BWW Interview: Sabrina Harper Kicks High in PIPPIN
Sabrina Harper (http://www.sabrinaharper.com/sabrina/Bio.html?) is helping to bring the 20th century Tony award-winning Pippin into the 21st century. As the red-hot, live wire character Fastrada, the multitalented Harper will contribute her high-kicking talents to the acclaimed National Touring production. A veteran of Broadway and European stages, the southern California native has been performing bilingually in ballets, concerts, operettas, musicals and straight theatre since a young age.
Returning to Broadway for the first time since its stunning run that began over 40 years ago, Pippin is a death defying, high wire act, originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, here directed by Diane Paulus. I caught up with Harper, who is "based out of two suitcases," by phone from Seattle.
EM: You went to Stuttgart at a young age to study with dance icon John Cranko. How exciting was that?
SH: Very exciting. Also a jump into cold water. I grew up and danced in southern California with Los Angeles Classical Ballet and Ballet Pacifica at a very young age, an only child, very protected by my parents. The scholarship to Germany was definitely an offer you just don't turn down. I didn't realize what I was getting myself into. It was amazing, exciting, very difficult. I got so much out of it. That whole experience helped me become the person and performer I am today. After the Cranko School I thought I'd go back home to California. I actually got my first contract offer with the Volksoper, the opera house in Vienna. I took it and just continued on.
EM: What were some of your roles at the Volksoper?
SH: At the time I was hired in the ballet ensemble. I had danced my whole life. Singing and theatre were part of my education growing up in Laguna Beach and I did theatre at the Laguna Playhouse. I believe at some point you choose a focus. Mine became more and more dance. When I first went to Europe my major focus was classical ballet. At the Volksoper we had ballet evenings but as part of the ballet company I also did many operas and operettas - My Fair Lady, The Merry Widow. It wasn't until La Cage aux Folles and Kiss Me, Kate that we also had to sing. The artistic director had a singing teacher come in to work with us. That was when they said to me, "Sweetie, you have a voice." I'd sung as a child and in high school, but I never really continued. From then on I started taking lessons. My first role was actually when I left the Volksoper and sang with the opera in Hamburg, Germany, Phantom of the Opera, the role of Meg Giry. All of my background, the classical dance, the singing, the acting, were suddenly combined. So musical theatre took off again. My true passion combining dancing, singing and acting all together came true.
EM: You have to be multitalented to do all that.
SH: Definitely. [Laughs]
EM: What have some of your favorite shows and roles been?
SH: Definitely Roxie Hart, Chicago - a role I always wanted to play, just a dream come true. Being in the first German language production of The Producers was amazing. When I'd heard they were bringing it to Europe I thought, "How is this going to work in German? How will audiences take to it?" It was exciting to be part of that production and work with Susan Stroman and meet Thomas Meehan. When I look back at pictures I think, "Gosh, I love it, I wish I could do it again." [Laughs] I recently got to work with Mitzi Hamilton as Cassie in A Chorus Line. Performing that role meant so much to me. I would love to do again because it's our life - the life of a dancer, a musical theatre performer. It's such an honor to stand on stage in that line and really be part of what our world means. Phantom of course was a dream come true. The first time I saw Michael Crawford in the national tour in Los Angeles, I thought, "I want to be part of this." I remember my mom asking me, "Which role did you love the best?" I said, "I want to play Meg Giry." I was just a little girl. When I had the opportunity to perform it, I couldn't believe it.
EM: Lots of dreams coming true for you.
SH: Yes! It has a lot to do with working hard and being focused. [Laughs]
EM: And following your dream.
SH: It took a lot of perseverance, falling down and getting back up again. My ballet- school teacher was from the Ukraine, very demanding and hard. A lot of tears but still not giving up, and saying, "I can do this. I'm gonna do it."
EM: You made your Broadway debut in Pippin in 2013.
SH: That was unbelievable. I was living and working in Europe and had some time off between two different productions. I thought I'd go back to New York, test the waters, do some auditions, not expecting anything. I signed up for open calls for Aladdin, Sideshow and Pippin. I remember seeing all of the people at the first one and thought, "This is insane." I got a callback for my second audition, Sideshow. The third was Pippin. They said, "You'll know by Friday if you have the job and if you can't start on Monday, then no need to audition." I went for it, did the open dance call and was asked to stay and sing. Every time I was kept was amazing, exciting. I kept coming back. Friday morning, more and more girls coming in, at the end of the day there were three of us that danced for the producers and the team. That evening at about seven, I got the phone call that I had the offer. I just flipped. [Laughs] Insane.
EM: And you covered six parts!
SH: I was hired as a female swing, understudied Berthe and Fastrada. I went, "Berthe?" [Laughs] I didn't see that happening, covering a 66-year-old. The role I premiered in was the Noble, for Stephanie Pope, quite early in the run. That was amazing. Then I made my understudy debut as Berthe - insane - followed by Fastrada. Then a colleague of mine who was hired to understudy Fastrada, Leading Player and Catherine knew that I loved the role of Catherine and would love to play it. Understudying Leading Player and Fastrada were so demanding that she asked to give back Catherine's understudy. I auditioned and sang for it and they said yes. I ended up understudying and playing Catherine, Fastrada and Berthe. Recently in Tampa I made my Leading Player debut - such an exciting role. Since that I've played every single female track in the ensemble, danced and acrobatic, including one male track, and all of the female roles.
EM: That must be a record.
SH: Yes! Someone was saying they should look into if there's ever been a female playing every single female role in a Broadway production. From Berthe, 66, to Fastrada the sexy vamp, to Catherine the love ingénue, and Leading Player. It's crazy. All the roles are so exciting, so different. I can't say which is my favorite because I love being so versatile playing them all. My Berthe has a strong German accent, which adds character and color. My Leading Player - I look up to how Patina Miller has played it, finding the androgynous, sexy, but at the same time very masculine and strong character. Somebody put on Facebook that "Which Character Are You in Pippin?" survey. I got Fastrada and I thought, "Okay, that's me." [Laughs]
EM: Tell us about Fastrada.
SH: She's a typical storybook stepmother, manipulative, conniving. Her son Lewis, she thrives to push to power. He's everything for her. She's the wife to Charlemagne, Pippin's father. She pushes Pippin toward taking power. Leading Player is the puppet master of this piece, and Charlemagne, Fastrada, Berthe, Catherine, are all characters that guide Pippin on his journey toward the finale, to what makes you take that extra jump. From Berthe he learns to live life and enjoy everything, live in the moment. From Charlemagne he's been shown war, what it's like to be in battle. Fastrada guides him toward taking over control. She pushes him to kill, to become powerful, to take over, become king. These are all ways to show Pippin what there is in life. Finally he meets Catherine and has an ordinary life. I'm one of the guiders. As Fastrada likes to put it, she's just your ordinary housewife. [Laughs]
EM: How has the tour been for you so far?
SH: Really exciting, demanding. This is my first time touring - a different city each week, on our day off traveling to the next city. Settling in, making your hotel room into your own little space. Trying to find time in the free moments to experience the cities. I haven't seen much of the beauty of the United States. This has been an opportunity for me to experience everything they have to offer. I've traveled to Europe and some of the most beautiful places in the world, but there were only a few states I'd ever been to. You don't need to travel to far off places to enjoy the beauty of crystal clear turquoise water and dolphins that are in the backyards of people in Florida. Schenectady is one of the cutest towns in Upstate New York - so much beauty around it with mountains and lakes. Also I've realized how fortunate we are to have such a great cast and be so connected - this is your family right now on the road. Pippin is a troupe of traveling performers, sharing a story, hoping to touch people, touch the audience to look at their lives and trust that what they have is their fulfillment. Or if they haven't found fulfillment to continue on the journey and find their corner of the sky. We are a "traveling Pippin." It's been quite a journey.
EM: What are your plans after the tour closes?
SH: My goal and wish is to continue to perform. I want to go back to New York, to be back on Broadway again and hope that I will have the opportunity. I look forward to whatever challenges, whatever productions come my way. I'd like to thank audiences for continuing to support live theatre, to keep it part of our world.
EM: I wish you all best luck and am looking forward to seeing you on stage in San Diego.
SH: Thanks so much.
Photo credits: Terry Shapiro