

    The pressure to perform on live TV, she said, “is out of control.” By comparison, taking to the stage as the Leading Player in Pippin feels positively intimate. Still, she gets something out of performing on a theatre stage that TV just can’t match.

    “There is a serious transfer of energy when you are performing in front of live people,” said Allen, who in Pippin is taking on the iconic (and now feminized) role of the Leading Player, head of a troupe of circus performers who relate the story of a young prince’s search for meaning in his life.

    “On TV, when your eyelash falls off, they yell, ‘Stop.’ Someone comes on and fixes your eyelash, and you do it again. There is something organic about being on stage and everybody with you is there to take care of each other. Because nobody is going to come running on and fix your lash if it falls off. We can't yell, ‘Cut!’ It just doesn't work like that.

    “We are all sweating. Your shoes are stabbing you in your feet. Live theatre is a raw art, and I think you have to completely love it to want to do it.” 

    Allen loves it – stabby shoes and all. She made her Broadway debut in 2010 when Director Diane Paulus cast her to join another signature revival American revival, Hair, as Dionne.

    What will make Allen a bit nervous is when you point out that she’s following in the footsteps of the great Ben Vereen.

    I saw his performance on tape, and I was I was like, 'Oh my God, he is just so electric,' " she said. It is intimidating. But I am thankful to be a female playing that role. It's just so different. It has to be.”

    Pippin_Sasha_Allen_4


    What follows are excerpts from our extensive conversation with Pippin’s leading Player:

    John Moore: How is rehearsal going today?

    Sasha Allen: I have been sweating like a crazy person all day long. I smell like the gym. But it is going really, really good. For a second there, I thought I was going to jump off the cliff, because it’s a lot of hard work. But then it finally starts to click, and your body finally does what it is supposed to do.

    John Moore: It seems like all of you just jumped off the cliff together on this one.

    Sasha Allen: When you take on a project like this, you just know it’s going to be good in the end. That’s why you continue to do the work, but … man, it's hard.

    John Moore: Well, congratulations for the opportunity.

    Sasha Allen: Thank you. I know this is a life-changing moment. I just know that if I continue on my path, then I will be labeled as something better than I was yesterday.

    John Moore: It sounds as if you are on a Pippin-esque journey of your own.

    Sasha Allen: I definitely am. I called my mom after I crashed and burned during one rehearsal. I was like, 'Well, that didn't go the way I wanted it to go. And she was like, 'Well, now you know where you stand. Now, work it out. Moving on ... ' 

    John Moore: Gotta love moms.

    Sasha Allen: Absolutely. I was like, 'Right. Exactly. Now -- get back to rehearsal.'
     
    John Moore: When was the first time you ever saw Pippin?

    Sasha Allen: I had seen Ben Vereen on tape. Just as a fan. I was like, 'Oh my God, he is so amazing. Let's rewind and watch that again.' But when I knew I was going to be auditioning (to join the Broadway cast), I went to see it (with Patina Miller playing the role of the Leading Player). It’s a strange feeling. You’re like, 'I can conquer this' … but it becomes intimidating at the same time. I was thinking, 'Damn. She never leaves the stage. She never takes a break.' I do know that when that show was over, I stood on my feet … and I meant it.  There was a real feeling of, 'Get your butt up and clap for this production, because they just rocked the house.’

    John Moore: So what is your take on the role of the Leading Player now?

    Sasha Allen: At first, I didn't like her so much. I really didn't. I was thinking, 'Well, then, so how do I get into a character that I don't like?' That's why (Director Diane Paulus) is so great. When she made us do character study, it was so necessary, because hating my character doesn't work for me playing her. I had to realize that everybody has a story. Everybody has something that has happened to them. I really do believe that everyone is born in innocence. I have children, so I know what innocence really looks like. So I thought, something must have happened to her. That’s why she is this strict, crazy, controlling, person. If you can understand where people come from, then you don't take it personally. As an actor, you can get joy out of a person's struggle. It's so real. You will find controlling people everywhere in the world, and I just wonder why. Me creating a pre-story for this character really helped me to understand where she's coming from.

    John Moore: I have talked to several people who have made the connection that (Composer) Stephen Schwartz is pretty much Pippin, and the Leading Player is really (original Director) Bob Fosse. Have you tried to tap into the Fosse context in any way?

    Sasha Allen: I don’t think of them as being the actual people. I know part of their inspiration for the Leading Player came from Charles Manson, and a lot of stuff in the script refers back to that. So I really watched Charles Manson. I think he's scary, but you know what? I didn't hate him. He made a lot of sense in a weird, crazy kind of way. I would never want to be in his presence because he would probably do a mind trip on me, but ... no, I never thought about Fosse being my character.

    Pippin_Sasha_Allen_5

    John Moore: Love her or not, your character is such a necessary part of Pippin's journey. It might be tough love, but it seems to me that you're also his teacher.

    Sasha Allen: There are different moments throughout the show where I feel like his teacher. Then I feel like his mother. Then his friend. And then, in the end … I feel like his enemy. When Pippin doesn't do what I want him to do, she has a full-on meltdown. She will do whatever it takes to get him to feel what she is feeling. 'Oh, so you don't feel with me now? I am going to make you feel it this way.' A lot of people can relate to Pippin because we've all felt naive and innocent -- and now, someone is trying to take control of your life. But my character is also very human. Her antics are on the more dramatic side, but we can all relate to wanting to be in control of our lives.

    John Moore: You mentioned your appreciation for Ben Vereen.

    Sasha Allen: Oh, I love him.

    John Moore: In talking with Stephen about turning the Leading Player into a part for a female actor, he said no male actor would ever be able to live up to Ben Vereen's performance … or at least people's picture in their minds of Ben Vereen's performance. And Stephen didn't want to put that responsibility on any man. So they thought making the Leading Player a woman would be an opportunity to present the story in an entirely different way. But still, you are following in Ben Vereen’s footsteps. How does it feel to step into that lineage?

    Sasha Allen: I will say it is intimidating. But, as a woman, I am able to do make different vocal and creative choices. Stephen and Diane have really allowed me to do my own thing, and allow my signature to be put on it. And I am not sure if I could have done that if I were a male. And even if I weren’t a differently styled singer, I think it would feel disrespectful to change this great thing that has been made. As a female, I do feel lucky to be able to say, ‘Well, yes, Ben did that. And we all love him for that. But now ... look at me. I have a sexy outfit on!’

    John Moore: Have you ever met Ben Vereen?

    Sasha Allen: I have. I was doing Hair, and he did Hair as well. Afterward, he invited some of the cast to his hotel room. We had a whole in-depth conversation about Hair, and his experience, and the times, and te racism. We got so deep. He was really so special. But I think you have to be to be that much of a genius. He is a phenomenal "thing." I mean, it doesn't even feel human.

    John Moore: So I want to ask you about working with all of these awesome women. When we look back on the original Pippin, it's Stephen Schwartz and it's Bob Fosse and it's Roger Hirson and it's Ben Vereen. It’s such a “guy's show” in many ways. And now you have Diane bringing it back to life on Broadway, and she has brought in Gypsy Snider for the circus elements. They are both mothers. You are a mother. Pippin is still a guy’s story, but there is a whole lot of girl power going on in this new production.

    Sasha Allen: Oh, I feel it. Definitely. And I can tell you, I don't know if a man yelling at me the way Diane yells at me would work. Do you know what I mean? There is just a different energy with women. When Diane is getting revved up, she is literally transferring her energy to me. She is not holding back at all. When she tells me to do something,  you just do it. And if she pisses me off, that just makes it even better. It is a literal transfer of women power. She is truly inspiring.

    John Moore: That applies to new ending, too, doesn't it? We're not telling people exactly how it has changed. But there is something that was troubling, I think, about the way the original Pippin ended. After his period of adventure, there was this unintentional sense that Pippin was somehow settling for a family life. As if that's a bad thing. But it's an interesting thing when you put strong women in charge of the storytelling. Because I think they have brought some clarity to in terms of what we should consider to be extraordinary.

    Sasha Allen: I do not think that a young man choosing to be a husband and a father should ever be considered settling.  We all have choices to make, and having a family is not a bad choice. It's just not. I have one. I think anybody can do whatever they want with their lives and make it exceptional. If you are going to be a father, then be an exceptional father. I think we all can be extraordinary, however we choose to be.

    Pippin_Sasha_Allen_6

    John Moore: So … do you mind if we talk about The Voice?

    Sasha Allen: Oh yeah, yeah ... come on!

    John Moore: OK, so I have been asked to ask: When you had to choose between Shakira and Usher to be your mentor, you picked Shakira. But you were once a backing vocalist for Usher. How did you come to that decision?

    Sasha Allen: It was excruciating. It looks pretty easy when you are watching the show on TV. But when you are up there, you are sweating bullets. I was shaking inside. They put this weird music on, and the lights changed. It really is intimidating. Usher is an amazing singer. He's an amazing performer. But he is a technical dancer. You know, here we are talking about the strong women in Pippin: I felt like what I needed most was a strong woman to tell me what I needed to do as a woman to get this done. And that went down to everything from, ‘How do I wear my hair?’ to, ‘How do I wear my make-up?’ to, ‘What shade of lipstick?’ to, ‘What outfit should I wear?’ I know that sounds really off-topic, but these things are crucial in how people look at you. I was just talking to one of our costume designers, and she said, 'What I love is looking at how people dress. There is always a whole story behind it.' Well, there is a whole story behind what I wore on The Voice.

    John Moore: Did you learn any dance moves from Shakira?

    Sasha Allen: You know, we really didn’t really work on dance moves. I mean, I will never be able to dance like her. She's born and bred to dance. It was really the small details that I got from her. Shakira would tell me, 'Smile here, and then seduce the camera there.' She gave me a valuable lesson on brightening up a room, or seducing a room. If I am going to crawl, then it better be a good crawl. If you are going to do it, then make it sexual, or else don't even do it. Those are women tricks.

    John Moore: So The Voice wasn't that long ago, and now you are only a couple of days away from opening the tour of Pippin. Can you put your life into any kind of perspective right now?

    Sasha Allen: It's a blessing. It really is. I didn’t realize how much I was going to learn from The Voice, to tell you the truth. Because you look at the show and you're like, ‘Well, yes, it's corny and it’s cheesy. But I learned so much. I learned a lot about myself. I learned how hard I am willing to work. And I really learned how to practice.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    Pippin_828_1_Allen

    Sasha Allen on her first night in Denver. Photo by John Moore.



    'The Pippin Profiles' interview series:
     


    Pippin
    : Ticket information

    Sept 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org

    Our previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    Broadway's Matthew James Thomas to play Pippin in Denver
    Hello, Denver! 'Pippin' cast and crew arrive

    Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

     

  • The 'Pippin' Profiles: Diane Paulus on directing without a net

    by John Moore | Aug 22, 2014

    Diane_Paulus_Pippin_400Director Diane Paulus’ mantra as an artist is to always expand the boundaries of theatre ... or why bother?

    “As a director,” she says, “one of my biggest interests is creating a visceral experience for audiences.”

    Audiences will be feeling visceral come Sept. 6, when the national touring production of Paulus’ Tony-winning musical revival Pippin launches in Denver. They will be witnessing death-defying flips, tight-rope walks, knife-juggling and more. And “those acrobatic tricks you see are real, “ she said, “and they are real every night."

    That means be no protective cables. No safety nets.

    "With every performance, those are real, extraordinary achievements happening on that stage. It's live. It's happening there. And the audience witnesses it in the moment. And that makes the production so immediate.”

    It is that kind of theatrical daring that earned Paulus spot on Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. … In the world.

    Paulus is the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University in Boston, where she debuted Pippin on its way to Broadway; and where she just opened a pre-Broadway run of a new Peter Pan musical based on the film Finding Neverland.

    Diane_Paulus_Pippin_Quote_1

    Paulus brought the London theatrical phenomenon Sleep No More to America in 2011 on its way to New York. That’s an immersive version of Macbeth that plays out on multiple floors of a warehouse in the meatpacking district of Manhattan. Paulus calls that kind of thing “adventure theatre.”

    The same can be said of Pippin. Paulus got the green light to mount the first major revival of Pippin in 40 years when she told composer Stephen Schwartz she wanted to set his story of a young man search’s for meaning in the dangerous world of the circus.

    “It wasn’t about layering something on that didn’t need to be there,” Paulus said. “It was about the theme of the story: How far are we willing to go to be extraordinary in our lives? That question is at the heart of Pippin’s journey. That question is also at the heart of every circus performer’s life. And it’s a literal one: How far will I go? Will I jump and land upside down on someone’s hand? Will I leap through a hoop on fire? How far can I push my human body to aspire to be extraordinary?”

    What follows are excerpts from our expansive interview with one of the leading figures in the American theatre.

    John Moore: We’re talking to you as you are just days away from opening the Broadway-bound Finding Neverland at your American Repertory Theatre in Boston.

     
    Diane Paulus: Yes, we are in the middle of previews right now.

    John Moore: Well, then, I can't imagine how you can be in any kind of a Pippin headspace, so thank you for making time.

    Diane Paulus: It's a little crazy, but I have my Pippin T-shirt on right now, so I am already in Pippin land a little bit. It's all good.

    John Moore: What was your introduction to Pippin?

    Diane Paulus: I saw Pippin as a little girl growing up in New York City. I was 8 years old, and seeing it on Broadway marked me. It made such a huge impression. I remembered those characters. I remembered that world that (Director and Choreographer) Bob Fosse put on stage. I remembered Ben Vereen and all those players. And of course, I grew up on the score. I wore out my album. I played Corner of the Sky on the piano. I also sang With You at my brother's wedding -- not really understanding that, in the show, that's a song about Pippin getting together with a lot of different women. I sing No Time at All with my college friends at our reunions. So I've been living that Pippin score my whole life. I have always wanted to touch this show again.

    John Moore: What appealed to you most about revisiting it?

    Diane Paulus: A lot of people remember the Fosse and they remember the music, but you don't have a lot of people saying to you, 'Oh, what an amazing story.’ But I have always felt there was a very powerful and important story there. To me, Pippin is almost a pageant play, like a trial of the soul in all these different stages of a man’s life that are theatricalized -- going to war, the temptation of the flesh, the ordinary life. Pippin is the son of King Charlemagne, but he could stand in as an everyman. I got very excited about trying to make the meaning of his story viscerally felt.

    John Moore: And what does it mean -- to you?

    Diane Paulus: For me, the theme of Pippin is this: How far do we go to be extraordinary in our lives? Right now, that is such a relevant question -- more than ever. Just how far do we push ourselves? What is glory? What is it to be extraordinary, and what are the choices that we make in our lives? Ultimately, what I love about Pippin is that it's not a moralistic story. It doesn't say, 'Well, here's the right answer.' It really puts the question out to the audience. When we first did Pippin up at A.R.T. (in Boston), we’re in a college town, and there were young college kids coming to see the show who were completely relating to Pippin. They were asking questions like, 'What am I doing with my life?' 'What is my purpose in life?' 'What am I going to be, and who am I, and why am I here on the planet?' And you know what? I am a mom in my 40s, and I am thinking about things like, 'What are the choices I've made, and how do I negotiate a career and a family, and what does it mean to be extraordinary in my life?' Over the course of this production, I have seen entire generations of people affected by it. I saw an elderly man in his 80s weeping at the end of the show, and I just thought, 'Cleary, this show pushes you to think about the choices you are making, or the choices you have made in your life.’

    Diane_Paulus_Pippin_Quote_2

    John Moore: So what was your biggest directorial challenge?

    Diane Paulus: My biggest directorial challenge was determining what the world of this play was going to be.

    John Moore: (Composer) Stephen Schwartz told me you weren't the first to come to him wanting to put Pippin in a circus. But he did say that your concept was the best. How did you came up with your idea, and what was the pitch?

    Diane Paulus: I really got interested in this idea of circus because, to me, the show has to have an identity for the troupe of players. And the circus has such a strong identity. It's a traveling family that pitches their tent from town to town. They transform the lives of the people who dare to enter that tent. And then they pick up and leave, and they go somewhere else. So you don't ever really know a lot about who those circus people are. You don't think about them doing ordinary things like going to the supermarket and cooking. They just sort of come alive for you for as long as they are in that tent. It's a fantasy world. That was the hook for me: What if this group is a circus troupe, and they have come to town, and they have pitched their tent, and the Leading Player is literally standing outside that tent seducing you, the audience, to come inside and ‘join us.’ And if you dare to enter that tent, who knows what you will experience? Who knows how you will be transformed? You might be so transformed that you might even decide that you want to run away with the circus. That's another metaphor for me: How many of us in our lives have wanted to run away with the circus? Either literally, or metaphorically? When in our lives have we decided to take that leap—and when have we decided, "No," because, for any number of reasons, I can't run away with the circus right now. I have to choose other things. That was the metaphor me.

    John Moore: Your goal is always to expand the boundaries of theatre, and that certainly seems to be what the circus achieves in Pippin.

    Diane Paulus: I have been a great admirer of Les 7 doigts de la main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand). So when I met (Circus Creator) Gypsy Snider, I asked if she would ever want to work on a musical. And then we started talking about Pippin, and the theme meant so much to her. That's when I knew this collaboration would work. Because it wasn't about layering something on that didn’t need to be there. It was about the theme of the story: How far are we willing to go to be extraordinary in our lives? That question is at the heart of every acrobat and circus performer. That’s the first thing Gypsy said to me: ‘That is the life of an acrobat.’

    Diane_Paulus_Pippin_Quote_4

    John Moore: And how does that translate into the theatre experience?

    Diane Paulus: I am always interested in embracing theatre for what I think it should be, which is the absolute, live experience that is witnessed by each audience member. It’s not something we can later replay on our telephones or computers. As an audience member, you are seeing it, and what you are seeing can only be experienced right then and there, and it will be different every night.

    John Moore: How did you decide how you would go about replicating the Fosse choreography – and how much?

    Diane Paulus: There is no one like Bob Fosse. I have always worshipped at the altar of Fosse for what he did as an artist, and for his unique vision. I knew if we were going to bring back Pippin, we had to bring back the Fosse. It's just too connected. Chet Walker was part of that original Broadway production of Pippin. He had worked with Fosse for years, and so having Chet on the team was so important to me. When I first met Chet, he said to me, 'Bob Fosse would never want to re-create something. He never wanted to repeat himself. He and Stephen Schwartz also told me that Fosse loved Fellini. And when you look at it, this fascination with Fellini and clowns is all over even the original choreography. It's almost inside the DNA of the original production. But we had an opportunity with our production to take it further.

    John Moore: When you approached Gypsy, she had never seen Pippin before. She said the first thing that became obvious to her was that the Leading Player was Bob Fosse, and Pippin was Stephen Schwartz. When I mentioned that to Stephen, he just kind of paused and said, ‘That's exactly right.’ What do you think of the comparison?

    Diane Paulus: I am such a huge fan of both of those artists. It was so interesting to work with Stephen because here it was, 40 years later, and he was no longer the young college kid who wrote the show. He's now a mature artist looking back on his life. And I think now he had an appreciation for what Fosse saw in it when they made this in the '70s. So I think Stephen really helped me understand what the brew was back in the '70s between he and Fosse. Looking at it now for this revival as a mature artist, I think Stephen was able to identify more with Fosse. It was so edifying and inspiring for me to really understand the original production and everything that made that birth happen. A lot of people think of Pippin from having done it at their camp, or at their community theatre, or at their college. And so, for a lot of people, they know it as The Kumbaya Pippin. And this is not The Kumbaya Pippin. This story is deep, and it is profound, and it has really intense meaning. I think that was there in the original collaboration between Stephen and Bob Fosse. I remember that heat from when I was a kid, and I wanted to re-create that heat and take it even further.

    John Moore: Obviously a big change with this production is that a woman is playing the Leading Player. Stephen felt no male actor could possibly follow in Ben Vereen’s footsteps.

    Diane Paulus: Well, you know, in the script, it just says, "Leading Player." It doesn't say anything about race or gender. There is no other information, aside what is in the text. So I sent Stephen a note saying, ‘Tell me about this Leading Player. What do I have to know?' Just give me some details.' And he said back, 'The Leading Player can be anyone. Male. Female African-American, white, whatever demographic or ethnicity you want.' The only thing he said is that the Leading Player has to feel different from Pippin. The Leading Player has to represent everything Pippin has not experienced in life. So, with that … I agree with Stephen. The specter of Ben Vereen is huge, and for me that meant we had to have someone who could sing as well as Ben, who could dance as well as Ben, and who could act as well as Ben. So that was really the gauntlet that was thrown down. We had to find someone who is a true triple-threat. I knew Ben could do everything, and I knew we had to find someone who could deliver in all those departments. And, in our case -- maybe also someone who is willing to get on a trapeze and be a little fearless with some of the circus stuff.

    John Moore: How hard was that to find all in one performer?

    Diane Paulus: We auditioned everyone. We auditioned men and women. Every possible ethnicity came through our door. We had no agenda about who we were going to cast. However, I have to confess that Patina Miller was secretly in my brain, because I had worked with her on Hair. And then she helped create this stamp on this role of a powerful woman and leader. She proved that a woman could tell this story in such an interesting way for a modern, 21st-century audience. So now, the female Leading Player is integral. We’re looking forward to what Sasha Allen does with the role now.

    Diane_Paulus_Pippin_Quote_3

    John Moore: Speaking of Hair, I have to ask you about your Jeannie, who was played by Colorado’s sweetheart, Annaleigh Ashford.

    Diane Paulus: Oh my gosh. She is such a joy, and, as everyone knows, so hysterically funny. There is not one word that can come out of that women's mouth that doesn't make you laugh. I loved working with her on Hair. She was so quirky and funny and such a pro. And she is so committed as an artist. I felt really lucky to have had that experience with her.

    John Moore: It looks like Finding Neverland is going to be the next big thing. Can you give us a sneak peek into what kind of a theatrical experience we're in for?

    Diane Paulus: What I love about the show is that it's the story of the power of the imagination through the life of J.M. Barrie. Speaking of expanding the boundaries, he took a leap of faith and created something that everyone felt was crazy back in 1904. I mean, this was a story with boys who could fly and fairies and mermaids and crocodiles. Everybody thought he was nuts. He created Peter Pan -- something we all now think of as a brand of peanut butter. And if people have seen it, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I've seen it a thousand times, and it’s the most mainstream, accessible musical you could point to.’ But it wasn't in its creation. 

    John Moore: This must be fun for you, having daughters.

    Diane Paulus. Yes. Because at the heart of it, this is about is seeing the world through the eyes of a child. I am making Finding Neverland for my two daughters. What does it means to have spirit of a child in your life?  What kind of worlds can we see through their eyes? I love the show. The heart of it is very strong.

    John Moore: Before we go, I am curious what you think about the new ending for Pippin. Without giving anything away, why do you think this new ending is the right ending?

    Diane Paulus: Our ending now makes perfect sense. This show is about all the trials we have to go through in our lives, and everyone goes through them. And so when Pippin ends, you have this sense that it is all going to begin again. I tell you, when we were making this production, there were kids all over the place, because so many of us have children, and I let everybody watch rehearsal. It was like a circus of children. Every time we finished rehearsal, all of the kids would rush on to the stage and try to climb the poles and try to do all the acrobatic tricks. It was sort of primal. I looked at them one day and I thought, ‘That's the story!’ Even though we know we are going to fall, a kid will always want to climb a tree. A kid will always want to try to climb a pole. It’s a part of human nature, and that to me is what we get in this new ending.

    John Moore: And also looking at it from Pippin’s perspective. He has to make a decision. And I think Stephen was always a little uncomfortable that people might interpret the original ending of a man choosing to be a responsible husband and father as somehow settling. In this day and age, we really should be celebrating those men who choose fatherhood and family, should we not?

    Diane Paulus: Every individual has to face certain decisions at some point in their lives. And you make your choice for a reason. And I think each choice is extraordinary, if you really get in touch with yourself. To me, that's the story. Stop doing what people tell you to do. Identify what's in your heart. That might mean running away with the circus. That might mean choosing a family, and to love someone, which means you can't run away with the circus right now. It's all about the choice. It’s all about the risk of the choice. It's not about which choice you actually make. Can you hear your heart and follow your heart and the truth inside yourself? That is the journey of Pippin. That’s your journey. And that’s my journey, too.


    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    'The Pippin Profiles':  

    Pippin: Ticket information

    Sept 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org


    Previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    Photos: Pippin loading in Denver, rehearsing in New York
    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein

    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

  • The 'Pippin' Profiles: How Stephen Schwartz ran off with the circus

    by John Moore | Aug 19, 2014
    Pippin_Stephen_Schwartz_400

    Stephen Schwartz likes to joke that somewhere, “Bob Fosse is surely looking up and laughing.”

    He kids about the direction. But not the director. Fosse was Schwartz’s legendary collaborator on the musical Pippin, which in war-torn 1972 brought a surreal collision of violence, innocence and sexuality to the Broadway stage.

    Fosse, known for his provocative choreography and fiery temper, died in 1987. Last year, a significantly reimagined Pippin won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, and its new national touring production is launching in Denver on Sept. 6.

    “I think Bob would be thrilled with this,” said Schwartz, the composer who 40 years ago openly questioned the darkness and overindulgence that Fosse brought to Schwartz’s sweet story of a naïve boy searching for meaning in his life.

    “There were specific choices Bob made that I honestly thought were heavy-handed and crude, and not in a good way,” Schwartz said. But now at age 66, Schwartz added, “I joke that I have ironically become the defender of Bob's vision.” 

    Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson have been approached dozens of times over the years by artists wanting to revisit Pippin.

    “Frankly, I think merely reproducing the original -- if that were even possible --  would have felt quite dated,” Schwartz said. “And none of the new approaches made much sense to us.”

    Any revival would bring big challenges. “The Fosse choreography is so iconic, and the performance of Ben Vereen (as the Leading Player) was so indelible, even to people who didn't actually see it,” Schwartz said. “So it really would need a concept that was going to overcome all that without obliterating the show. And that would be quite difficult to come by.”

    Enter Diane Paulus, the groundbreaking director who brought the Vietnam musical Hair back to explosive life on Broadway in 2009. Her new idea? The original mysterious troupe would now be a circus family performing the story of Pippin. Now the young prince’s quest for meaning would be a death-defying one, set against live and often breathtaking acrobatics.

    Schwartz and Hinson were apprehensive at first. “But I think I can speak for Roger when I say we have been totally won over,” Schwartz said. “Frankly, I think Diane is a better director of scenes and actors than Bob Fosse was. And consequently, I think the story is better told.”

    Pippin began as a 17-year-old Schwartz’s spin-off of The Lion in Winter, a play about the foibles of King Henry II in 1183. Over the next seven years, the Pippin project came to reflect Schwartz’s own journey as a young man in his 20s.

    Fosse, then 47, agreed to direct and choreograph Pippin on Broadway if allowed to make the story more dark and sophisticated. Fosse brought in Ben Vereen, fresh off his electric performance in Jesus Christ Superstar, to play the Leading Player, a narrator of sorts who leads Pippin down many dangerous roads.

    Schwartz says it’s “absolutely accurate” to suggest that, essentially, he is Pippin, “particularly in talking about me at age 24,” he said. “I think more and more that the character of Pippin became a great deal like me at that time.”

    But what became intriguingly clear to Circus Creator Gypsy Snyder, who had never seen Pippin before the recent revival, is that Fosse is the Leading Player.

    “When you look at the sexuality and the seduction and the violence and the eroticism of the piece,” Snyder said, “then you are really looking at a retrospective of Fosse's life. And then you have the ‘Corner of the Sky” Pippin, the loving family man. That was absolutely the Stephen Schwartz I got to know through this production. He's just so positive and so hard-working and he keeps an innocent eye. That’s Pippin.”

    Schwartz concurs.

    “Bob’s was the more worldly-wise point of view,” Schwartz said. “And Roger Hirson, who was in his 40s when we opened, may have been the Charlemagne character.”

    Read more about this and more in this exclusive, expansive interview with one of the leading figures in American theatre history. Schwartz, who has contributed to Wicked, Godspell, Children of Eden and many more, is a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame and president of the Dramatists Guild. He has three Academy Awards, four Grammy Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and, shockingly, no Tony Awards.

    Pippin_Stephen_Schwartz_Quote_1

    John Moore: So where did I find you today?

    Stephen Schwartz: I am getting ready to visit Trumbull, Conn., because a high school there has a drama troupe run by a girl who last year very bravely resisted censorship on their production of Rent. And The Dramatists Guild, of which I am president, has honored her with a courage award. Now her troupe is doing Children of Eden, so it’s kind of come full circle. And so, in appreciation for what she has done, I am taking myself to Trumbull.

    John Moore: It meant a lot to the students attending last month’s Jimmy Awards in New York when you stopped by to speak to them.

    Stephen Schwartz: Well, Music Theatre International, which represents most of my shows, is very active with the Jimmy Awards, and they asked if I would come and talk with them. And pretty much anything MTI asks me to do, I do --  because they have been very good to me over the years.

    John Moore: Well, I  think you have been pretty good to MTI, too.

    Stephen Schwartz: (laughing): Well, thanks. I really enjoyed getting a chance to talk to the kids. They were amazing. It was really cool to spend a little time with them. 

    John Moore What was your message of encouragement to them?

    Stephen Schwartz: I am a big believer in -- and living proof of -- the theory of ‘follow your bliss.’ This is a very difficult and often very mean business. But if this is your dream, and you persevere at it, it is possible for people to make a living, and make a life, in this profession. My advice to them is the same as my advice to my own children: If you pursue what you want to do, you may not wind up where you thought you were going to, exactly, but it will take you somewhere you are more likely to want to be than if you made the ‘safe,’ or perhaps the ‘sane’ choice. If you think, 'I'll wait, and at some point I'll pursue what I actually want do do' ... then I don't think that necessarily works out for the better.

    John Moore: Wait, I didn't think we were talking about Pippin yet. But apparently we are.

    Stephen Schwartz: Well yes. There we are... You know, Pippin, in the end, makes the sane choice.

    Manson_Trio_Pippin

    John Moore: I am sure you have been told over and over about how your music has changed the course of young peoples' lives. But for my generation, it was Godspell and Pippin doing the life-changing, and now you have this whole new generation of theatre kids all geeked out because, hey: You're the guy who wrote Wicked.

    Stephen Schwartz: It is sort of strange, isn’t it? But obviously it's nice that at my … advanced … age, if you will, that I have come up with something – along with my collaborators -- that has spoken to people of all ages, but particularly to a young generation.

    John Moore: So whose idea was it to revisit Pippin now?

    Stephen Schwartz: It was really (Director) Diane Paulus, who had been wanting to do it for quite a while. I was an admirer of her work, particularly on (the Broadway revival of) Hair, which I thought was excellent. I felt Diane had managed to both honor the original but also make it fresh, and that is a quite tricky line to walk. After I really got to see her way of thinking, and her creativity, in a show called Blue Flower at her (American Repertory Theatre) in Boston, I became enthusiastic that she was someone who might be able to pull this off. And, of course, she has proven that in spades.

    John Moore: So what did you think when Diane said, 'I want to put this in a circus'?

    Stephen Schwartz: I had actually heard the idea of a circus before. And it wasn't something that I thought was a great idea, to be honest, because I was picturing a different kind of circus. But then Diane, who has done work with Cirque du Soleil, told me about this troupe from Montreal called Les 7 doigts de la main, or ‘The 7 Fingers of the Hand.’ I went to see a show of theirs that happened to be touring the States. We discussed it further and I began to have a glimmer of what Diane was talking about. But I have to say that until I saw it, I really didn't truly understand what she meant, and what her vision was. I just didn't. I think that's one of the things about someone who is as gifted and as visionary as Diane. She had these ideas in her head that are difficult to express verbally -- but then when you see them, you get them.

    Pippin_Stephen_Schwartz_Quote_2

    John Moore: And so now that you have lived in it, how do you articulate to people that this is the winning formula?

    Stephen Schwartz: That is a good question. Other than by assertion, I'm not sure that I know how to do that. It’s important for you to understand that Diane did not just overlay circus performance on top of the show as some kind of gimmick. First of all, she integrated the idea of the circus performances into the storytelling. It's not as if the show grinds to a halt and they do a circus trick, and then the story starts up again. Secondly, the way that she and Gypsy Snider did the circus part of the show, and the way Chet Walker did the choreography, is very special, I think. In some instances, the choreography is a very faithful re-creation of Bob Fosse's work. And in other places, I think what Chet has done is a very creative interpretation of what Bob might have done under these new circumstances. So it really is a complete re-envisioning of Pippin. This is a revisal as well as a revival of the show -- on all levels.

    John Moore: How do you think Bob would have liked this new approach?

    Stephen Schwartz: I think Bob would be thrilled with this. I think if we had been able to think of some of these changes together, he would have been extremely enthusiastic about them. Just the sheer sort of theatricality of the staging and this presentation, I think would have pleased him very much.

    John Moore: You have said the inspiration for Pippin actually comes from James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter.

    Stephen Schwartz: That’s true. It started as a sort of a medieval court intrigue musical melodrama.  And then it gradually transmogrified into being semi-autobiographical. And then it turned into the story of my generation -- as I saw it.

    John Moore: So here’s a quick Lion in Winter story: I was reviewing a production by a venerable community theatre for The Denver Post. And as we are leaving, an older audience member sees my notebook and stops me. She says, ‘Now you be sure to put in your review that that was the most understandable Shakespeare play I have ever seen!’

    Stephen Schwartz (laughing): That is so great. And you know what? She is right. That is absolutely the best description of The Lion in Winter I have ever heard. I hope you put it in your review. That is perfect.

    John Moore: You bet I did.

    Stephen Schwartz: That is just hilarious.

    John Moore: So getting back to of Bob Fosse ... I've noticed over the years that whenever you are interviewed, you are so disarmingly honest in your answers. One might even say Pippin-esque --

    Stephen Schwartz: Yes, and that gets me into trouble a lot of the time.

    John Moore: Well I respect how you’ve openly discussed your initial, honest discomfort with how far Mr. Fosse was taking things. So I am wondering how you feel about this new version in those terms.

    Stephen Schwartz: I do feel quite honestly that there were some choices Bob made that I thought were just – well, overindulgent is the best word. That went beyond the concept of the sexuality that he injected into it.

    John Moore: And here’s where I think the real danger lies: It's not whether Broadway gets it right, or the national touring production, because you control that. But you can’t know how that indulgence expresses itself in local productions across the country that might not have someone to reign it in. I have seen productions of Pippin where they take that Bob Fosse element and they times it by 10.

    Stephen Schwartz: Yes, I know -- and that's so not the show. And it really misses the tone that Bob was going for, and I think largely succeeded with. What I like about this new production, is that, yes, it is still a very sexy show. And a lot of those elements that Bob created remain in the show intact. But I think Diane, with her intelligence -- and frankly with her taste -- never lets it go over the line. Even in the famed ‘sex ballet’ section, it doesn't go over the line, I feel.

    Pippin_Stephen_Schwartz_Quote_3

    John Moore: You may get a kick out of the headline of my essay after having seen the new revival on Broadway last October. It read: "Broadway wins over a Pippin pessimist."

    Stephen Schwartz: Well you know what? That could MY headline on this one, too.

    John Moore: You’re kidding … Really?

    Stephen Schwartz: Oh, yeah. Because Roger and I resisted for so long going forward. I don't know if we were pessimistic, but we certainly had trepidation about it. And I think I can speak for Roger when I say we have been totally won over. I am just a huge fan of this production.

    John Moore: I never had any question about Pippin the character, or his story, because it's so clearly universal. I wrote, 'You don't have to be 17 and coming of age to feel this show in your open heart and rambling bones. You just have to have come of age.’ That has to be somewhat true of any 17-year-old of any century. But my first Pippin was a very small community theatre production in 1986, and I remember thinking that it felt like this was a signature work for its time – which was the 1970s, and already had passed. So at first, I wasn't sure how revisiting it in 2012 could really work, or why it was even necessary – not without turning it into a whole new modern, hipper theatre experience. But I think what impressed me the most about this new version was how muscular it was. I mean, this show is a true physical display of athletic and acrobatic skill.  I also thought it was just charming in how self-deprecating it was in its telling.

    Stephen Schwartz: I agree with all of that. So much of Pippin was of its time. It was written in the time of the Vietnam War and the Generation Gap and 'Don't trust anybody over 30.' And in that whole context, frankly, I think merely reproducing the original -- if that were even possible --  would have felt quite dated. That's one of the reasons I was optimistic when Diane approached me, because that's one of the things she achieved with Hair. It was of its time, but it had a contemporary sensibility. It was like living in the moment, and then looking at the moment at the same time -- and I thought that was a pretty remarkable achievement. Pippin is certainly less specifically of its time than Hair was of its, but I still think that's part of what Diane has achieved here.

    John Moore: I'm glad you brought up the Vietnam War, because I am of the generation that just missed most of that, so I did not grow up thinking of war as a universal. But now, everyone who is Pippin's age in America has lived their entire conscious lives with their country in a state of military conflict.

    Stephen Schwartz: Exactly.

    John Moore: … So maybe young people today will take a perspective into this new Pippin that's more in line with the young people who saw Pippin in 1972. War is a universal for this generation – because, for them, it’s always been there.

    Stephen Schwartz: Well, that's unfortunately a “for sure.” And in that same kind of controversial and divisive way that the Vietnam War was. It’s not like World War II, where everyone was united in thinking this was something that we had to do as a country. Iraq was extremely polarizing and divisive, so … yeah.

    John Moore: Let’s touch on a couple of other key elements. First, you have changed the ending. What can we say about that without giving anything away?

    Stephen Schwartz: Now, that is something I have no doubt Bob Fosse would have been happy with, if only we had thought of it back then. There are reasons we couldn't have – reasons that go beyond just that we weren't smart enough to think of it. But I will say this new ending is so clearly the right ending for the show.

    John Moore: Why do you say you two could not have eventually come up with this new idea the first time around?

    Stephen Schwartz: It has to do with the fact that, in the original show, the character of Theo was a little boy. He was 6. In this cast, he is a bit older than that.

    John Moore: OK, I am going to leave it at that.

    Stephen Schwartz: And so will I.

    Pippin_Stephen_Schwartz_Quote_4John Moore: You mentioned Ben Vereen. Obviously a huge change is having your Leading Player be played by a woman.

    Stephen Schwartz: I knew one of the problems we would have to overcome in doing any big, commercial revival of Pippin would be memory of Ben Vereen everybody would bring into it. You’d start out with people wanting to see that. And, of course, that's impossible. So we had to either somehow break that -- or overcome that. So when Diane said, 'Well, what if the character of the Leading Player is a woman?' -- that made us think, 'Well … then you can't be sitting there saying, ‘He’s no Ben Vereen!’ --  which is what I think any male performer would have encountered. Oddly enough, I feel like, now that we have done this -- If at some point in the future we wanted to go back to a male Leading Player, there are certain things about the way the show is written, and some of the new things that we have added -- particularly between the Leading Player and Catherine -- that I think would not go down as well if the Leading Player were male. It would seem a little brutal.

    John Moore: And before we leave: How great is it that you have John Rubinstein coming on board to play Pippin’s father after having originated the role of Pippin in 1972?

    Stephen Schwartz: Is that the best? I mean, is that the best ever? And this was not stunt casting. We walked into the auditions and John Rubinstein’s name was on the list. There were some other really good people, too. Of course, we were amazed and delighted that John was coming in to audition. But he was the best. Frankly, I don't think we would have done it if we hadn't felt that he was the best choice. But the idea of it was so irresistible. There was one moment in auditions, and it was only for Roger and me. John read the chapel scene and there is a line where Pippin says, 'Time has passed you by, father.’ And Charlemagne's line back is, 'And your time has come, my son?'  I mean, hearing that from John? I can't even talk about it. It was just so emotional to hear John Rubinstein say that line. I know it doesn't have the same resonance for people who are just seeing the show for the first time. But for Roger and me? That was a pretty emotional moment.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    Stephen Schwartz: Major works

    • Butterflies are Free, 1969
    • Godspell, 1971
    • Mass 1971
    • Pippin, 1972
    • The Magic Show, 1974
    • The Baker’s Wife ,1976
    • The Perfect Peach (children’s book), 1977
    • Working ,1978
    • Personals, 1985
    • Captain Louie (children’s show), 1986
    • Rags, 1986
    • Children of Eden, 1991
    • Pocahontas, 1995
    • The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996
    • Reluctant Pilgrim (CD of 11 songs), 1997
    • The Prince of Egypt, 1998
    • Geppetto 2000 (re-named My Son Pinocchio)
    • Uncharted Territory (CD of 11 songs), 2001
    • Wicked, 2003
    • Mit Eventyr/My Fairytale, 2005
    • Séance on a Wet Afternoon, 2009

     

    'The Pippin Profiles':  

    • Circus Creator Gyspy Snyder
    • Choreographer Chet Walker
    • Composer Stephen Schwartz (today)
    • Director Diane Paulus (coming next)
    • Actor John Rubinstein (Charlemagne)
    • Actor Kyle Selig (Pippin)
    • Actor Sasha Allen (Leading PLayer)
    • Actor Luci Arnaz (Berthe)
    • Actor Sabrina Harper (Fastrada)
    • Actor Kristine Reese (Catherine)

    Pippin: Ticket information

    Sept 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org


    Previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

  • The 'Pippin' Profiles: Bob Fosse protégé Chet Walker

    by John Moore | Aug 14, 2014
    Chet_Walker_Pippin_1Choreographer Chet Walker believes the legendary Bob Fosse "had a style, not a technique."

    (Note: "The Pippin Profiles" is a series of interviews by Arts Journalist John Moore with the "Pippin The Musical" cast and creative team leading up to the launch of the first national touring production in Denver on Sept. 6. Today: Choreographer Chet Walker.)  



    Bob Fosse has been gone for 27 years, but protégé Chet Walker still refers to the icon of modern dance exclusively as “Mr. Fosse.”

    “He deserves that respect,” Walker said.

    When Walker met Fosse in 1972, “I was the size of a peanut,” he said. Walker was 16 and auditioning to join the cast of Fosse’s TV concert, Liza with a Z. Two years later, he was added to the company of Pippin, playing a peasant. That led to several impressionable years “behind the table” assisting and observing Fosse, who died in 1987. Walker then conceived the Broadway tribute Fosse, which won the 1989 Tony Award for best musical. 

    Walker doesn’t know the driven, oversexed hothead many people remember as the semi-fictional character Roy Scheider played in the Fosse-directed film, All that Jazz. The mentor Walker knew never raised his voice or got angry. He says the primary lessons Fosse taught him were “humanity, how to be with people and how to listen.”

    Wait … not technique?

    'That’s the thing: Mr. Fosse didn’t have a technique,” said Walker. “What he did have was incredible style.”

    Chet_Walker_Pippin_2

    When Pippin Director Diane Paulus knew she wanted to bring Pippin back to life and set it in the athletic and sensuous world of circus acrobatics and gymnastics -- “we knew we had to bring back the Fosse, too,” she said. “It's just too connected.”

    Paulus also knew there was only one man for the job of "bringing back the Fosse": Choreographer Chet Walker.

    “He had worked with Fosse for years, and so having Chet was so important to me,” she said.

    When Paulus told Walker she wanted to transplant Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hinson’s quintessential musical search for meaning inside the world of the circus, she got all the confirmation she needed that she was on the right path from Walker. “He told us about Fosse’s fascination with all things (Federico) Fellini and clowns,” Paulus said. “And really that’s all over even the original choreography. It’s almost inside the DNA of the original production.”

    When they got into the rehearsal room, Pippin Circus Creator Gypsy Snyder says Walker “was the holder of all things Fosse.” But the goal was not – except in certain circumstances, to merely re-create Fosse’s signature choreography. It was to tell the story “in the style of Mr. Fosse,” Walker said.

    In a wide-ranging interview, Walker talks about being “the keeper of the Fosse flame,” and what exactly “the style of Mr. Fosse” really means. And take our word for it – it ain’t “jazz hands” .... 

    John Moore: What goes through your mind when you’re told, ‘You are the only person for this job’?

    Chet Walker: It's interesting because I didn't know exactly what ‘my job’ was going to be in the beginning, or how it was all going to work. You had what Gypsy was doing with the circus, and then you had Diane’s vision, and then there was this question of how to incorporate Mr. Fosse's work -- or the work that would be in his style. We knew we should not just try to repeat Mr. Fosse's work, because the concept of this show is very different. So … it was daunting, I can tell you that. To be honest, I didn’t really know how to do it at first. But Diane is such an amazing director, and she was very clear as to the possibilities. So we literally looked at all the possibilities of how the circus and dance and acting could all work together, and I think we ultimately got it to be very seamless. But I don't think we knew exactly how to do that in the beginning.

    John Moore: That had to be the fun of it though, wasn’t it -- the not knowing?

    Chet Walker: Oh, yes. But you have to understand that back in the 1970s, we didn't question anything. We did what Mr. Fosse said to do. He was a Svengali in a very positive way. You see, I wasn't in the original Pippin cast. I came in when everyone went to Chicago, about two years after it first opened. Back then, our entire version of Pippin was based on Mr. Fosse's vision of that show. When you look at this new version of the show, very little has changed in the script, and nothing at all has changed in the music. And yet nevertheless … it's a whole different show. It's amazing that after 40 years the same story can be told in a whole different arena. It's not really a revival, per se … I believe it is truly a new show.

    John Moore: What were your first impressions of meeting Mr. Fosse?

    Chet Walker: Oh my gosh, I was a mere child. I went to the audition for Liza with a Z. I had my tights on, my white little socks, my ballet shoes and a black and green and white striped shirt. I was the size of a peanut. It was a Saturday, and it was raining, and I really don't know why I even showed up. But I did. I was this embryonic little person surrounded by all of these men. But the way that Mr. Fosse responded to me was not like he responded to anybody else. He allowed me to stay. He was kind, and so generous. The whole time, my eyes were just … open. I had not been around a male figure like that before. A lot of my dancing teachers were female, so I had never really been around a dominating male figure who was that charismatic. I mean, let’s face it: The guy was charismatic.

    Chet_Walker_Pippin_3

    John Moore: What did you learn from him?

    Chet Walker: His teaching wasn't like teaching. It was like observation. It was like being in a lab and being able to observe everything from many different points of view. A lot of the people who were around him were muses, or people he was creating things for. I was really a different person in the room. Yes, I was a performer for him, but my relationship was always behind the table, talking about why, when, how this and that. And that made my relationship with him so different. So when people talk about him the way they do, I don't recognize this person that they talk about.

    John Moore: After spending so many years over his shoulder, what was it like when it was your time to step forward?

    Chet Walker: Well, his passing made that happen. When he passed away while we were doing Sweet Charity, I figured I would just be a dancer for as long as I could dance, and that would be it. On his passing, yes, mine was one of the shoulders it was put on. I would go out and do all kinds of things that were related to Mr. Fosse. But I had created what we now know as (the musical) Fosse long before it was called Fosse.  It started with a TV show that I brought to him back in 1985. And it took me 15 years to finally get it to where it was a Broadway show. That was a huge responsibility -- but it was one that I wanted to have. When you want to have a responsibility, it's not such a hardship. And boy, you think you know someone … until you start to really do the work. I remember on my first meeting with him about the show, I brought all my research to him. And he looks at it and says, 'Well you know, this is not everything I've done.' And I’m like, ‘Oh no?’ He would always have that smirk because he would tell you things and you would say, 'Oh my God, you're kidding me -- You did that, too?' It was interesting. The whole process of knowing this man and knowing his work and watching how he worked in the business ... you can't go to school for that.

    John Moore: I mean this next question in all sincerity, although it's going to sound provocative. But I think you have made quite a legacy for yourself when a man from the dance world, which is not widely known by the general public, is identifiable by the mere saying of the words … ‘Jazz hands.’ Everyone knows you are talking about Bob Fosse.

    Chet Walker: Well I never equate that to Mr. Fosse, because ‘jazz hands’ is a position. And in Mr. Fosse's world, those hands in a dance would have ended up being some sort of imagery. It's funny because people go, 'I'm a Fosse dancer,' and I always go, 'Well, that's interesting, because if you didn't actually work with Mr. Fosse, then you are not a Fosse dancer. It's sort of like, 'You're not a Balanchine dancer unless you have worked with Mr. Balanchine. Now, you may have learned from other Balanchine dancers, which is just phenomenal, but … it's not the same thing. Mr. Fosse would never have called what he did 'Fosse.' Do you know what I mean? He would never have said, 'OK everyone, today, we are going to do Fosse.' What he did was all imagery. It’s weird because people like to say, 'Oh, I am going to teach the technique of Bob Fosse,' and I say, 'But he didn't have a technique.' He had an incredible style. I don't believe that there is any one person other than Jack Cole who had a specific, ‘Wow pow, oh my gosh’ moment like Mr. Fosse. Now, Jack Cole had both a technique, and a style. But Mr. Fosse didn't have a technique per se. He had a style that was amazing.

    Chet_Walker_Pippin_4

    John Moore: And how would you describe that style?

    Chet Walker: Well, it’s unlike anyone else's. Other choreographers use many kinds of styles. And many of those styles were unbelievable. But Mr. Fosse's? When you see that walk, or you see those arms --  it is just kind of breathtaking. It really is, because it's not something that you see all the time. There is such acting in it. There is such imagery in it. It's not just dance movement. There is drama, there is humor, there is entertainment. If you look at any musical that Mr. Fosse ever had his hand in, there was always something that I call ‘the underbelly.’ There's always an underneath side of what's going on. He totally could entertain you, but if you look beyond the entertainment aspect of it, he's probably saying something else. And in Pippin -- most definitely. When Mr. Schwartz wrote this with Roger O. Hinson in the 1970s, there were a lot of things going on that pertained to the piece -- Charles Manson, the war, what our government was doing. Things were not always as they appeared. Mr. Fosse was very much an advocate of making it show business, and making it so that you can see the show of it. So we have a whole war section in Pippin. And then there's this whole business of The Manson Trio. That’s an iconic piece of vaudeville as we are tap-dancing through the war. And if you relate that back to Vietnam or any other war that this country has ever gone through, there's a lot that seems to be a cover-up. There is a lot of not wanting to actually see it for what it is. There is a lot of show business to it. Mr. Fosse was such a patriotic man.

    Manson_Trio_Pippin

    Anthony Wayne, Patina Miller and Andrew Fitch perform Bob Fosse's iconic "The Manson Trio" in the 2013 Broadway revival of "Pippin." Photo by Joan Marcus.


    John Moore: You have said Mr. Fosse called the signature Manson Trio dance that because the Leading Player is a bit of a charismatic cult leader, as was Charles Manson. That he liked the juxtaposition of song-and-dance with people being killed. So will we see The Manson Trio in the new Pippin?

    Chet Walker: Absolutely. The Manson Trio is all his. That's Mr. Fosse's. That's not mine. There would be no way I could have ever created anything more perfect than that.

    John Moore: When you see any Fosse show today, you still know instantly who originally choreographed it. Can you talk about how Mr. Fosse lives on in what you’ve done?

    Chet Walker: Well, thanks that you think that. I think when you look at what we have created in Pippin, you will see a sense of showmanship to the circus, and to the theatrical. Hopefully I have paid homage to him well, and that you probably have never seen anything quite like it before.

    John Moore: We've all seen wonderful Broadway shows that play well in front of 1,000 people, and then they go out on the road and get swallowed up in these large, 3,000-seat roadhouses. But here the dancing and the circus element and the aerials actually allow Pippin the unique opportunity to actually grow into the space and take advantage of the larger canvas.     
             
    Chet Walker: This show can be played to a huge audience or to a small audience, and I think it works for both. There's going to be an intimacy to it no matter what, because the story is intimate. But the story is also huge. It is small, but it's also so impactful. And then when you see all that we have happening on that stage, I think that's what makes it so powerful.”
     
    John Moore: Considering the gymnastics and high-flying and the muscular nature of this new Pippin, do you think if these performance techniques were available in the 1970s, Mr. Fosse would have done this same thing himself?

    Chet Walker: Oh, I think so. He absolutely loved clowns, and he collected all kinds of things about clowns. You never can really know what people would have thought, but if someone had come up with the idea of doing this in 1972, I think Mr. Fosse would have jumped on the bandwagon. He would have gone for the challenge and wanted to see what that was all about. Totally.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    'The Pippin Profiles':  

    • Circus Creator Gyspy Snyder
    • Choreographer Chet Walker (today)
    • Composer Stephen Schwartz (coming up)
    • Director Diane Paulus (coming up)
    • Plus ... select members of the acting company

     

    Pippin: Ticket information

    Sept 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org

     

    Previous Pippin coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

            

     

  • The 'Pippin' Profiles: Circus Creator Gypsy Snider

    by John Moore | Aug 09, 2014

    To lifetime circus performer Gypsy Snider, "circus is like eating and sleeping and family." Photo courtesy Gypsy Snider. 

     

    Note: "The Pippin Profiles" is a series of interviews by Arts Journalist John Moore with the "Pippin The Musical" cast and creative team leading up to the launch of the first national touring production in Denver on Sept. 6. First up: Circus Creator Gypsy Snider.

    In Pippin the Musical, a family of circus performers defies death to tell their story with every flip, tumble and mid-air spin.

    The same is true of those actors performing in Pippin the Musical.

    And the same has been true of Pippin Circus Creator Gypsy Snider since she began her career as a circus performer at the tender age of 4. 

    With all respect to Stephen Schwartz, composer of Wicked and Pippin, Snider was defying gravity long before Elphaba was a green twinkle in his orchestral eye.

    Snider’s parents are the founders of San Francisco’s pioneering Pickle Family Circus, an acclaimed alternative circus often cited as a primary influence on the creation of Cirque du Soleil. Snider is the co-founder of Montreal’s 7 Fingers (Les 7 doigts de la main), a pioneering form of live entertainment that has twice brought Traces to Denver. That innovative show used astonishing displays of athletic skill to tell the real-life stories of seven street teens.

    Snider embraces circus as its own narrative storytelling form. Her brand of physical theatre requires strength, agility and grace.

    Her upbringing was like no other. She grew up around the likes of circus legends Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle. She appeared among an entire town of street performers in Robert Altman's 1980 film Popeye. By 18, she was attending a physical-theater school in Switzerland.

    She co-founded 7 Fingers in 2002 and, for her first foray into Broadway, she was called upon by Pippin Director Diane Paulus to help re-tell Schwartz’s iconic story of a young prince’s quest for meaning in life set within the world of circus. Pippin won the 2013 Tony Award for best musical revival. Its first national touring production launches at Denver’s Buell Theatre on Sept. 6.

    Modern audiences who have a familiarity with circus generally think of Cirque du Soleil. But while Snider toured with Cirque and has a deep love for it, she says Pippin should not be mistaken for it. If anything, she said, it should evoke the old days of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

    “This is old-school, hard-core circus,” she said.

    We’re talking juggling knives and swallowing fire.

    “I would say that Cirque du Soleil is like the grandfather, and we are the rebellious teenagers,” she said.

    Pippin culminates with a boy becoming a man, having to choose between a life of adventure or family. Snider has never had to pick  between the two – her small children are also embracing the circus life. But Snider’s life turned upside down in 2008, when she were diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer.

    “It was definitely a life-changing experience,” she said. Much surgery, chemotherapy chemotherapy and radiation followed.

    “Suddenly, my work felt trivial and my family became more important than ever before,” Snider said in a previous interview with Broadway Buzz. “I began to question how taxing show business can be and wondered if I should just move to the country and raise my two daughters in a stress-free environment, instead of in the glory of this wonderful but all consuming lifestyle. It was during this difficult time that Diane Paulus reached out to me about the possibility of collaborating on a new production of Pippin.”

    And when she did, her charge to Snider was simple:

    “Come make this thrilling.”

    Here are more excerpts from our recent conversation with Snider for MyDenverCenter.Org. It took place just before rehearsals were to begin for the national touring production of Pippin as Snider and her family were visiting her parents' family retreat in the Berkshires.

    The Broadway cast of "Pippin," above. The first national touring production of the iconic musical, with circus creations by Gypsy Snider, launches in Denver on Sept. 6. Photo by Joan Marcus.

     

    John Moore: When you brought Traces to Denver in 2011, could you have even imagined what your immediate future had in store for you?

    Gypsy Snider: Actually, Denver plays a semi-big part in this. When I was working in Denver, I saw all of the other productions that were being staged there at the time. I remember sitting there watching the (Denver Center Theatre Company’s) A Midsummer Night's Dream. That’s when I knew that I wanted to get back to the States, that I wanted to work in the English language and that I wanted to work in the theatre. I remember saying that to (Denver Center for the Performing Arts President) Randy Weeks afterward. I got really excited about the possibilities from Denver on.

    John Moore: How did the Pippin opportunity come about?

    Gypsy Snider: My first conversation with (Director) Diane Paulus and (Producer) Barry Weissler coincided with Traces being in Denver. She had just done a Cirque production called Amaluna, so she was really starting to be familiar with the Montreal circus scene. She had already seen tons of videos of things we had done. Barry had been following us for several years. At my first meeting with him in New York, I was like, 'What am I doing? How did I end up here?’ But Barry said, ‘Look, I don't know what to do with you. But I know that I love what you do.’ And so, he continued to follow our shows. Later on, when Diane said, ‘I think we need to put circus into the Pippin story,’ Barry said, ‘How about Gypsy? And she said, 'I totally know who you are talking about.’ And so then they sent me the script.

    John Moore: I read somewhere that you had never seen Pippin before.

    Gypsy Snider: No, I had not. Maybe I had remotely heard the music, but I didn't associate it with the story. So I read the book and … it’s a very strange piece of literature. But I fell in love with it. I instantly knew what I wanted to do with it. I read it in one hour in my bed and I just … knew. When I met with Diane, I rambled on and on. I had no idea what I was getting into. But she was sold.

    John Moore: Sounds to me like you are the rambling river in that story.

    Gypsy Snider: Oh, Diane Paulus is a big river instigator. She saw my enthusiasm. And when she feels someone has an idea that is flowing, she does an incredible job of pushing that flow and guiding that flow.

    John Moore: What specifically did you bring to the creative conversation?

    Gypsy Snider: At 7 Fingers, we have a way of bringing emotion and texture into acrobatics. In a way, I think the passion and the theatricality that circus brings to it quickly became the backbone of this new project. Of course, Bob Fosse and Stephen Schwartz are the backbone of Pippin. But in terms of rejuvenating it, the circus became the backbone of doing it this way. 

    John Moore: What was it like high-flying into the world of the original Pippin choreographer, the late Bob Fosse?

    Gypsy Snider: I was fascinated to learn the extent to which Bob Fosse was a huge influence on my career -- unbeknown to me. There is a kind of sexuality and a violence in his artwork that I always need whenever I am creating a show. I know that sex and violence sells TV shows, but Fosse really criticized the entertainment industry for the addictive and seductive nature of sexuality and violence in entertainment. I don't mean to go off on a crazy tangent, but if we are talking about seducing Pippin into a living a more extraordinary life by luring him into something that could be potentially fatal … that’s the entertainment industry. In that way, we are really looking at a retrospective of Fosse's life. That's what I found so, so fascinating about it. And then there is the innocent side of Pippin: The loving family man, the “corner of the sky” Pippin. That was absolutely the Stephen Schwartz that I got to know, amazingly, through this production. He's just so positive and so hard-working.

    John Moore: How do you think Bob Fosse would have liked the idea of setting Pippin in a circus?

    Gypsy Snider: I feel like Bob Fosse would have wanted us to do this, and that he would have done it himself if this were available to him at the time. Maybe not to this extent, but …  it was there. It was already there in the words.

    John Moore: With this reimagined version of Pippin – both setting it in the circus and, more tellingly, in consideration of the life choice Pippin faces in the end – it seems to me as if maybe Diane Paulus is saying that Pippin is you.

    Gypsy Snider: I think so. Diane and I are both the same age, and we both have two daughters. We have discussed on a very personal level the seduction of the business and this balance you try to achieve, being professional women who have families. It’s really like we are the Catherines -- but we are also being seduced like the Pippins.  It was interesting for both of us how we connected on an emotional level to this musical. Pippin has this choice to make, and one of them it to embrace this simple home life with an older woman and her child living out in the country where there is no magic and there is no makeup -- which is something Fosse presented in a very boring, very pejorative manner. And yet here I am talking to you right now while I am out here in the country with my children -- and I love it. But I also love my work. I feed on it so much, and I am proud to show my children how passionate I am about my work.

    John Moore: For 40 years, both audiences and writers alike have argued whether the ending to Pippin is a tragedy ... or a compromise ... or a perfect, happy ending. I imagine, given your life story, that you are split right down the middle.

    Gypsy Snider: I am split down the middle. For me, circus is like eating and sleeping and family. It's my brother; it's my mother; it's my father. Just talking about it makes me so emotional. There were maybe a few moments in my life when I felt like walking away from it, or perhaps trying something totally different. Circus is a very physically demanding life. It's a very itinerant life. And when my kids started going to school, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ But circus is my family, too. Sometimes I like to think of it as the mafia because it's a very closed, tight-knit circle. But the reason is because there is so much danger and risk and sacrifice involved. True circus people know each other, and there is a whole sort of respect and value system to it that is so honorable and so genuine and so truthful. To true circus people, there is no nonsense. There is no competition. There is no, 'I am better than you are.' There is no, 'I am going to be a star, but you are not going to be a star.' Each individual circus performer is absolutely unique, and that uniqueness is valued. There is no one way to do anything. Unfortunately, it's not like dance. To survive in the dance world, you have to sacrifice so much of your individuality and soul. Everyone wants to play Romeo, for example. In circus, that is not ever an issue. People don't compare themselves. There is somehow a place for everyone.

    John Moore: How do you feel about getting the whole Pippin creative team together and doing this all over again with a new cast?

    Gypsy Snider: Diane, (Choreographer Chet Walker) and I have been talking about how exciting it is going to be to get back in the room.  I am feeling like this is going to be an incredible reunion for all three of us.

    John Moore: Well, then … welcome in advance to Denver.

    Gypsy Snider: I am so excited.  There is a place in Denver that sells poutine (gravy fries with cheese curds), so I am definitely looking forward to that.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    Coming up on the Pippin Profiles:  

    • Choreographer Chet Walker
    • Director Diane Paulus
    • Composer Stephen Schwartz
    • Plus ... select members of the acting company

     

    Pippin: Ticket information

    Sept 6-20, 2014 • Buell Theatre
    Accessible Performances • Sep 20, 2pm
    Tickets: 303.893.4100 • Toll-free: 800.641.1222 • TTY: 303.893.9582
    Groups (10+) • 303.446.4829
    Online • www.DenverCenter.Org

     

    Previous "Pippin" coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    My three Pippins gather at Sardi's to honor John Rubinstein
    Photos: Exclusive look at first 'Pippin' rehearsal
    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein
    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

  • Photos: Exclusive look at today's first 'Pippin' rehearsal

    by John Moore | Jul 28, 2014

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    The cast of the highly anticipated first national touring production of the Tony-winning musical revival Pippin gathered for the first time today in New York. Director Diane Paulus, who is in Cambridge opening what is expected to be an eventual Broadway staging of Finding Neverland in Cambridge, Mass., addressed the cast and crew by video.

    The Pippin cast and crew move to Denver in two weeks to begin preparations for the Sept. 6 opening in the Buell Theatre. The final casting announcement also was released today.

    Photos provided by Pippin national touring production.

    Pippin plays in Denver from Sept. 6-20. Tickets are on sale now at 303-893-4100. Online sales are currently suspended in preparation  for a re-launch of the Denver Center's web site at www.DenverCenter.Org. Online ticket sales will resume Wednesday, July 30.

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    Previous "Pippin" coverage on MyDenverCenter.Org:

    Lucie Arnaz joins Denver-bound ‘Pippin’ as Berthe

    From Pippin to Pappa: Denver tour launch will feature John Rubinstein

    2014-15 season: ‘Pippin,’ ‘Kinky Boots’ are Denver-bound!

     

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

DCPA is the nation’s largest not-for-profit theatre organization dedicated to creating unforgettable shared experiences through beloved Broadway musicals, world-class plays, educational programs and inspired events. We think of theatre as a spark of life — a special occasion that’s exciting, powerful and fun. Join us today and we promise an experience you won't soon forget.