Kyle Dean Massey is currently playing the title role in the Tony Award-winning revival of Pippin on Broadway, directed by Diane Paulus. I had the honor of interviewing him last week.
Teresa: Last April I took my daughters to see you in Pippin on Broadway with you in the title role. After seeing their art school’s really intriguing production, we just fell in love with the story so we wanted to see it on Broadway. We adored it, became obsessed with cast cd, and at this point we can’t even say the words, “join us” without adding a Fosse hip. We were thrilled with your performance because you have such a believable innocence, an incredible voice, and you make a great hero.
Kyle Dean: Thank you!
Where have our readers seen you before on the stage?
On Broadway I’ve played Fiyero in Wicked for many years, on and off. I played Gabe, Alice Ripley’s son, in Next to Normal, Thalia, the muse of comedy, in Xanadu, and on tour I played Billy Lawlor in 42nd Street in its most recent revival.
What can you tell us about Next to Normal, a musical that deals with mental illness? The subject matter seems like an interesting choice for a musical.
It was. The whole idea of creating a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder, I think from a producer’s standpoint, is a hard sell. The fact that they got the show off the ground, with David Stone, the producer of Wicked, behind it and that had a healthy run on Broadway says a lot about the quality of the work. I really respect those guys so much and it was an incredible experience to do that show.
That’s a brave choice to tell a powerful story of a potentially risky and stigmatized subject.
Absolutely, we didn’t have anything like that in the musical theater repertoire that people knew at the time. I think people were very surprised and moved by it. I have nothing but great things to say about it.
When did you get theater bug and what’s your first memory of stage work?
I didn’t really do my first play until I was a sophomore in high school, however my sister was a dancer who took ballet and tap classes. When I was 5 or 6, I saw her in The Nutcracker, which was about as close to a play as I was ever going to see at that point in my life. I told my parents I wanted to be in it, too, so they signed me up for dance class and the next year, I was in The Nutcracker. So I have some random dance training, I took piano lessons, and I was in the choir. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas where there was not a heavy arts culture, so I did what I could.
Do you recall where you were and what you were doing when you got the call offering you the role of Pippin?
Yes, it was during intermission when I was in Wicked. I went straight from Wicked into Pippin, with not even a single day off, actually. I got the call on a Saturday, my last performance of Wicked was on Sunday, and I started Pippin rehearsals on Monday.
What made you want to play this role?
Well, this is the first show I’ve ever done that is a revival and the first show that I have a nostalgic feeling for because I grew up listening to the original cast recording and knew all of the songs. There is a video made around 1980 based on the original production.
The one with Ben Vereen as Leading Player?
Yes! It’s a little tough to watch, maybe not the best record of the show, I don’t think.
Yes. A good production, but a little dated.
Yeah, so I was familiar with the show and I have always loved the music. And I had seen this [current Broadway] production last summer and it really blew my mind. For someone who knew the original I felt like, “Now it makes sense to me, now I get it!” I think it’s amazing and I was really moved by it. So I think having seen the show before and being familiar with it growing up made me really want to be a part of it. It looked really fun.
I agree and I think adding the cirque elements (thanks to Gyspy Snider) is ingenious. What is your favorite scene you are in and one that you are not in?
There aren’t many scenes I’m not in, actually, just “Magic to Do,” really, and it’s such an amazing number, so that would be my favorite that I’m not in. My favorite scenes to be in change from night to night, and I find that to be true of every show I’ve done for a long run. I have to say I really enjoy being onstage with Rachel Bay Jones (who plays Catherine) because we are always finding new things within each other and finding new things to play. It never feels the same, it feels different every single show. I like that. It keeps it fresh and alive for us. For people who come to see the show are going to get a unique performance every time they come.
Pippin is a physically challenging role given the acrobatics incorporated in the revival. Throughout the show, you somersault off someone’s shoulders, climb poles, and literally jump through hoops. Have there been many kinks, glitches, or moments where stunts didn’t go as planned?
Of course! It happens all the time. I have no previous gymnastic or acrobatic experience whatsoever, so all of the stuff I’m doing in the show are new skills. It’s always a little shaky and I still go to training every day. Sometimes I land a little too far back on a flip or I don’t climb up on the riser quite right, or it really could be any number of things. But, it’s no different from any other show I’ve been in. Every other Broadway show I’ve ever done, something wrong happens every show. There is rarely a perfect show. I guess that’s one of the skills you pick up along the way. You are just kind of able to…
Roll with it?
Yeah, you roll with it, and you are able to play it, or either ignore it, acknowledge it or incorporate it. Sometimes it’s fun when things go wrong. What’s interesting about Pippin is that it’s a show within a show, so I’m actually a player who is playing the role of Pippin.
Because of that layered story within a story, when performing are you usually in the mindset of being Pippin, son of Charles, or the player that has been chosen to act out the role of Pippin?
Well. It’s both, and I think this player, that I am playing the player self and the Pippin self are very close. I don’t think there is much of a difference between the guy that I’m playing and the role of Pippin. Toward the end of the show there are more instances of going in and out of the play. But that is what is so fun about this show, is finding those moments when you are the player and moments when you are being Pippin. There are moments where you believe what you are saying, as well as times when you are saying the lines you supposed to say. It’s fun because it never gets old to me. When things go wrong you can acknowledge it as a player. There is something freeing about that.
There is a depth to the story of Pippin that touches on the dark side of the human experience. It’s a story open to interpretation and has many themes–what is the story of Pippin in your eyes?
It’s hard, because if you look at Pippin, he’s this prince who is given every opportunity to be successful, yet he can be a little whiney. He’s trying to find himself, but he’s just not quite happy. I can identify with that, as I think a lot of people can. They wonder if they are truly happy and think, “Am I doing what I do because I want to do this or because my family thought I should do this, or because someone thinks it’s my role or duty?” With Pippin, he really has a turning point when he finally stops trying so hard to find his own happiness and he really focuses on taking care of Theo. It’s when he takes care of the child, the first time he cares about someone else, and stops worrying so much about himself, that he finally finds some happiness, which I think is really interesting. And at the end of the story, while the lead player is the one who has been pushing the plot forward, telling Pippin to do this or try that.
So in my mind, the show is packed with themes, but I can’t help but look at it from the contemporary viewpoint of how we are constantly faced with other people’s lives and other people’s choices. For instance with Facebook, you are happy with your choices until you get on Facebook and see that someone else took a vacation, got a raise at their job, or is having another kid. You wonder why you haven’t taken a vacation, gotten a raise, or had another kid. I think there is something to be said about finding your own happiness by making your own decisions and being happy with them. I like the fact that there is not a sweet syrupy ending in this show, either. It acknowledges that things may not always be 100 percent [perfect], but at the end of the day you have to make up your own mind, make your own decisions, and stick with them.
It’s interesting to think about Theo in light of the new ending, and what the influence Pippin may have on him and his future decisions. I love the open ending.
Yes, and another thing I think about a lot is the whole idea of being extraordinary, how that term is used a lot in the show, and what that is exactly in terms of what we all give up to achieve that. It’s easy to look at the show on the surface and think that it’s a show about living a simple life and not living in the spotlight, but I don’t think that’s really the message. I think it’s more about the lengths we go to find our own happiness and feel extraordinary and what we give up. People don’t talk about that a lot.
That’s true, because everyone has to make choices and in those choices, something, even things of importance, gets left behind.
It is true, and they can be things that you love, even things you adore, but you make a choice and you move forward. So, I really connect with that [theme]. People will tell you to go for your dreams, but no one tells you that it can mean you never ever get to go home for Christmas, you know what I mean?
Yes! That’s my next question- What do you feel you’ve given up to achieve your dreams?
Oh my goodness, gosh, in my business, a lot. Being on Broadway means 8 shows a week and you are tethered to this city. You can’t go anywhere unless you can get back in 12 hours. Unfortunately, Broadway is only in New York City. I rarely get to go back to Arkansas. You have to live a certain way to be in a Broadway show, you have to live like a monk (laughs). But I would not trade those things because I really love what I do. There is a give and take with everything, and I think this show addresses that, and a lot of things that people don’t like to talk about.
I agree that this show lends itself to great discussion about life choices.
Yeah, it’s crazy, we fall into these holes of talking about the show at work all the time (laughing) because there is a lot there, a lot to mine. What’s really great is people will come and see the show and they will have a different take on it and that is exactly what we hope they do. There is not a right or wrong interpretation, it’s however it strikes you personally. For children it will have a different meaning, and if they come back and see it as adults, they may come away with a new meaning.
That’s excellent. And as you said, the ending emphasizes that everyone is going to have to go through their own experience of making choices and decisions.
How did Director Diane Paulus help you shape your performance?
That’s a little hard to answer. The way that Diane works is different than other directors I’ve worked with. What is so wonderful about Diane is that she has a lot of big ideas. She sets up a world of given circumstances for you to exist in. A lot of directors will go moment by moment and tell you what you need to feel in each moment. Diana doesn’t do that. She wants you to think about who you are [as Pippin], who the other actors are and just says, “Now go.” It’s fun and it’s terrifying at the same time because you can second guess yourself a lot when you are given free rein in that regard.
What I like and automatically agree with is the stakes in this show are very high. Although the story could be seen as a little wishy-washy as a show about someone trying to find their happiness, there is a very life and death quality to this particular production. The circus elements involve truly death defying acts. People are risking their lives every night, like Priscilla Lopez hanging upside down on a trapeze with no net! There is a certain danger to this production which I think heightens everything, makes it more exciting, and gives us [as actors] and incredible and dangerous place to live in.
Are there other roles that you covet or hope to play in the future? Do you have a dream role?
Well, the typical canned answer would be something new that someone writes for me, which would be good because I’ve never gotten to originate a Broadway role. I’ve originated a show Off Broadway, but I would love to originate a show on Broadway. That would be really awesome.
Is there a story, in the back of your mind, that needs to be told that hasn’t been made into a musical or play yet?
It’s funny you say that, because there are lots of things I think about or that come across [my path] and funnily enough, some of them happened. I always really wanted the film Soapdish to be turned into a Broadway show and there has been work on it for maybe five years now, so they are on it. As far as Disney Theatricals are concerned, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has always had my favorite music and it’s being done in California this fall. So those are the two I’ve thought about and they are on the way.
We just did Les Miserables with our community theater. The music is so wonderful and we really enjoyed it, is that a show you’ve done or cared to do?
Not really. I like that show, but if I had to pick one of the 1980’s-1990’s British operettas, it would definitely be Miss Saigon. That would be my favorite. For me, Les Mis is a bit of a convoluted story. The storytelling was really good in the film and helped me understand it a little more. I love the show and I think the music is great. I sing songs form the show all the time. But I haven’t really had any desire to do that show.
I’ve read about your LGBT support I just want to thank you for being such an inspiring role model, especially for GBLT youth. I have a gay sister and her relationships and the way she lived were extremely influential on me as a mother and as a person. Did you have any concerns at that time that it could have had a negative effect on your career?
Thanks! No, I didn’t. It was around the time I was doing Next to Normal that I became more outspoken about it, which was about 5 or 6 years ago. I was doing interviews at the time and people were asking me about significant others and I was open.
When the It Gets Better Project came about a playwright friend of mine sent me the first video the day it was made, I think. I watched it and wanted to make one specifically for theater kids.
I think because somehow I got on that bandwagon early, I got a little more attention from that, which made it more of a public outing. I get emails about that video every single week.
From fans who have been touched by it?
From kids who are not even just touched, who say, “I was going to kill myself and I saw your video.” So I am very proud about those things. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but when you think about people’s lives, it’s something I am just really proud of.
You are also a teacher of teens. Where and what do you teach?
I teach with Broadway Artists Alliance. They do summer workshops and intensives for different groups. I coach privately with them. I teach through stagelighter.com, which is a resource for kids who cannot get to New York. We coach via video. It’s really cool! There are several teachers and you can choose whomever you want. It’s a really great resource. I do things for many other teaching groups like Broadway Workshop. Broadway classroom, Camp Broadway, and master classes for different universities and high schools. I really enjoy it.
If you are able to bring just one to mind, what is one of the best pieces of advice you like to give to your students?
That’s easy. “Just breathe.” It’s the hardest and here is something so strange about how performers will get up in front of somebody else and they will just quit breathing. Breathing is everything and nothing makes you look like a robot more than when you quit breathing. It’s incredible, if you breathe, it calms your nerves, makes you look more natural and more engaging, it gives you better breath support and you sound better. It really fixes everything, but it’s also the hardest thing to do. It’s funny, it’s an involuntarily activity, breathing, but you actually have to consciously breathe onstage. You almost to memorize when to breathe, like you memorize your lines. That’s my best piece of advice.
Have you done the Ice Bucket Challenge that’s all over social media right now? What charities are you personally close to?
I have not done it yet, but I have been nominated like 5 times. I’ve had a horrible sinus infection for the past week, so I have been waiting until it passes, so I think I’ll probably do it in the next couple of days.
In terms of charities I support, I do a lot of work with Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. It’s a huge organization that provides health services to men, women, and children, with HIV and AIDS. It also provides funding and grants for food and clothing banks, shelters, and free health clinics. It also supports the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, which gives money to the cause of women with breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer. It supports The Actor’s Fund, which provides people working in the entertainment industry with supplemental health insurance. So it’s a really great organization and I do a whole lot of stuff for them. And of course I also love The Trevor Project and The Center, which is a New York City based place for gay teens to go and congregate. Those are a few that are near and dear to me.
Why should audiences from the DC area travel to see the Broadway revival of Pippin?
This may be a bit of a cheesy answer, but for me, I first saw the show as an audience member and I have to say it’s one of the best Broadway shows that I have seen. I really loved it for so many reasons. The talent on the stage is so high and there is something for everybody, like the visual spectacle, the dancing, cool costumes, the songs and orchestration are great, the lighting is wonderful. There is something very intimate about this show as well. It’s surprisingly funny, yet slightly unnerving. After I saw it, that was the show I told everyone to see when I had an unbiased viewpoint and no association with it.
Has playing opposite John Rubinstein, Broadway’s original Pippin who is now playing Charlemagne, added something to the dynamic of your performances? Is there a new understanding?
I think so. The original production and this production are quite different, so with that being said, one of Diane Paulus’ big ideas, which I was talking about earlier, is that she thinks playing the role of Pippin is maybe a rite of passage for members of the troupe. Maybe everyone has played that role and taken the leap of faith to jump into the fire at the end to become a full-fledged member. If that idea is true, than you look at someone like Charlemagne in the show, and know that he did play Pippin at some point, and John actually did! So there is something really cool about him having this understanding of who Pippin is and looking at it from the other side.
John Rubinstein and I had a great discussion about the ending of the show and how it has changed since he played Pippin in the early 1970’s. In the ending of the original, Pippin describes feeling trapped, and in its earliest incarnation, the line was, “Trapped,…but happy.” Now the ending has another piece that brings the story full circle. What is your feeling about the end?
For me, that original ending is still there and still exists. John may disagree with me, but although we don’t speak those words, “Trapped, but happy,” but there is a moment when Rachel and I look into each other’s eyes [that says], “Who the hell knows what’s going to happen, I’m kind of scared, I just said goodbye to my friends…” so I think it still exists but we don’t put it out there in what I believe to be a more cynical way. We let the audience interpret it how they wish. In 1972 times were different, coming out a war, and all of that, I think there was a lot of disillusionment with everything. I don’t think people are quite as cynical, so I don’t think that ending would resonate quite as well today as it did then. So I’m glad that the ending is what it is. It’s a little bit more hopeful, but at the same time, not yet saccharine by any means.
Pippin is playing through January 4, 2015 at The National Theatre-1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (800) 514-3849 (ETIX), by visiting the Box Office, or purchase them online.
Kyle Dean Massey’s website.
Broadway Royalty Returns to Broadway: A Chat with John Rubinstein on Joining the Cast of ‘Pippin’ by Teresa McCormick Ertel.