The ‘Pippin’ Profiles: Sasha Allen finds her voice in the raw art of live theatre
by John Moore | Sep 02, 2014
It’s not like the prospect of performing in front of nearly 3,000 people in Denver to launch the national touring production of Pippin doesn’t make Sasha Allen a little nervous. But intimidated? Hardly.
“Try sitting there calmly when they are you counting you down from 5, 4, 3… and that, ‘Oh, by the way, 30 million people are watching,’ ” said Allen. “That’s scary.”
The Harlem-born Allen has sung backing vocals for Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, John Legend and Usher. She rose to fame in her own right last year as a finalist on the fourth season of NBC’s singing competition, The Voice. (Photo left by Matthew Murphy.)
The pressure to perform on live TV, she said, “is out of control.” By comparison, taking to the stage as the Leading Player in Pippin feels positively intimate. Still, she gets something out of performing on a theatre stage that TV just can’t match.
“There is a serious transfer of energy when you are performing in front of live people,” said Allen, who in Pippin is taking on the iconic (and now feminized) role of the Leading Player, head of a troupe of circus performers who relate the story of a young prince’s search for meaning in his life.
“On TV, when your eyelash falls off, they yell, ‘Stop.’ Someone comes on and fixes your eyelash, and you do it again. There is something organic about being on stage and everybody with you is there to take care of each other. Because nobody is going to come running on and fix your lash if it falls off. We can’t yell, ‘Cut!’ It just doesn’t work like that.
“We are all sweating. Your shoes are stabbing you in your feet. Live theatre is a raw art, and I think you have to completely love it to want to do it.”
Allen loves it – stabby shoes and all. She made her Broadway debut in 2010 when Director Diane Paulus cast her to join another signature revival American revival, Hair, as Dionne.
What will make Allen a bit nervous is when you point out that she’s following in the footsteps of the great Ben Vereen.
I saw his performance on tape, and I was I was like, ‘Oh my God, he is just so electric,’ ” she said. It is intimidating. But I am thankful to be a female playing that role. It’s just so different. It has to be.”
What follows are excerpts from our extensive conversation with Pippin’s leading Player:
John Moore: How is rehearsal going today?
Sasha Allen: I have been sweating like a crazy person all day long. I smell like the gym. But it is going really, really good. For a second there, I thought I was going to jump off the cliff, because it’s a lot of hard work. But then it finally starts to click, and your body finally does what it is supposed to do.
John Moore: It seems like all of you just jumped off the cliff together on this one.
Sasha Allen: When you take on a project like this, you just know it’s going to be good in the end. That’s why you continue to do the work, but … man, it’s hard.
John Moore: Well, congratulations for the opportunity.
Sasha Allen: Thank you. I know this is a life-changing moment. I just know that if I continue on my path, then I will be labeled as something better than I was yesterday.
John Moore: It sounds as if you are on a Pippin-esque journey of your own.
Sasha Allen: I definitely am. I called my mom after I crashed and burned during one rehearsal. I was like, ‘Well, that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. And she was like, ‘Well, now you know where you stand. Now, work it out. Moving on … ‘
John Moore: Gotta love moms.
Sasha Allen: Absolutely. I was like, ‘Right. Exactly. Now — get back to rehearsal.’
John Moore: When was the first time you ever saw Pippin?
Sasha Allen: I had seen Ben Vereen on tape. Just as a fan. I was like, ‘Oh my God, he is so amazing. Let’s rewind and watch that again.’ But when I knew I was going to be auditioning (to join the Broadway cast), I went to see it (with Patina Miller playing the role of the Leading Player). It’s a strange feeling. You’re like, ‘I can conquer this’ … but it becomes intimidating at the same time. I was thinking, ‘Damn. She never leaves the stage. She never takes a break.’ I do know that when that show was over, I stood on my feet … and I meant it. There was a real feeling of, ‘Get your butt up and clap for this production, because they just rocked the house.’
John Moore: So what is your take on the role of the Leading Player now?
Sasha Allen: At first, I didn’t like her so much. I really didn’t. I was thinking, ‘Well, then, so how do I get into a character that I don’t like?’ That’s why (Director Diane Paulus) is so great. When she made us do character study, it was so necessary, because hating my character doesn’t work for me playing her. I had to realize that everybody has a story. Everybody has something that has happened to them. I really do believe that everyone is born in innocence. I have children, so I know what innocence really looks like. So I thought, something must have happened to her. That’s why she is this strict, crazy, controlling, person. If you can understand where people come from, then you don’t take it personally. As an actor, you can get joy out of a person’s struggle. It’s so real. You will find controlling people everywhere in the world, and I just wonder why. Me creating a pre-story for this character really helped me to understand where she’s coming from.
John Moore: I have talked to several people who have made the connection that (Composer) Stephen Schwartz is pretty much Pippin, and the Leading Player is really (original Director) Bob Fosse. Have you tried to tap into the Fosse context in any way?
Sasha Allen: I don’t think of them as being the actual people. I know part of their inspiration for the Leading Player came from Charles Manson, and a lot of stuff in the script refers back to that. So I really watched Charles Manson. I think he’s scary, but you know what? I didn’t hate him. He made a lot of sense in a weird, crazy kind of way. I would never want to be in his presence because he would probably do a mind trip on me, but … no, I never thought about Fosse being my character.
John Moore: Love her or not, your character is such a necessary part of Pippin’s journey. It might be tough love, but it seems to me that you’re also his teacher.
Sasha Allen: There are different moments throughout the show where I feel like his teacher. Then I feel like his mother. Then his friend. And then, in the end … I feel like his enemy. When Pippin doesn’t do what I want him to do, she has a full-on meltdown. She will do whatever it takes to get him to feel what she is feeling. ‘Oh, so you don’t feel with me now? I am going to make you feel it this way.’ A lot of people can relate to Pippin because we’ve all felt naive and innocent — and now, someone is trying to take control of your life. But my character is also very human. Her antics are on the more dramatic side, but we can all relate to wanting to be in control of our lives.
John Moore: You mentioned your appreciation for Ben Vereen.
Sasha Allen: Oh, I love him.
John Moore: In talking with Stephen about turning the Leading Player into a part for a female actor, he said no male actor would ever be able to live up to Ben Vereen’s performance … or at least people’s picture in their minds of Ben Vereen’s performance. And Stephen didn’t want to put that responsibility on any man. So they thought making the Leading Player a woman would be an opportunity to present the story in an entirely different way. But still, you are following in Ben Vereen’s footsteps. How does it feel to step into that lineage?
Sasha Allen: I will say it is intimidating. But, as a woman, I am able to do make different vocal and creative choices. Stephen and Diane have really allowed me to do my own thing, and allow my signature to be put on it. And I am not sure if I could have done that if I were a male. And even if I weren’t a differently styled singer, I think it would feel disrespectful to change this great thing that has been made. As a female, I do feel lucky to be able to say, ‘Well, yes, Ben did that. And we all love him for that. But now … look at me. I have a sexy outfit on!’
John Moore: Have you ever met Ben Vereen?
Sasha Allen: I have. I was doing Hair, and he did Hair as well. Afterward, he invited some of the cast to his hotel room. We had a whole in-depth conversation about Hair, and his experience, and the times, and the racism. We got so deep. He was really so special. But I think you have to be to be that much of a genius. He is a phenomenal “thing.” I mean, it doesn’t even feel human.
John Moore: So I want to ask you about working with all of these awesome women. When we look back on the original Pippin, it’s Stephen Schwartz and it’s Bob Fosse and it’s Roger Hirson and it’s Ben Vereen. It’s such a “guy’s show” in many ways. And now you have Diane bringing it back to life on Broadway, and she has brought in Gypsy Snider for the circus elements. They are both mothers. You are a mother. Pippin is still a guy’s story, but there is a whole lot of girl power going on in this new production.
Sasha Allen: Oh, I feel it. Definitely. And I can tell you, I don’t know if a man yelling at me the way Diane yells at me would work. Do you know what I mean? There is just a different energy with women. When Diane is getting revved up, she is literally transferring her energy to me. She is not holding back at all. When she tells me to do something, you just do it. And if she pisses me off, that just makes it even better. It is a literal transfer of women power. She is truly inspiring.
John Moore: That applies to new ending, too, doesn’t it? We’re not telling people exactly how it has changed. But there is something that was troubling, I think, about the way the original Pippin ended. After his period of adventure, there was this unintentional sense that Pippin was somehow settling for a family life. As if that’s a bad thing. But it’s an interesting thing when you put strong women in charge of the storytelling. Because I think they have brought some clarity to in terms of what we should consider to be extraordinary.
Sasha Allen: I do not think that a young man choosing to be a husband and a father should ever be considered settling. We all have choices to make, and having a family is not a bad choice. It’s just not. I have one. I think anybody can do whatever they want with their lives and make it exceptional. If you are going to be a father, then be an exceptional father. I think we all can be extraordinary, however we choose to be.
John Moore: So … do you mind if we talk about The Voice?
Sasha Allen: Oh yeah, yeah … come on!
John Moore: OK, so I have been asked to ask: When you had to choose between Shakira and Usher to be your mentor, you picked Shakira. But you were once a backing vocalist for Usher. How did you come to that decision?
Sasha Allen: It was excruciating. It looks pretty easy when you are watching the show on TV. But when you are up there, you are sweating bullets. I was shaking inside. They put this weird music on, and the lights changed. It really is intimidating. Usher is an amazing singer. He’s an amazing performer. But he is a technical dancer. You know, here we are talking about the strong women in Pippin: I felt like what I needed most was a strong woman to tell me what I needed to do as a woman to get this done. And that went down to everything from, ‘How do I wear my hair?’ to, ‘How do I wear my make-up?’ to, ‘What shade of lipstick?’ to, ‘What outfit should I wear?’ I know that sounds really off-topic, but these things are crucial in how people look at you. I was just talking to one of our costume designers, and she said, ‘What I love is looking at how people dress. There is always a whole story behind it.’ Well, there is a whole story behind what I wore on The Voice.
John Moore: Did you learn any dance moves from Shakira?
Sasha Allen: You know, we really didn’t really work on dance moves. I mean, I will never be able to dance like her. She’s born and bred to dance. It was really the small details that I got from her. Shakira would tell me, ‘Smile here, and then seduce the camera there.’ She gave me a valuable lesson on brightening up a room, or seducing a room. If I am going to crawl, then it better be a good crawl. If you are going to do it, then make it sexual, or else don’t even do it. Those are women tricks.
John Moore: So The Voice wasn’t that long ago, and now you are only a couple of days away from opening the tour of Pippin. Can you put your life into any kind of perspective right now?
Sasha Allen: It’s a blessing. It really is. I didn’t realize how much I was going to learn from The Voice, to tell you the truth. Because you look at the show and you’re like, ‘Well, yes, it’s corny and it’s cheesy. But I learned so much. I learned a lot about myself. I learned how hard I am willing to work. And I really learned how to practice.
Note: “The Pippin Profiles” is a series of interviews by Arts Journalist John Moore with the “Pippin The Musical” cast and creative team leading up to the launch of the first national touring production in Denver on Sept. 6. Dallas Summer Musicals is re-posting these on the DSM Blog to countdown the Opening Night of PIPPIN at the Music Hall at Fair Park – July 7-19!