Patina Miller showed the world she was “Fabulous, Baby” when she was promoted from chorus girl to leading lady in the Pasadena premiere of Sister Act, going on to star as Deloris Van Cartier in both the West End and Broadway productions. Even more fabulous, the actress snagged a Best Actress Tony nomination for her powerhouse debut! Miller has also been seen in early workshops of The Book of Mormon and American Idiot and the Public Theater’s Central Park run of Hair, directed by Diane Paulus. Now, the charismatic actress is teaming up with Paulus on Broadway, starring as the Leading Player in the new circus-inspired revival of Pippin, following an acclaimed run at the American Repertory Theater. Below, Miller reveals one of her biggest fears, a secret talent, and what it’s like to reinvent a role made famous by Ben Vereen.
How does it feel to be back on Broadway in Pippin?
Really amazing! It’s such a nice feeling to know that I’m getting to do such a special role on Broadway in this special show.
What did [director] Diane Paulus tell you about her vision for the revival?
She told me that it would be very physical and challenging, and that there were going to be circus parts of the show, and I immediately said, “I hope I get to do some of it!” But I had no idea I’d have to do anything with heights—l’m scared of heights!
On the first day of the workshop, they’re like, “We want you to be on the trapeze, 20 feet in the air.” In my mind, I was panicking, but I didn’t want to let it show, so I said, “Sure, why not?” I was scared out of my mind the first time I got on it, but since that day it’s been amazing.
What about your impressive hula hooping skills? Did you learn that for the show?
I got into hula hooping at age six—I hula hooped all day, every day. That was something I was comfortable with, but I never tried walking or singing while hula hooping! It’s actually pretty difficult and tiring. But I like challenging myself. It’s hard, but it’s really fun.
Everyone in the cast is pushing themselves past their comfort zone in one way or another.
Yeah! The acrobats are singing and dancing, the dancers and singers are doing acrobatic things—but we’re all learning together. It’s an exciting experience for all of us, and what makes it so great is we all want to do what the other one does. We get to play onstage, and it really is a bonding experience.
What’s it like to share the stage with circus performers?
It was a big learning experience, because I’m not used to someone doing a handstand next to me while I’m onstage [laughs]. There are a lot of moments in the show where there’s dancing and flips going on at the same time, and in the beginning, I had to trust that these acrobats were great at what they did and that they wouldn’t come crashing down on my head. But our company is the best of the best; they can do everything. That’s been the most exciting part of the show—incorporating the magic and the acrobats and the singing and dancing to make our Pippin.
You’ve always been fit, but your arms are absolutely ripped in this show! Have you been doing extra gym time?
[Laughs]. I’ve been doing lots of trapeze, and so much of it is holding your own weight. I’ve been taking care of myself, building up my shoulder strength and getting extra ripped. My Leading Player is a strong woman, you know? I wanted her to look good and feel powerful, and I continue to work it out.
How long did it take you to master the Fosse-style choreography?
I don’t think I’ve mastered it—it’s a work in progress. Chet [Walker, choreographer] was in the original company of Pippin, and he told us so many stories about working with Fosse. Once you get the acting, the moves work themselves out. And it’s amazing—I get to do Fosse on Broadway. How cool is that?
How did you approach redefining the role of the Leading Player, which is so linked to Ben Vereen’s Tony-winning performance?
I had no attachment to Pippin beforehand. Shame on me, because Stephen Schwartz went to my alma mater [Carnegie Mellon University], and that was the first show he did. So, I did research and really fell in love with the show, and I did watch Pippin with Ben Vereen. But what we’re doing is so creative and different, I had a big opportunity to investigate and find my own character. It’s amazing that it’s a female now. I knew this character was a big, iconic role, and I wanted to do it justice, but I also wanted to give myself the freedom to explore with Diane and try to figure out who this person is. I’m still learning every night.
We got to know your adorable puppy, Bella, during Sister Act. How’s she doing?
Very well. She’s almost two now! I bring her to the theater, and the children of Pippin, the daughters of people in the company, loooove Bella. They come to my room and run her ragged. She’s become, like, the show dog. Besides Porridge [Matthew James Thomas' dog].
You've spoken about your mom as your biggest fan. Has she seen the show yet?
She saw it in Boston and she was mind-boggled! She was like, “Be careful up there! That looks scary.” My manager and my boyfriend [businessman David Mars] saw the show together and they were clutching each other, seeing me in the air on the trapeze. I’m like, “Guys, it’s cool, man! It’s all good.” David’s actually competing with my mom to be my biggest fan!
You've been busy doing stage work, but do you have any dream film roles?
I’d love to do a movie musical version of Mahogany and play the Diana Ross part [Tracy]. Just to have the opportunity to work on a great film would be cool.There are so many things I want to do!
See Patina Miller in Pippin, opening April 25 at the Music Box Theatre.