BWW Interview: Everything Has a Season! Erik Altemus Talks His 'Season' of PIPPIN, at The McCallum

BWW Interview: Everything Has a Season! Erik Altemus Talks His 'Season' of PIPPIN, at The McCallum

Pippin, Broadway's high-flying, death-defying hit musical drops in at The McCallum Theatre for a week long engagement, January 12-17. Full of extraordinary acrobatics, wondrous magical feats and soaring songs from the composer of Wicked, Pippin "lifts you up and leaves you smiling", say press notes. Directed by Diane Paulus, the revival of Pippin won four 2013 Tony Awards® including "Best Musical Revival" and has been hailed as "an eye-popping, jaw-dropping extravaganza" (NY1). Erik Altemus originated the role of Lewis in the Broadway revival and is now on the road, reprising his role, in this national touring iteration. I had the opportunity to chat with Erik about the production and "all things Erik". Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

DG: So, let's start with a little bit about you. Where are you from and how did life lead you into a career in professional theatre?

EA: Sure. I am from California. I grew up in the East Bay and i started doing shows when I was eight years old - I did my first musical, and that was Oliver - I will always remember that experience because it was my first and because towards the end of the run the director approached me and told me that she should have cast me as Oliver. I was like, "Yeah, you should have". I had a wonderful experience and, through that, I met my first voice teacher who, then, got me started learning vocal technique and learning more about the theatre scene in my hometown - and I started doing more shows - and eventually we moved down to Orange County, and that's when I went to OCHSA (the "Orange County High School of The Arts") and that's when I decided that I wanted to go to college for theatre. That definitely was the stepping stone - getting out of California - making my way toward New York, slowly but surely. I went to the University of Cincinnati, the College Conservatory of Music, also known as CCM, and I studied there for four years and earned my BFA in Musical Theatre. After that, I moved to New York, with my class, in 2009 - we did a showcase in New York - and that's where I met the agency that I am still working with and has been wonderful for me - let's see, I was out of school for about five months before I booked my first job in New York, which was the role of Matt, the Boy, in the Fantastiks - the Off-Broadway production, and from there things just happened - the rest is history, I guess, as they say.

DG: When did you really first know that this could be a viable career for you as opposed to just something you enjoyed doing?

EA: Actually, I think I realized that - I had a desire for that in high school. My school was so great in establishing a routine around my training that I had never really experienced before - as far as taking my academic classes during the day and then taking Conservatory classes - something about my day, the way my day was structured in high school, just really got me thinking, okay, I can cover my bases academically - I can do my job, I can learn what I need to learn - and I can also carve out this time that's going to further my training for what I want to do. Definitely working with teachers there who, some were working actors and some were not, talked to us about the real world - Definitely when I made the choice to go to CCM - of course, I really wanted to go straight to New York, Who didn't? The dream was to go straight to New York - but I knew with having a degree that I would be able to fall back into something else a little more easily than I would if I didn't have one. So, it became a little less abstract about my love for performing and a little more practical. At CCM we even had classes on how you're going to pay your bills while pursuing this - it really broke it down from a level of just loving it to figuring out how to make it work in our lives; to be able to nurture this career while we were getting on our feet.

DG: So what's the best advice you got about preparing for a "real career"?

EA: Oh, man. Whew. Be prepared. That's honestly the best advice. When I am prepared and I walk into that room knowing my stuff, knowing my material, the confidence just sets in from there and I can really do my best. Whether I am right for the part or not is totally different, but by being prepared I am crossing off the first major thing that could go wrong. Not being prepared. Which is not attractive to anyone. I was also told "if you can see yourself doing anything else, do that". And I can't see myself doing anything else. I don't know what I'd do.

DG: Jumping back to The Fantastiks - how did that come about?

EA: You know, it started out like any other audition. I was still pretty fresh to New York - and I was like, "okay I've got an audition for this show" - I'd heard of the show, of course - I wasn't too familiar, but in order to be prepared, I studied up and instantly realized, "oh my God, this show is just so good, it's so beautiful". And so, I went to my audition - actually in the theatre, I got to audition on the stage - I think there were about three people there. And I found out later that day that I got a callback, which was scheduled for a week later. From there, there was more material to learn - new songs and couple of speeches the Boy does - and so I prepared all that and showed up for my next audition and Tom Jones, the director who also wrote the book and lyrics, was there. I had a feeling it was him, because another thing I like to do is google people's pictures so I can recognize them of they're there and they don't introduce themselves. Sure enough it was. We did the material once and then he gave me a couple of adjustments - and that was it. It was very quick. I kind of left thinking "that went well" - but it didn't go any better than any other audition. And, funny enough, I was walking into work - because I had just picked up a restaurant job about three weeks before this and I was NOT loving it - didn't want to be there. I wanted to be performing - but I was putting my hand on the door to walk into work and my phone rang and it was my agent saying you got the part and you start rehearsals in two weeks. And all I could think was, God if you had just called ten minutes ago I would have been around the corner and I definitely would not have showed up to work. That's how that all went down.

DG: So, Pippin was your first Broadway show. What surprised you when you first opened in a Broadway show? What was different that your preconceived expectations?

EA: Oooh. Well. By the time you open you've been doing previews and stuff and so it's kind of - you've been putting in so many hours at that point that you're just like "let's just open this thing" - "let's get it open". I would definitely say the first show we had on Broadway was pretty crazy because it all happens really quickly.. You're in rehearsal - in this case we had done the out of town tryout in Boston - so we only had about two weeks of rehearsal to change all the things they wanted to change from that production. Then, we're in tech which feels like forever - it's just A WEEK, but it's really long - it's ten out of twelves - so, by the time you get to that first performance you're like, "Oh God, this is the first time we're gonna run this without stopping". That was the case with Pippin, we had never run it without stopping. So, we're all thinking, we might stop tonight - we might have to take a moment and stop, because we'd been having some technical issues. And that surprised me. Because I actually thought it would be much "neater" and finalized by the time we got to previews. But then, that was what the whole preview period was for, to continue to adjust things. In my head, when you see a really great show and it's so polished, you really don't realize what it really took to get there. At least I didn't, as an actor. Just being flexible - you know, you do these performances in the evening and then you come to the theatre in the morning for rehearsal and your'e just kind of doing this one thing for a month solid. And, it made me realize just how much room there is to just "play" and to continue to try things differently. It's never as set as you think it is.

DG: What do you think is so special about the appeal of this particular production of Pippin that has made it so widely embraced by audiences?

EA: I think this production really appeals to everyone. Children would enjoy it -teenagers will take something away from it - young adults, adults - not only is the story so classic and easy for everyone to connect to - but the Circus element is so exciting to watch that you can't even take it all in the first time you see it - it's just a feast for the eyes. In today's world, with these big blockbuster musicals, to achieve that quality but by only using human bodies and one basic set, I think, is pretty amazing, And that's what we've done. Not only with the singing, dancing and acting - but with this fourth element, which is the circus. We actually like to joke that you can no longer be a triple threat - you have to be a quadruple - you have to be able to do some circus.

DG: What made you decide to continue your Pippin experience on tour as opposed to just doing the Broadway production?

EA: Uhh. The real reason? Honestly? How do I say this? I didn't want to go back to New York and wait for another job. I had taken some time off "post-Broadway" and did a couple small things here and there and definitely was getting a bit antsy - I was in Florida doing a show, a new musical that is a Frank Loesser revue - and when I got the call I thought, well I didn't really anticipate this, but I really want to jump right back into working. I know this show, and I've never really toured before - and I thought, if I was ever to go on tour I wanted to do it when I was younger because it's kinda hard, being on the go like this - especially because I'm such a creature of habit and routine. Everything just lined up and I am so glad it did because it's has been really rewarding. And I really love this show. I think I've done it, David, over 900 times - maybe a thousand. I've done it a lot but still, every night, its exciting and feels fresh, for the most part, and I'm grateful for it.

DG: With all the great revivals currently on, and coming to, Broadway - what role would you like to be revived for you?

EA: Hmmm. (a long pause) I'm so bad at these questions. I really am. Hmmm. Although it just happened, one of my dream roles to play on Broadway someday would be the Emcee in Cabaret. For sure.

Pippin plays at The McCallum Theatre January 12 through 17. For tickets and further information, visit www.mccallumtheatre.org.


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