Patina Miller first got noticed on the theater scene in 2009 as the star of Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy. She earned rave reviews for playing the accidental nun who led a choir to stardom. Now she's center stage again in the Broadway revival of Pippin, the musical first launched in 1972. Miller takes on the role of Leading Player, the circus artist who guides a young prince in finding meaning and magic in his life. She won this year's Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical. You can also hear her on the newly released CD of the show's songs.
Miller spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about her role, which was originated by theater legend Ben Vereen 40 years ago. She also talked about the intense physical training and personal sacrifices that went into recreating Pippin.
Becoming the Leading Player, and stepping into Ben Vereen's shoes
"I had worked with the director Diane Paulus before in 2007. Then I got a call from her after I left Sister Act in 2011. And she was telling me that she was gonna revive Pippin, and that she had this idea for the Leading Player to be a woman. And that immediately sparked my interest.
"I'm sure there were tons of people who were like, 'No one could ever top Ben Vereen.' So I came into this process with a challenge – a really big challenge – is how do you make Pippin different, but also how do you also take people's minds off the fact that people come in expecting Ben Vereen? And that's why I think that Diane is so smart in that she completely made it so different in making the Leading Player a woman. ... And I didn't really know Pippin that well, so I could come into it, you know it's like a blank canvas. I could just make this world my own and there wasn't something that I had to compare myself to."
"The good thing is, before I started, I started to take lessons on trapeze. But I also started to get into fitness, getting into getting healthy and taking care of my body. ... The one thing about my character I wanted was for my character to be really strong. I wanted her to be able to hold her own. Flying in the air — it's not easy. You know, I'm very strong, but I was strong in a different way. So I had to find a way of building muscle in a different way to be able to hold my body weight on the trapeze. ... It's nonstop physical movement the entire show, and also singing, and this big emotional arc that my character goes through the show. So I just wanted to be prepared mentally, physically to be able to take on the role."
"I don't go to parties, I don't really go to bars. You know it kind of sucks sometimes 'cause your friends want you to go out, but they understand that, you know, if I go out right now, I'm jeopardizing what I have to do at night. ... I like taking care of myself because I like being onstage. I've been given a great opportunity to do what I love to do eight times a week. I don't want to mess that up. ... I haven't been social in the way that I used to be social, but that's kind of one of the things that you sacrifice for something that you want to do."
Doubts after her last Sister Act performance
"After that all ended for me in 2011 after such a long time, I went into the depression of 'Was this a mistake, you know? Was this going to be my only show? Did this happen by accident?' And I started questioning myself and my ability. And luckily I have an amazing mother and an amazing fiance who really just kind of like, you know, talked me off the ledge a little bit, and was like, 'Stop this! You haven't had a time to rest for a long time, like this is a good thing.' And as soon as I stopped being depressed about 'Gosh people are looking forward to what I'm gonna do next' – that was the question, right? When people saw me, 'Oh so do you have anything lined up?' – after that moment, I think I left in March. In June, Diane called me about Pippin.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, I want to share some words about my dear friend and colleague Teshima Walker. She was the executive producer of this program and, as you might have already heard, she passed away recently. I want to share some thoughts about her in just a few minutes. But first, a special conversation with Tony Award-winning actress Patina Miller. She first got noticed on the theater scene in 2009 as the star of "Sister Act - A Divine Musical Comedy." She earned rave reviews for playing the accidental nun who led a choir to stardom. Now Patina Miller takes center stage again in the Broadway revival of "Pippin." The musical first launched in 1972. Miller takes on the role of Leading Player, the circus artist who guides a young prince in finding meaning and magic in his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGIC TO DO")
MARTIN: That was Patina Miller singing "Magic To Do" in "Pippin." Miller won this year's Tony Award for starring in the revival. You can also hear her on the newly released CD of the shows' songs. And she is with us now. Welcome, congratulations on everything.
PATINA MILLER: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, it's good to be here.
MARTIN: How did it come to you to play the Leading Player? I think many people will remember that that was a role originated by Ben Vereen 40 years ago.
MILLER: Yes, well, I had worked with the director, Diane Paulus, before in 2007. Then I got a call from her after I left "Sister Act" in 2011 and she was telling me that she was going to revive "Pippin" and that she had this idea for the Leading Player to be a woman, and that, like, immediately sparked my interest. I thought it was so clever and so amazing, you know, to do a revival and think of it in such a different way. And that's just the kind of director she is. So, you know, she called me in and told me what she had in mind of what she wanted this character to be and asked me if I would come in and audition, and I did and the rest is history. I'm telling you, it's been the most amazing experience of my life.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of history, I believe this is the first time, for this role, that a woman and a man have each won the award for the same character.
MILLER: Yeah, that's pretty insane.
MARTIN: It is, and so I was wondering, following Ben Vereen, did it make it better or worse that you're a woman?
MILLER: You know, I actually have to say a lot of people were excited for me to do it and, you know, I'm sure there were tons of people who were like, no one could ever top Ben Vereen, so I came into this process with a challenge - a really big challenge is how do you make "Pippin" different, but also, how do you take people's minds off the fact that - you know, people come in expecting Ben Vereen and that's why I think Diane is so smart in that she completely made it so different in making the Leading Player a women.
So that you can kind of go in, you're not going to see Ben Vereen, you already know you're not seeing him, you're not seeing another man, so you can't compare it to that, but you can see it through the eyes of something different, and I didn't really know "Pippin" that well, so I could come into it, you know, as like a blank canvas. I could just make this world my own and there wasn't something that I had to compare myself to. And so that's kind of how I threw myself into it and it was great for me as an actor to be able to create this character that people thought they knew but to be able to bring something different to it.
MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about "Pippin" in a minute, but I did want to ask, this is the second time that you have taken on a role that other...
MILLER: ...People may have already formed opinions about because you played the same character that Whoopi Goldberg played in the film version, you know, of "Sister Act," and you were a relative newcomer at that stage, I mean, was that hard? I mean, did people come in expecting to see Whoopi Goldberg?
MILLER: You know, to be given a role like that at 24 years old, having never lead a company and to go over to another country and perform by yourself and lead the show, and you know, people love Whoopi over there. So it was frightening and scary but at the end of the day, I really wanted it so much and I wanted the opportunity to be able to just be an actor and find my way throughout this piece and make people see that, you know, you're not seeing Whoopi but you're seeing a performer who is giving her all and making you have a good time and hopefully in the end they forget about it, you know.
MARTIN: You talked to Whoopi about it though, right?
MILLER: Yes, I did.
MARTIN: At one point - Whoopi, like we're friends, like, right, I'm acting like she's my best friend, right...
MILLER: ...Yeah, Whoop, you know, I talk to Whoops.
MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. Was she nice about it?
MILLER: Yes, she was the most down-to-earth person ever. I met her right before I went out to London and she just let me know she was there for me every step of the way, and she knew that it was going to be hard for me stepping into her shoes because she knows, you know, "Sister Act" was a huge film, but she told me to just do my thing and forget about what other people think about it. Don't be afraid but use it, and that's exactly what I did.
MARTIN: It would've been really rough if she'd gone the other way...
MILLER: ...Oh, God.
MARTIN: ...And go, yeah, girl, you just cannot possibly - you know...
MILLER: ...Well that would've been awful.
MARTIN: What would you do?
MILLER: I would cry in the corner or something.
MILLER: But I would've pulled it off.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tony Award-winning actress Patina Miller. We're talking about her role in the Broadway revival of "Pippin" and also about the rest of her career. I want to play another song from "Pippin." This is a bit from your solo, "Simple Joys."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLE JOYS")
MARTIN: Couple things I wanted to ask about that. First of all, this role is very physically demanding.
MARTIN: I mean, you can hear, it's vocally demanding but it's physically demanding. You spend a lot of the time like literally in the air.
MARTIN: Performing on a - what would you call it? A high wire?
MILLER: A trapeze.
MARTIN: A trapeze.
MARTIN: So that's the first thing I wanted to ask, which is, how do you keep yourself together to do that, eight performances a week?
MILLER: Well, the good thing is before I started I started to take lessons on trapeze, but I also started to really get into fitness, getting into being healthy and taking care of my body. So about a year ago - I mean, I've always been physical and everything but I wanted to really start getting into figuring out how strong I could get without bulking up. And so I started taking personal physical training and nutritional things with these trainers at Mark Fisher Fitness here in New York City, and I really got into it.
Something that I really love to do and the one thing about my character I wanted was for my character to be really strong. I wanted her to be able to hold her own and a lot of that, you know, flying in the air - it's not easy. You know, I'm very strong but I was strong in a different way so I had to find a way of building muscle in a different way to be able to hold my bodyweight on the trapeze and I'm dancing a lot, I'm doing a lot of Fosse, it's nonstop physical movement the entire show. And also singing in this big emotional arc that my character goes through the show. So I just wanted to be prepared mentally - physically to be able to take on the role.
MARTIN: Do you have to take steps to preserve your strength and voice that perhaps friends and family don't quite understand? Like not speaking on your day off, for example?
MILLER: Yes, yes, yes, there are days where it's, like, you know, I know what I need to do tomorrow, so I - you know, I come home and I crash. Being on this journey for two hours and 30 minutes and some days, you know, you do it twice in a day, can be very taxing on your body and on your voice. And so I really have to be strict about the things that I do. But, you know, I've learned throughout this process that I'm stronger than I think I am. It's allowed me to not have to be a nun like how I was in "Sister Act."
MARTIN: Well, do you literally, like, not go to parties? I've heard Broadway performers say they don't go to parties because they can't afford to project over the crowd noise.
MILLER: No, I mean, I...
MARTIN: ...So yes, you do go or you don't go?
MILLER: No, I do not go to parties, I mean, no, not at all. I don't go to parties, I don't really go to bars and, you know, it kind of sucks sometimes 'cause your friends want you to go out, but they understand that, you know, if I go out right now I'm jeopardizing what I have to do at night. And listen, I love what I do so much and I don't want to jeopardize that at all. So I like taking care of myself because I like being on stage. I've been given a great opportunity to do what I love to do eight times a week. I don't want to mess that up.
MARTIN: One of those weird ironies that here you are, like the toast of Broadway, but you can't go out.
MILLER: I know, right?
MARTIN: You have to go home and drink tea.
MILLER: I know, our opening night party was so amazing, but the entire time I'm like whispering in people's ears. Just like, you know, you have to talk to so many people on your opening night and everyone congratulating you and you're so excited but, like, you know that you have a show to do tomorrow and it's like midnight, and you want to have a drink but you can't have a drink. I don't think I've really touched any alcohol or anything else. I haven't been social in the way that I used to be social, but that's kind of one of the things that you sacrifice for something that you want to do.
MARTIN: Interesting, though, because "Pippin" is in part about what would you do to be extraordinary.
MARTIN: What risks and sacrifices are you prepared to take to be extraordinary, to really understand who you are meant to be, you know, in this world. When you think about the path that you've taken - you were Tony-nominated for your first major role, you won for your second major role, great and amazing on the one hand, but on the other hand is it a little scary 'cause you kind of feel like, what'll I do for my follow-up? What's my next thing?
MILLER: Yeah, those are the things I think a lot of actors go through. I mean, after "Sister Act" I was - I remember thinking to myself when I left after my last show, and I had been working since 2000 - well, since I graduated I've been working nonstop. And so after that all ended for me in 2011, after such a long time, I went into like a depression of, was this a mistake, you know, was this going to be my only show? Did this happen by accident?
And I started questioning myself and my ability, and luckily I have amazing - an amazing mother and an amazing fiance who really just kind of like, you know, talked me off the ledge a little bit and was like, stop this, you know, you haven't had a time to rest for a long time, like, this is a good thing. And as soon as I stopped being depressed about, gosh, people are looking forward to what I'm going to do next. That was the question right, when people saw me - oh, so do you have anything lined up? After that moment, I think I left in March, in June Diane called me about "Pippin."
MARTIN: So you never thought oh, gosh, I should have majored in electrical engineering?
MILLER: No, I...
MARTIN: ...I always have that to fall back on.
MILLER: ...I always knew that this is what I was going to do and I was going to stop at nothing to get what I wanted. Like Pippin who's on this journey, as an artist, you know, I've always wanted to do this. I wasn't going to stop because what my idea of when I was young of, you know, I'm going to be a star, and how do I get there? So I went to school, I studied musical theater, I went to college, I was first in my family to go to college and, you know, I've been working professionally. I've been doing all of these things - now what's next? And I've learned, doing the show, that just being in the moment, like Bertha says in "Pippin," and experiencing, you know, the joys and all the other things of what life is now is enough, you know, 'cause nothing's guaranteed, so why not just live in the moment. And that's kind of what, you know, my whole thing is now, is just living from day to day, enjoying the blessings in what I get to do now.
MARTIN: Well, I'm going to let you save the rest of your voice for today, so thanks for coming in...
MILLER: ...Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: ...And sharing a little bit of it with us.
MARTIN: Patina Miller is a Tony Award-winning actress. She portrays Leading Player in the Broadway revival of "Pippin." The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, and she was kind enough to stop by our New York bureau to speak with us. Congratulations, once again.
MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.