Spotlight on the Fringe Festival: Stephanie Pope Caffey & SAMMY GETS MUGGED!
Broadway leading lady, Fosse featured player and, now, the star of the new Fringe Festival play SAMMY GETS MUGGED!, gypsy phenomenon Stephanie Pope Caffey has lit up Broadway stages for almost thirty years - especially memorable for her dance-heavy roles in Bob Fosse's BIG DEAL, SWEET CHARITY, DANCIN‘, CHICAGO and the Tony-winning revue FOSSE itself. We also discuss working with four other legendary directors on four classic shows in the interim - JELLY'S LAST JAM directed by George C. Wolfe, THE Will Rogers FOLLIES directed by Tommy Tune, the hit revival of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM directed by Jerry Zaks and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN directed by Hal Prince (with choreography by Rob Marshall) - and far beyond. These days, Stephanie operates one of the premiere Bikram yoga studios in the country, Bikram Yoga East Harlem, and she evocatively illustrates how that is a continuation of her dance work and how beneficial the practice has been to her life. Additionally, in this career-spanning conversation we analyze the life of a gypsy dancer and what it takes to make it and rise to the top of the ranks in the best corps on Broadway, then and now - and, all applicable anecdotes that arise along the way, of course (and even some surprises). Plus, Stephanie shares all about her role in SAMMY GETS MUGGED! and reveals what drew her to the project, what to expect from the new drama/comedy, what her character is like and much, much more!
SAMMY GETS MUGGED! premieres August 15 at 6 PM at The Living Theater with four additional performances through August 28. More information and tickets for SAMMY GETS MUGGED! available here (http://www.danheching.com/sammygetsmugged/).
Direct To The Top
PC: How did you first get involved with SAMMY GET MUGGED!?
SPC: Well, it's so funny how life works! Dan Heching, who wrote the play, happens to be one of my yoga students!
PC: No way! So, he approached you after class?
SPC: Yeah, first he told me that his play was accepted to the Fringe Festival and he was really excited - and I was really excited for him!
PC: Of course.
SPC: Then, he asked me - he said, "You know, there's a part that I think might be great for you if you want to take a look and you can just let me know what you think." So, I did! It took awhile, but I finally got around to it. (Laughs.)
PC: What did you think once you read it?
SPC: Well, I hemmed and hawed a lot - you know, with my daughter, with the studio and with life - and, to be honest, I had really stepped out of theatre. I really have.
PC: What is the last thing you have done on stage?
SPC: Well, last summer, believe it or not, I did something that came from the Fringe Festival that moved to Off-Broadway - ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S BIG GAY DANCE PARTY on Theater Row. So, now, cut to this summer...
PC: You are at the Fringe again!
SPC: Yeah, he just asked me to do and here we are!
PC: What did you say to him once you knew you wanted to do it?
SPC: "Yes, I will do it!" (Laughs.) It's really wonderful how the relationship kind of shifts between when he's at the yoga studio and I'm in rehearsals, too!
PC: Major power shifts!
SPC: Definitely - major power shifts. (Laughs.)
PC: So, what is SAMMY GETS MUGGED! about? It's a new show.
SPC: It's a brand new show. It's about a mugging that takes place - it's based on a true story; an actual mugging that Dan experienced when he was spending time in Paris. He has set it in the States. It deals with - for me - victimization.
PC: How so?
SPC: I believe that each and every one of us in some form or fashion is a victim of something - whether it's an actual accident or mugging or physical abuse or emotional abuse or the victim of a horrible boss. But, the key is - what are the choices that we make? It's about whether or not we stay a victim or we make the choIce To move on - overall, that's what I believe the play addresses.
PC: What character do you play?
SPC: Well, the character that I play is Rue Felicite.
PC: Whoa! What a name!
SPC: Yeah, yeah, yeah! (Laughs.)
PC: So, translation would be: the street of gifts?
SPC: Well, he actually talks about "felicity" in the play - blessings. Yeah. That's really what she represents.
PC: What is her journey in the play?
SPC: She comes in as a blessing to the two main characters - Sammy, who is played by Dan Heching; and the mugger, who is played by Patrick Byas. She is really there to help them break the chain of abuse - the chain of victimization.
PC: Is there any music in the piece?
SPC: This is a straight play, so... I'm in a straight play this time, honey! (Laughs.)
PC: Aww, what a missed opportunity to utilize your talents, though!
SPC: (Laughs.) I did not have to pull the dance shoes off the shelf and dust them off this time!
PC: You deserve a break. Good for you.
SPC: I might kick my leg up - I mean, Rue is pretty out there so she might kick her leg a few times. (Laughs.) But, at least I don't have to!
PC: When does SAMMY GETS MUGGED! premiere?
SPC: It premieres on August 15.
PC: So soon!
SPC: Yes, it is! We have 5 performances through the 28. All the information is on theFringeNY.org.
PC: Moving to your last Broadway appearance: who were your favorite co-stars in CHICAGO over the years?
SPC: Oh, there's too many to count! And, you know, it's funny, because I did CHICAGO for two years on the road and then I came in and did it on Broadway for a year. That was in the time that they were really rotating the Velmas and Roxies in and out a lot and I did it so many times.
PC: I remember seeing it with you and Amy Spanger, which was wonderful.
SPC: Yes, I remember doing it with Amy for awhile. She's great.
PC: I'd love to ask you about four directors that you have worked with in your career - first: Hal Prince and KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN.
SPC: Well, you know, it's funny, because I came in later on in the production of SPIDERWOMAN, to stand by for Chita [Rivera].
PC: Of course.
SPC: That's just another way of hanging out backstage, though, because, as you know, she never misses a show! (Laughs.)
SPC: But, having stayed backstage, I got to be surrounded by people like Hal Prince and Chita Rivera and Rob Marshall and Brent Carver and be a fly on the wall to these amazing people. I was just absorbing it and taking it all in, you know?
PC: I can imagine.
SPC: I went in later on, so I didn't get the chance to spend quite the same amount of time that the original cast got to spend with Mr. Prince, but, again, as you know, of course, the times I did get a chance to work with him were just amazing.
PC: What struck you most about his process?
SPC: Just his insight and his ability to see, very quickly, what works and what doesn't work - that was an amazing thing for me to see.
PC: Did you find his way of working significantly different than a dance-Heavy Director like Fosse?
SPC: Well, the benefit of having one of your very first director/choreographers being Bob Fosse is that even as a dancer you learn to approach a work from an actor's perspective. You know, Bob always called us actors - he'd say, "C'mon actors, let's do this!"
PC: That's fascinating.
SPC: So, I learned very early on the importance of telling a story - even if you don't have any words to say. Just with your body; just with your actions and reactions you can tell the story. Of course, Hal Prince is the master of that, as well. I was definitely in good hands with those two gentlemen!
SPC: I think his work is phenomenal and it will be with us forever. It was wonderful they were able to honor him the way that they did with Jerome Robbins' BROADWAY.
PC: Back then, was it Fosse versus Robbins as far as gypsies go?
SPC: Yeah, you could say that - that did exist. Bob had his core group of dancers and Jerry had his - but, I never worked for Jerry myself so I wouldn't really know how he did things.
PC: Did you ever audition or work with Michael Bennett?
SPC: I did have the chance to audition for him. I was very, very young and the original DREAMGIRLS was running at the time. I auditioned for him and it was for a show that never went anywhere...
SPC: Yes! SCANDAL! How did you know that? (Laughs.)
PC: What did he say to you?
SPC: I remember him saying to me, "Why are you not in DREAMGIRLS, girl?!" and I just kind of looked at him like, "Well, you would be the one who could make that happen!" And, that was my moment with Michael Bennett! (Laughs.)
PC: Prince to Bennett to Fosse: What was your first meeting with Fosse like?
SPC: I showed up for a touring company audition of DANCIN'. I was very young and walked in thinking it would be like Roy Scheider from the ALL THAT JAZZ movie...
SPC: Instead, I saw this little man dressed in black with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth - knee pads; black jazz shoes. So, I glanced around and looked at him and sort of thought, "Where's Bob Fosse?" Then, I realized, that was him huddled in the corner!
PC: Your expectations were somewhat different, then, to say the least?
SPC: Definitely. (Laughs.) But, he stood up and he gave us chorography and at the end of the day - remember, back then you danced all morning and then left for lunch and came back and sang in the afternoon...
PC: No way! What a marathon.
SPC: Yeah! It's too expensive to do auditions like that now. It's not like that anymore, that's for sure! (Laughs.)
PC: What did he say to you at the end of the audition day?
SPC: I remember him saying, "We only need two people and it's not gonna happen for you for this show, but in a couple of weeks we are going to be auditioning for a company of SWEET CHARITY and I want you to come back for that audition."
PC: What did you say back?
SPC: I said, "OK!" And, I thought, "If Bob Fosse tells me to come back and audition, then I will come back and audition!"
PC: No question about that!
SPC: So, I did the audition of SWEET CHARITY and I got the job.
PC: What did that feel like for you?
SPC: Ugh - that was it! It was like life began at that moment.
PC: What was your experience like with that production?
SPC: Well, we started out in Los Angeles because Debbie Allen starred in it and she was doing FAME on TV at the time. Then, we took a hiatus for her to finish up her FAME contract, I believe. And, in the time that we were on a hiatus was also the time they held auditions for BIG DEAL.
PC: And, of course, you went to that audition.
SPC: Yeah - but, you know what, in those days you just showed up for everything. What ever the audition was - you just went. So, since it was Bob, I went and thought, "I'll audition for Bob again and see how it goes."
PC: What did he say when he saw you?
SPC: He came over to me - Gwen [Verdon] was assisting him on SWEET CHARITY...
PC: Of course.
SPC: He whispered to me, "I know Gwen is gonna kill me, but: have you signed your contract for SWEET CHARITY yet?" (Laughs.)
PC: How fabulous is that!
SPC: I said, "Not yet," and he said, "OK!" Then, I went home and I got the call that he wanted me to do BIG DEAL. (Laughs.)
PC: What a great story! Was it a tough choice?
SPC: C'mon! How could I turn BIG DEAL down? It was an original show! SWEET CHARITY was amazing, but it was a reproduction of the original. This was the chance to do an original show with Bob. So, all around, it really was a blessed time for me in my performing career.
PC: That's a Broadway gypsy story for the ages right there!
SPC: (Big Laugh.) Let me tell you something really interesting about Bob; I think he liked the show of telling you you got the job himself.
PC: Why do you think?
SPC: Well, I remember he called me himself. I picked up the phone and it wasn't my manager and it wasn't the casting director - Bob Fosse was on the other end telling me I had been hired for his show.
PC: John Rubenstein tells a somewhat similar story in a Fosse biography, I believe - it's a special Fosse touch.
SPC: Oh, did he? That's so fabulous.
PC: Tell me about doing BIG DEAL on Broadway - it wasn't a big hit, correct?
SPC: We came in in ‘86 and just ran a couple of months. We did the Tony Awards in June and we won Best Choreography. I remember we got the announcement that we were closing shortly after the Tony Awards, though.
PC: Why do you think it wasn't successful? Not enough of a set? Not enough of a mega musical?
SPC: I really don't know - there are a million stories about what happened with that show. When you are in it, you are not really involved with all of that, you know? Plus, I was just a kid. There are so many versions of the story: you know, Bob sort of wanted to do everything by himself and he wasn't listening to the producers or anybody else. But, who knows? I'm sure somebody knows.
PC: What do you think was a problem for audiences seeing it?
SPC: It was a dark musical - maybe too dark. You know, his musicals tend to be dark - but, it did have a sort of cult following. It might have been too dark.
PC: And FOSSE, the revue, which you also famously did on Broadway, used quite a bit of material from BIG DEAL.
SPC: It opened with "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" - that's how BIG DEAL began, with Loretta Devine standing up there in a spotlight singing her hiney off! I actually understudied her in the original - and prayed I never went on. (Laughs.)
PC: That's hilarious.
SPC: It came full-circle - like you said: cut to all these years later and I'm on a Broadway stage singing "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries". (Laughs.)
PC: And you have such a scintillating recording of it on your superb album. There's a bunch of BIG DEAL material on that, correct?
SPC: Yes, all of the songs on my CD are songs that were used in BIG DEAL - that was, of course, sort of my homage to Bob and to the time period, which I love. Of course, we didn't use all of the songs from the show, but we got some amazing arrangements and we really had some fun with it.
PC: I adore that album. How did that concept come to you?
SPC: When I was asked what I wanted to do, I gave it some thought and realized, "Wow, wouldn't it be great to readdress these wonderful songs from the 30s and 40s?"
PC: Did you get to work with Sondheim one-on-one in that 90s revival of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, especially since the courtesans were reconceived for it?
SPC: Not that I am aware of, but it is very possible - I know that Larry Gelbart was around and Jerry Zaks directed it, so we were, of course, around them. Tony Walton told me that the idea was originally for my character to have purple hair. He saw it in a dream. So, we started out with me with purple hair and then we took it a little bit further and we did braids and long extensions with purple. But, eventually, we ended up using regular braids and my own hair color. But, it really emerged from Tony Walton's imagination that she was this sort of Amazonian woman. (Laughs.)
PC: What was it like working with Tommy Tune on THE WILL ROGER'S FOLLIES?
SPC: Well, I joined THE Will Rogers FOLLIES shortly after it won the Tony Awards...
PC: So Jerry Mitchell was still in it, then?
SPC: Oh, yes! Uh, huh - dancing on that drum with his hiney hangin' out? He was there, honey! (Laughs.)
PC: That's so funny. How did you get involved with that production?
SPC: I had been living out in Los Angeles and they actually had hired me from Los Angeles to come back into New York and join that cast. I had started practicing Bikram yoga out in Los Angeles and I would come backstage and start doing my breathing and postures to warm my body up before the show. I remember some of the cast members coming up to me and saying, "Oh, did Tommy show that stuff to you, too?" And, I was like, "What are you talking about? This is my warm-up!" And they were like, "Tommy has us doing the same thing in rehearsals." He had been teaching them yoga that he practiced.
PC: That's so great! Did you enjoy the experience working on that show with Tune, then?
SPC: Oh, Tommy? His stuff is so much fun and so beautiful. It was great working for him.
PC: He needs to come back to Broadway!
SPC: Yeah! We need those old splashy, flashy musicals that he can do so well.
PC: What was working with George C. Wolfe on JELLY'S LAST JAM like? He's a genius, no?
SPC: He's definitely a genius. Again, I always say that because I was so blessed to have my foundation as a dancer be a show with somebody like Bob Fosse, so I was in good hands wherever I went - and, working with George and doing that show just fit so well with his genius and the way his mind works. How he saw the Honeys in JELLY'S LAST JAM and how he allowed us to live truthfully without saying a word - it felt very natural for me.
PC: That was a beautiful production. It's a shame it wasn't filmed.
SPC: There was word at the time it was going to be - and it might still happen - but I agree that it would have been great if it was.
PC: Speaking of which: what do you think of the Hollywood film musical revival, like with CHICAGO and HAIRSPRAY and so on?
SPC: I think: where else can it go? You know, I think producers are too afraid - and maybe rightly so - to put their money into something brand new; something untried. So, why not put the money into something that maybe worked in another medium and bring it to life on screen? It seems like a smart business decision and it's fun for the audience, too.
PC: Congratulations on your super-successful yoga studio.
SPC: Aww, thank you so much!
PC: OK, tell me why I should switch from Ashtanga to Bikram?
SPC: (Big Laugh.) Well, first of all, you don't have to stop practicing Ashtanga - everything is beneficial. As long as you are practicing yoga, you are good. I actually have never practiced Ashtanga myself - I've done a couple of others, though. The thing about Bikram, for me, coming from a dancer's background - aesthetically, I love the discipline of it and I love the fact that the room is heated.
PC: I was going to ask if the heat is the main reason you like it.
SPC: Honey, these old muscles and ligaments and tendons need as much help as they can get! You know, heat along with Bikram yoga softens the muscles and increases the circulation. Bikram is a physical practice - it's all about the physical, but the spiritual and mental sort of creeps in without you knowing. You are so focused on these twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises that you don't even realize you are getting spiritual benefits as well - and, soon enough, you not only see not only physical changes, but spiritual and emotional changes as well. I prefer Bikram - but, as long as you are practicing yoga you are AOK with me.
PC: Did you ever know the studio would be this successful?
SPC: Oh, I am so happy! Not only bring it to New York - but we are right around the corner from where I grew up in East Harlem.
PC: That's incredible. It's right in your old neighborhood.
SPC: Yeah! What I wanted to do was to bring this amazing healing practIce To my community and to give people a choice. There are other things you can do out there to enhance your health and your well-being besides just going to a doctor, you know.
PC: How wonderful you can give back and that you have transitioned into a successful new career.
SPC: It's definitely a labor of love. Anything else is just icing. As a performer, you hope that you are making a difference in people's lives - especially if you are lucky enough to leave the stage door and someone comes around and lets you know how you had an effect on them; then good for you, but that doesn't always happen. When I stand up there on that podium in that yoga studio and see people come back again and again and again I get to see how yoga is positively affecting their lives. I cannot even begin to tell you how gratifying it is.
PC: I have to admit, though, that I can't wait to see you dancing again in a musical onstage. Do you know anything about the Roundabout DANCIN' revival?
SPC: All I know is I can't wait for it to come and I will be there to cheer them all on!
PC: Would you want to do Fosse material again, like in that?
SPC: I consider everything! I'm open to whatever comes my way. What's gonna happen, will happen.
PC: Indeed. Last questions: Define collaboration.
SPC: It's key. It's crucial. (Pause.) It is life-giving. Without it, the piece can't breathe - there has to be the give and take; the yin and yang. In a perfect world, you have everybody coming to the table with something. That, to me, is what collaboration is all about.
PC: What's next?
SPC: Honey, I never, never, ever know what's next - I just keep on working on improving myself professionally and personally and, then, when God wants to present something to me and it's right, it happens. I've always lived my life like that.
PC: It's certainly all coming around - yoga with Tommy Tune to your own yoga studio almost twenty years later!
SPC: It's all full-circle.
PC: Thank you so much, Stephanie. This was fantastic.
SPC: Thank you, too, Pat. This was so great. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro