News Column

From Pittsburgh to the Great White Way [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

June 8, 2013


When the curtain rises on the 67th Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama will be well-represented.

Three CMU alumni will be among performers anxiously sitting in the audience hoping to hear their names. If all goes as hoped, they will join the ranks of 24 past Tony winners who also learned their craft at Pittsburgh's prestigious university.

Billy Porter

An East Liberty native and 1991 CMU graduate, Billy Porter is nominated for best performance in a leading role in a musical for his portrayal of Lola in "Kinky Boots" -- a drag-queen singer whose flamboyant eye for design helps turn around a failing shoe factory.

With music and lyrics from Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, the show, based on a true story and inspired by a film of the same name, has garnered 13 nominations.

Porter first appeared on Broadway in 1991's "Miss Saigon" and was Teen Angel in the 1994 revival of "Grease." "Kinky Boots" marks Porter's return to Broadway after a hiatus to pursue writing and directing interests.

Question: How has your time at Carnegie Mellon served you in your professional life?

Answer: I grew up in Pittsburgh and actually had no idea that Carnegie Mellon was as revered as it was until my senior year in high school. My theater teachers sort of forbade me to move to New York immediately. They said, "You're going to Carnegie Mellon, and you're going to learn how to act, and then you will never have to worry about having a job ever." They were right. The training -- it's unbelievable. What CMU really taught me was how to experience my life and live my life as an artist. And that's a difficult thing to understand because, as an artist, you have to have the discipline, the self-motivational gear inside yourself to continue to make progress and to move forward. Carnegie Mellon taught me how to do that.

Q: You also attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School. What influence did that experience have on you?

A: It was wonderful to be able to go someplace at such an early age and feel that you belonged, that there was a group of people who understood you. It's hard when you're a kid, and you don't play sports. My parents were very much, "If you get good grades, you can do whatever you want." I had to stay on top of my grades so that I could actually go do shows.

Q: "Kinky Boots" represents your return to Broadway. How has the industry changed in the years that you pursued other directing and writing interests?

A: The business has changed drastically. I think the Internet has done the theatrical community a great service. When I started 20- something years ago, the reach that theater had was more or less confined to the 12-block radius of Broadway. And whoever was interested outside of that 12-block radius had to search for it in a way that was not necessarily convenient.

But the Internet is reaching like-minded people across the world. The audience that exists for us now didn't necessarily exist before.

Q: What memories of your role as Lola will stay with you in the years to come?

A: The courage that Lola has to live inside of her own skin and the willingness to find a way to forgive her father, forgive herself, and to love people for who they are is quite significant for me. I will take that strength and that power with me wherever I go.e_SNbS

Patina Miller

Nominated for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical for "Pippin," Patina Miller graduated from the CMU School of Drama in 2006. Her character, The Leading Player, guides the young Pippin as he sets out to discover true meaning in his life, dabbling in war, sex and politics before finding love.

Honored with 10 Tony nominations, this is the first revival of "Pippin" since its 1972 Bob Fosse-directed and -choreographed premiere. Coincidentally, the show's music and lyrics were written by Stephen Schwartz, a 1968 graduate of Carnegie Mellon.

Working almost nonstop since leaving school, Miller earned her first Tony nomination in 2011 for her Broadway debut in "Sister Act."

Q: Because this is your second nomination, was your initial reaction any different this time?

A: I feel like I was a little more prepared. The first time around, it was my Broadway debut. I was just nervous and shy and really didn't know anyone. Now, it's my second show on Broadway and, once again, I'm part of an amazing cast and crew and creative team. It feels really good to be doing a show I love, so I was definitely really excited. We really put our hearts and souls into this piece - - we've been working on it for almost a year. To have that kind of recognition and validation that what you're doing as a company is resonating with people, it's a celebration. Everyone's so happy. So, definitely, the second time around, I'm just enjoying myself and enjoying being among so many friends.

Q: As a fairly recent graduate, what has stayed with you that has served you well in your professional life?

A: From the moment I got to Carnegie Mellon, it was very grueling. It's a tough program. But it's designed that way to get you prepared for when you leave. The reality is that it is a hard profession. And if it's something that you really want to do, they really prepare you. It's a program designed to have you ready to handle anything.

You leave with an appreciation for every aspect of the theater because, for example, you do crew work, as well. You're in scenes all day, every day -- finding out what kind of actor you are. You're singing all day, you're dancing all day, you never know what will be required. I remember jazz classes. I remember doing Fosse at CMU not thinking that I'd have to choose any of those tools. And it's my second Broadway show, and I'm using it.

Q: The story of "Pippin" has a very strong message. As a female in what has been traditionally a male role (Ben Vereen originated the role, winning a Tony), are there nuances you feel you have been able to bring to The Leading Player that add to the impact of this message?

A: I commend our producers and Diane (Paulus, director) for considering a woman. There's nothing in the script that says The Leading Player has to be a man. She is sort of this other-worldly character that has both masculine and feminine energy pulled from all sources. She's Pippin's best friend. She can be whoever he wants her to be. She's the guide, the narrator and, because we've set it in the circus, the ringmaster.

People always think that I'm much older than I am. I left school to go to drama school at 15. I think leaving my family and knowing early on what I wanted to do has really shaped me into the person and kind of actor that I am today -- my passion and drive. My mom is a big role model for me, so I based a lot of The Leading Player on how she holds herself. I come from a line of strong women. The Leading Player is definitely a strong and charismatic woman.

Q: As your career unfolds, what other aspects of the profession do you want to explore?

A: There is nothing better than being able to get out onstage in front of a large audience. And the spontaneity of theater is kind of crazy. It's that one performance. You can't replicate it and do it again. I would love to get into more TV and film. But the theater is my first love, and it will always be my first love. It's what I know. It's what really excites me.

Judith Light

A 1970 graduate, Judith Light is nominated this year for best performance by an actress in a featured role for portraying Faye in the world premiere of "The Assembled Parties," a poignant drama focusing on a wealthy New York family confronting family issues at two family gatherings 20 years apart. This is Light's third nomination. She won the Tony last year for her work in "Other Desert Cities."

Cynthia Mulkern is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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