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Inside the Casting of Broadway’s “Pippin”

June 6th, 2013

Duncan Stewart (l) and Benton Whitley (r).

A handful of very fortunate (and talented) theater artisans are going to walk away with Tony Awards on Sunday night. But one category that does not receive nominations is that of Casting Director. With a keen eye for talent and social skills on par with a highly trained psychologist (have you ever been around theater people?), casting directors are responsible for helping to create the artistic vision for a show.

From A-list celebrities to chorus kids plucked right out of school, casting directors are a critical — and often overlooked — part of the creative process. The Broadway Blog sat down for an exclusive interview with Benton Whitley, Casting Director (CSA) and Partner at Duncan Stewart and Company. Known for their connections with high profile agents and managers, Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley have been responsible for putting numerous stars, celebrities and international pop stars into theatrical productions including: Mary-Louise Parker, Kelsey Grammer, Christie Brinkley, Sofia Vergara, Harvey Fierstein and Liev Schreiber to name a few.

Their latest project is Pippin, the most nominated show of the year, including 10 Tony Award nominations, 11 Outer Critics nominations, 3 Drama League Nominations and 6 Drama Desk Nominations. We asked Whitley to share the company’s thoughts about casting its three nominated actors and here’s what he had to say:

The Broadway Blog:

Patina Miller as The Leading Player. (photo: Joan Marcus)

Patina Miller
Nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.
Patina Miller as the Leading Player is, hands down, spectacular. Was it your concept from the beginning to cast a female or were you looking at all different types? She also has a captivating way of engaging the audience – almost as if they are another character in the show. Was this something you were specifically looking for?

Duncan Stewart and Company:
It was a huge priority in the casting of the role that the actor could break through that fourth wall and engage with the audience. Director Diane Paulus said, “I’m looking for an actor to ingratiate with the audience.”

Somehow this ringleader has the ability to reel you in, from a five-year-old to an 80-year-old man — and not be scared! We saw many actors that had a dominating presence, but didn’t have the heart. It was pivotal in our search.

[Diane] was open to the idea of a female. It was written for a male, the keys, the script, everything was geared toward a man. In auditions we saw men and women, ranging in age from 20- to 60-years-old. It’s our understanding that they’re not sold that Leading Players in the future needs to be an African American female.

By casting Patina, the role has become a showcase for her skill set. She had the edge over people. She’s sexy. She’s young. She’s gorgeous. And (which most people didn’t know) she’s a phenomenal dancer. If she had said no, the dancing would have been a lot more minimal. When it’s time to recast, it’s the bar that we’ll be try reach for, but we believe directors should not try to have actors fit into cookie cutter molds of the originating actors.

The Broadway Blog:

Andrea Martin at Berthe and Matthew James Thomas as Pippin. (photo: Joan Marcus)

Andrea Martin, nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.

Andrea Martin as Berthe — come on! She received a standing ovation in the middle of the show the night that I saw it. Without giving too much away to readers who haven’t see it yet, how did you know that she would be able to ‘rise to the occasion’?

Duncan Stewart and Company:
It’s the beauty of creating an original cast and the time in the rehearsal room. Andrea was hired “offer only,” which means she didn’t have to audition. We knew that she was the right type and fit for the role and this production. She did have one stipulation. She said, “I’m only going to do this if you’re not going to make me the old granny that sits on the stool where everybody dances around me. I want to be shot out of a cannon.” Well, we got pretty damn close.

Now it’s a huge challenge for us moving forward. She’s contracted for a year but we’re already thinking about who could do what she does. There are few women in that age bracket who can do that, but the number has been shaped and we’ll do our best to maintain it.

The Broadway Blog:

Terrence Mann as Charles and Charlotte d'Amboise as Fastrada. (photo: Joan Marcus)

Terrence Mann, nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical.
As King Charles, Terrence brings both gravitas and humor (along with his real-life wife, Charlotte d’Amboise, who recently one an Astaire Award for her performance) to the production. How did that all come about?

Duncan Stewart and Company:
He tackles it like Shakespeare. Terry is a classically trained actor and it shows onstage. He also understands the comedy of the show. So many guys came in and played it like a puppet, but he also instilled a sense of realness. When we were pulling the lists together the lightbulb came on. Charlotte was on the list for Fastrada (King Charles’ wife) and we thought the two of them together onstage would be a great combination. They have different representation and were clear that they were both interested in the project independent of one another.

Diane said — and we agree — that Pippin is the definition of musical theater: glorious music, glorious acting and glorious dancing.

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