GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Stephanie Pope of 'Pippin'
Who needs a gold watch? Stephanie Pope received something better than that traditional retirement gift, though she had to un-retire to get it. This spring, after more than a decade away, Pope returned to Broadway in the revival of Pippin, which won four Tony Awards on June 9 and has been selling out ever since. "It would have been enough to just to come back in a hit," says Pope, who had retired to raise her daughter and run a yoga studio in her native Harlem. "[But I also] received the gypsy robe on opening night, was nominated for an Astaire Award. To have been in the business for so long and take 10 years off, when you leave, you don't even get a gold watch. This is better than a gold watch!"With Pippin, Pope is back where she began on Broadway: dancing the choreography of Bob Fosse--or "in the style" of Fosse, as choreographer Chet Walker's work for Pippin is credited. Pope made her Broadway debut in 1986 in Big Deal, the last show Bob Fosse created for Broadway. It ran only two months, but Pope went on do much more Fosse: the Sweet Charity revival Fosse was involved in at the time of his death in 1987 (Walker was a castmate in it); Chicago on both Broadway and the national tour; and, of course, the 1999 Best Musical Tony-winning tribute Fosse.
Three decades on, Pope still vividly remembers her first encounter with Bob Fosse. She showed up at an open call for the tour of Dancin'--with the fictionalized Fosse of the movie All That Jazz in mind. "I went in looking for Roy Scheider," she says. Though Fosse didn't give her a part in Dancin'--only a few tracks were available--he obviously liked what he saw, as his then assistant Christopher Chadman told her to watch out for auditions for an upcoming Sweet Charity revival.
That would be the Sweet Charity that came to Broadway in 1986 with Debbie Allen in the title role and Fosse's original staging re-created by him and Gwen Verdon. Pope had a part in its out-of-town tryout in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it was while doing Charity in California that she auditioned for Big Deal. "At the end of the day Bob Fosse came over to me and said, 'Have you signed your contract for [the Broadway production of] Charity yet?' I said no, and he said, 'Well, Gwen is going to kill me, but I want you to do Big Deal.'"Working with Fosse at the outset of her career, "I really got a lot of my training on the job," says Pope. "I got a solid understanding of my craft in those few short years with him. I knew nothing, but he had so much faith in me, and he would have me understudy everything. He wanted us to be thinking individuals, he wanted us to always be telling the story. He treated us as actors, he sometimes called us actors: 'Come on, actors, let's begin...'"
She did eventually do Sweet Charity in New York, as a part opened up in the Broadway company after Big Deal had closed. It was soon enough after that Big Deal pictures were still up at the Broadway Theatre when Pope's name appeared on the Charity poster at the Minskoff. So in her early 20s, there she was--represented outside two Broadway theaters.
It was inside the Minskoff building that Pope had taken many dance classes. As a teenager she trained at Alvin Ailey, which was then located in the Minskoff building. Being in the heart of Times Square day in and day out and knowing Broadway was where she wanted to perform, Pope impatiently obeyed Ailey's no-auditioning rule. When she was finally free to audition, the first significant job she landed was the workshop of a Broadway-bound revue called Honky Tonk Nights, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd. Pope describes it as "a black Sugar Babies," the vaudeville-inspired Broadway hit of the early '80s. By the time Honky Tonk Nights made it to Broadway a few years later (it closed after four performances), however, Pope was performing in Sweet Charity.Michael Kidd, Bob Fosse...not a bad way to start a career. And Pope would subsequently work with such dance legends as Tommy Tune, Gregory Hines, Donna McKechnie and Chita Rivera. After being in the chorus of Sweet Charity on Broadway, she moved into the featured role of Helene for the national tour, with McKechnie as Charity. Pope later joined the Broadway cast of The Will Rogers Follies, directed and choreographed by Tune, and she followed that with a role in the original company of Jelly's Last Jam, for which Hines (who co-choreographed) won Tony and Drama Desk awards for his lead performance. Pope's next Broadway gig would be standing by for Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
In the late '90s, Pope was in the Nathan Lane-headlined Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the original London company of Smokey Joe's Cafe. She also had such principal roles regionally as Liliane La Fleur in Nine at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, Josephine Baker in the City Center Encores! production of Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at North Shore Music Theatre in Massachusetts. She starred as Velma Kelly on the tour of Chicago for two years and briefly played the role on Broadway.Velma was, in fact, Pope's last Broadway gig prior to Pippin--all the way back in mid-2002. Her daughter, Mari, was born the following year, and Pope took the baby girl with her when she went out on tour with Thoroughly Modern Millie (as Muzzy) the next year. But she soon realized, "This is not how I want to raise my child." With eight Broadway shows under her belt and almost continuous employment since high school, Pope was also feeling a bit burned out. So she came back to the New York area and with her sister Jennifer opened Bikram Yoga in gentrifying East Harlem, not far from where they'd grown up in the projects.
Mari turns 10 next month, and over the past decade her mom has had some short-term theater gigs, including a 2005 production of Pippin at Bay Street Theatre in the Hamptons (where she was Fastrada and B.D. Wong was the Leading Player), Lola in a benefit performance of Damn Yankees set in the Negro Leagues and, more recently, the off-Broadway show Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party and a Fringe Festival entry called Sammy Gets Mugged, written by and starring Dan Heching, one of her yoga students.
But it took Diane Paulus' reenvisioning of the 1970s Stephen Schwartz hit Pippin to get Pope back to Broadway. Paulus switched the Leading Player (immortalized in the original Broadway production by Ben Vereen) from male to female and the show-within-a-show concept to a show within a circus, incorporating performers from the Canadian troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main into the ensemble. Paulus first staged this Pippin last winter at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and Pope was in it then, too. Her daughter had provided the impetus for her to leave theater, and now she was giving her reason to return. "I had to connect with that part of me that I had given up and not shared with my daughter at all," Pope explains. "She got a little fascinated by some of the pictures and posters, but she really didn't identify with that."Admittedly, Pope was also missing her old line of work. In addition, her home life had changed, as she and Mari's father, producer Marion J. Caffey, divorced. Plus, she'd be doing Fosse moves again! "It feels right at home," Pope says. "It's been an incredible time coming back." She does still teach at the yoga studio (check out its class schedule here).
In Pippin, Pope understudies the Leading Player--and she went on at several performances right after opening in early May, when Patina Miller's voice gave out after recording the cast album. Pope had less than half an hour's notice the first time she played the role, then she had to go on with the show already under way when Miller couldn't continue after the opening number her second show back. That night, Pope was dressed for her usual track in "War Is a Science" when she had to take over as the Leading Player in "Glory," and she didn't finish putting on the Leading Player's costume for the next song, "Simple Joys," so went on for it barefoot (lucky for her, it fit in with the barefoot acrobats also on stage).
Though Miller won the Tony for Pippin, musical-theater aficionados would not be disappointed if Pope has to cover for her, as many remember her from her earlier Fosse work and other shows, including the cabarets she's done. She performed at both the Triad and Arci's to promote her 2001 CD Now's the Time to Fall in Love and earlier did an autobiographical show at Don't Tell Mama's, which was directed by Billy Porter and earned Pope a MAC Award nomination. She'd developed that first cabaret act as a time-killer in her dressing room at Kiss of the Spider Woman, since Chita Rivera famously never misses performances (Pope actually did get to get on in Spider Woman at one point).Pope has fans on stage as well as in the audience, she's discovered. When she saw The Color Purple on Broadway, she relates, "I went backstage to say hello to my friend Alton Fitzgerald White. The young dancers were, [Gasps excitedly] 'That's Stephanie Pope!' I couldn't believe it. You never know how you're affecting people when you're in theater. You may be changing someone's life."
She does know what it's like to be the starstruck youngster. In high school, unable to afford tickets, she would "second-act" Broadway shows, or just hang out at stage doors afterward to see performers. She didn't start dancing with Broadway in her sights, however. Her initial training was classical, at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her mother put her in classes there when she was about 8 because, Pope says, "I was so tall, and my mom didn't want me to be ashamed of my height." She later studied modern, jazz and ballet while on scholarship at Alvin Ailey and also trained with theater-dance icon Frank Hatchett. Pope's parents discouraged her from attending NYC's performing arts high school, so she went to the academically prestigious Hunter College High School (also public) instead.
About finding her forte as a dancer, Pope says, "Although I have that ballerina look and line, my body's always been very tight and it's been challenging to gain flexibility. I look one way and I dance a whole other way--very turned in, very stylized. I think that's why the Fosse stuff feels so good on my body.
"In hindsight," she adds, "I think the Fosse stuff had an appeal because there was a darkness about it, a realness about it, and so much style. And the performers tended to look like regular people who could just do anything."
When she was working with Fosse years ago, Pope decided to take acting lessons--specifically, in the Meisner technique--after learning that Bob Fosse had studied with Sanford Meisner. She was also inspired to expand beyond dance by Gregory Hines. "I remember him telling me the importance of honing as many skills as you can, especially as an African-American performer, because there may be periods where you won't be working as a dancer."
Not long into her career, Pope did see her opportunities in Broadway musicals diminishing, when Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz ushered in an era heavy on London imports of period pieces. "Around the time a lot of the British shows were coming into New York, I said, 'I'm not gonna be cast in any of these shows,' and since I had friends there, I thought, Let's just try L.A." She came back to New York a few years later when she was cast in The Will Rogers Follies, but she has appeared on such TV series as A Different World, Knots Landing, The Cosby Mysteries and Oz.
Photos of Stephanie, from top: in Pippin; center, in Fosse; as Velma Kelly in Chicago, with Karen Ziemba as Roxie Hart; with her daughter, Mari; another Pippin shot; with Alton Fitzgerald White, playing Lola and Applegate in a concert staging of Damn Yankees to benefit Amas Musical Theatre in 2005. [Photo of Stephanie and Mari by J. Quazi King]