BWW Interviews: Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise on PIPPIN, Paulus' Vision, and Working Together
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by Marakay Rogers
We caught up with actors Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a Starbucks near American Repertory Theatre, where they are currently starring as Charles and Fastrada in the Diane Paulus-directed production of Roger O. Hirson's and Stephen Schwartz's Pippin. The couple, married in real life as well as in the show, is in Boston until the end of January, when the show prepares to transfer to Broadway. The conversation turned to the circus (a theme of Paulus' interpretation of the story), to historical and psychological perspectives on the show and its characters, and to their work with youth in the Triple Arts musical theatre intensive.
BWW: Welcome. You were up here during Hurricane Sandy, which treated Boston fairly well, but your home is in Manhattan. How did you make out with that?
BWW: The children are with you - how are they enjoying Boston? For that matter, how are you enjoying it?
BWW: Are they ready to run off and join the circus?
BWW: And you've had circus training yourself, haven't you?
TM: I had circus training at North Carolina School for the Arts, yes. I learned juggling, the unicycle, all of that sort of thing.
BWW: Speaking of unicycles, apparently there was an incident during rehearsals?
BWW: I have to apologize for asking... so, it's not just like riding a bike, then?
TM: (laughs) You would be very correct in that assessment - the only thing they have in common is a wheel.
BWW: The unicycle isn't the only circus routine you have in the show. Charlotte, I must ask if you really feel safe having him throw those knives at you.
CDA: Yeah, totally. He's actually really good at it.
TM: It's a trick, of course - but I actually can throw knives. And at one point in the show I was throwing four instead of two. We had to cut it to save ten seconds or so.
BWW: (to CDA) He throws knives? Really?
BWW: Charlotte, I'd like to ask you some questions about the dancing and choreography - and I regret that I don't know this... have you worked with Chet Walker before? I know you've both done SWEET CHARITY.
CDA: No, I hadn't worked with him previously. I did the Broadway SWEET CHARITY and I'm not sure which one Chet did. He's been around for years, of course, and I've met him, but I'd never worked with him before.
BWW: What's it like working with Chet?
CDA: He's wonderful. He knows his Fosse technique, and he can teach it fantastically. He's loving, he's supportive - he's great. He's made this show a very easy ride.
BWW: There was speculation when the creative staff was announced that there would be a recreation of Fosse's choreography, but obviously there's more than that at work here.
CDA: We realized pretty soon that wasn't going to happen. The circus choreography changes everything.
TM: The Manson Trio is reproduced. (CDA nods)
BWW: (to TM) You've directed many shows yourself, but you've never directed Pippin. You're acting in it, obviously... but as a director yourself, what is your take on this show?
TM: I've asked a lot of people about this show. Nobody quite seems to understand it. I couldn't tell you myself. We've done a lot of backstory on this. The original was pretty Woodstock. This version is a little different. I see it as our being the circus from Hell, traveling from town to town stealing souls, and then we meet this boy that says no.
BWW: That's interesting. The original was very Vietnam-era, very peaceniks versus Nixon.
TM: Exactly. And I think the circus helps here - I think it helps to clarify this story. The original is ambiguous, but the circus is black and white; with circus stunts, you either fail or you succeed. It clarifies the story.
BWW: The circus also seems historically appropriate as a device. Itinerant players at the times this play appears to be set would have been more physical, more comical - not so serious about a production. They weren't exactly traveling bands of great actors.
TM: I think that's probably accurate.
CDA: What I like about this version is that it can be anything you want it to be. Can the human race be extraordinary? What's that even mean? Do you shoot a lot of people? Do you step into a fire? Is it a suicide thing?
CDA: Or it's joining the circus. Nowadays, with suicide bombings and terror that weren't around before, it's all relevant again. Fosse's idea was Charlie Manson. There's always something.
TM: It's part of Fosse's darkness, the cynicism. It's not in the book.
BWW: The original book wasn't dark at all - Hirson wrote it in college, if I recall.
TM: Right. Precisely. How people view the show is based on what Fosse put into it.
BWW: (to TM) You've played Charles before. What are your thoughts on him?
TM: I've researched him. Charles was supposedly the savior of Christianity, but other writers say he was a tyrant - not much different from Attila the Hun. In Pippin he's kind of a wacky guy. "Eccentric" would be the mildest description. He's a despot, a dictator, a tyrant - but he really loves his son. That's his good point.
BWW: (to CDA) What is your take on Fastrada? And equally, what are your thoughts on the relationship between Fastrada and Lewis?
CDA: We're players, and I'm playing the part of Fastrada. She wants Lewis to be king - but as a player, she's trying to set Pippin up to step into the fire. She's manipulative; she wants her son to be king, and herself to rule, ultimately. She's very good at manipulating - people love her. I take the relationship between Fastrada and Lewis as her doing a job in the show. As a player playing Fastrada, I get Pippin to kill his father, and my job is done - then I'm a player working to serve the show. I see the Fastrada-Lewis dynamic as being sexual, but not completely incestuous. She's got him wrapped around her finger, but she doesn't love him - or anybody else. She's a survivor.
BWW: Interesting - so you don't see the Fastrada-Lewis relationship here as about the two of them, but about two players in the troupe working on Pippin's mind.
CDA: That's it, yes.
BWW: When you did A CHORUS LINE, you commented several places about leaving the show each night with ibuprofen and ice packs. What's the strain, comparatively, dancing as Fastrada?
CDA: This isn't like A CHORUS LINE - I get to warm up on stage before I do anything. In A CHORUS LINE I've been standing around for an hour before my dance. The dance in this is hard, it's tiring. But it's nothing compared to that.
BWW: The two of you don't often get a chance to appear together, let alone across from each other.
TM: We've done it four times in thirty-one years. CATS, Jerome Robbins' BROADWAY, THE GUYS, and Williamstown.
CDA: We did THE GUYS in Santa Fe?
TM: North Carolina.
CDA: It was Santa Fe.
TM: We did it in North Carolina.
CDA: Santa Fe.
TM: No. We did it both places - so that's five times, really.
CDA: It's rare to have a Broadway show that has parts for both of us.
TM: Let alone as husband and wife.
BWW: Some couples love working together; others don't seem to care one way or another. Barring any knife-throwing mishaps, where are you on the subject?
TM: (to CDA) It's fun working with you.
CDA: It is? I'm good?
CDA: I am?
TM: Yes. Really.
BWW: The two of you are scheduled to be working with your Triple Arts musical theatre intensive in August at National Dance Institute. Are you taking time off from the show to do it?
CDA: It'll be tiring, but it's worth it.
BWW: It's so rewarding working with kids on things like this.
TM: Yes, and it's terribly important. It's not just about musical theatre. It's about learning life skills.
CDA: And it's about learning to be good at more than one thing in your life or in your work. And about how to sell yourself and your skills to other people.
TM: It's an intensive - it's hard work, not a summer vacation, but everyone comes away learning something from it, including the instructors.
CDA: We're supposed to have a session in North Carolina as well. That's going to be tricky - I doubt they'll let us both out of the show at the same time for that. We'll have to negotiate it with them.
BWW: Thanks so much for joining us to talk about the show.
TM: It's our pleasure.
PHOTO CREDIT: Virginia Nabut