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Any actor will tell you some roles require more preparation than others.
“There’s not a gymnastic bone in my body,” says Kyle Dean Massey. But that didn’t stop the Broadway actor from tackling the title character in Diane Paulus’ Tony Award-winning revival of “Pippin.”
Unlike previous versions of the 1972 musical, this production (now playing at National Theatre) takes place in a circus tent and incorporates lots of flashy Cirque du Soleil-like moves.
“When I started rehearsal, the acrobatics trainer asked if I’d ever done back flips. I told him no,” says Massey, 33. “Then he asked about somersaults. I told him sure, and did my idea of one. He wasn’t impressed. So let’s just say I started out at square one and have been training ever since. Now I’m doing diving somersaults off a guy’s shoulders.”
“Pippin” is the story of a young prince trying to find his place in the world. Nominally set in the Middle Ages, it’s a play within a play acted by a troupe of itinerant performers. His character, says Massey, is an everyman for every person in the audience, for everyone trying to make sense of their lives. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”), the score includes hits like “Magic to Do” and “Corner of the Sky.”
The original Bob Fosse production was a darker animal than the current touring production, Massey says. “I’m a more optimistic Pippin. I have bouts of disillusionment with family expectations, religion and government — I go through all of that in the show. But at the end of the day I feel there is something good out there. I think ’72 might have been more a time of dissatisfaction and malaise onstage and off.”
Today’s tour includes John Rubinstein, the actor who created the part of the Pippin on Broadway, as Pippin’s father Charlemagne, king of the Holy Roman Empire, and Hollywood spawn Lucie Arnaz as Pippin’s frisky grandmother Berthe who encourages her grandson to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh. Reportedly, Arnaz sings part of her big number hanging upside down. The experience, says Massey, is an incredible blend of the past and what’s current.
Massey grew up listening to the original cast recording of “Pippin.”
“I’d play the cassette tape in my car,” he says. “I first found it at the library — one of the few places in Jonesboro, Ark., where you could find Broadway recordings. Still, it was never a show I imagined myself doing. It felt like one of those crazy musical from the early ‘70s. It has some great songs but it didn’t have a life outside of that for me.”
After receiving an master’s degree in musical theater from Missouri State University in 2004, Massey set on conquering Broadway. He’s played princely Fiyero in “Wicked” off and on (both on Broadway and on tour), Thalia in “Xanadu” and Gabe, the spectral son of a bipolar mother, in “Next to Normal.” His transition to “Pippin” happened quickly: “My contract with ‘Wicked’ ended on a Sunday and I went into rehearsal for ‘Pippin’ on a Monday. These are what actors call Champagne problems. Believe me, I’m not complaining.”
Life on tour is tricky though, say the New York-based actor. It’s easier when you’re younger and don’t have ties to where you live, he says, and harder when you’re older and more established. He’s in a relationship but prefers to keep the details private. “When my ex and I broke up, it took a year for me to get his name off my Wikipedia. It was the worst. So, I’m a little more discreet now.”
It was during the Broadway run of “Next to Normal” when Massey came out publicly. “It was my first important part and I was getting a lot of press,” he says. “My coming out wasn’t calculated in any way. After all it wasn’t like I’d become gay that day.”
Massey was one of the first participants in Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, an anti-bullying campaign that features videos of LGBT adults ensuring their often unhappy youthful counterparts that life does get better.
“I did it to let those boys out there who take dance class and love doing theater know that it’s OK. It really is OK,” he says. His video has elicited a response from LGBT kids that has been prodigious and affecting. It’s not unusual for Massey to receive an email or letter that begins: “When I woke up today, I was ready to kill myself and then I saw your video …”
But for now, Massey is concentrating exclusively on “Pippin.” With all the tumbling involved, it’s not surprising that he describes it as the most physically tiring run of his career to date.
“Not only do you sing and dance, but you’re also climbing up a pole and doing a flip. And before every performance we train for an hour. It’s insane. And I love it.”