She has faced demanding New York audiences and theater critics; been at the heart of a groundbreaking seventies television series; and been chased by a revenge-seeking California fog. But Adrienne Barbeau is doing something really scary in the touring version of Pippin — a song and dance number, of sorts, on a trapeze.
A veteran of stage, TV and film, Barbeau got a call from her agent earlier this year asking if she’d be interested in being in the Pippin tour. She had not seen this — or any — production but investigated it via YouTube and liked what she saw. It was a difficult decision for her, though. “Originally they wanted me to stay through the summer and into the fall,” she says. “My boys are starting college in August and I knew I could not be away for that. But we worked it out.”
In the musical, running May 5-10 at the Fox Theater through Broadway Across America Barbeau plays Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother and Charlemagne’s mother. Pippin, a young prince, is looking for some meaning in his life and Berthe has a philosophy she wants to impart to him. Through song and action, she does so, winding up on a trapeze.
“I am doing it with a partner, who I could not do it without,” Barbeau laughs. “I’m 20 feet above the stage. When I first told my sister I was doing this, she said ‘There’s a net, I assume.’ And I had to say, ‘No, there is no net.’ I’ve not done anything this physically challenging, but it’s a wonderful song and fun to do.”
Bob Fosse’s original Pippin, which won five Tony Awards, opened in 1972 and ran on Broadway for almost five years. It’s known universally for Stephen Schwartz’s score.
Diane Paulus’ 2013 remount (a Tony Award winner itself for Best Revival, among others) adds a circus troupe motif. “This show, from my understanding, is quite different,” Barbeau says. “Diane has created a wonderful new vision, with incredible magic acts and a traveling circus. It’s a play within a play, acted out by the players in the circus. The players break the fourth wall and tell the audience that they are going to see something magical tonight.”
When the company asked her for a bio, she instinctively grabbed the one from her website. She had not looked at it for a while and was amused to later remember it saying she had done almost everything in her career except a high-wire act. That now gets marked off her bucket list.
Some may not know this but Barbeau, 69, was the original Rizzo in Broadway’s Grease. The role literally turned her life around. “It was a fantastic experience,” she says. “I had gone to New York after one year of college and tried to make it. I wound up in the cast of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. Suddenly I was working at my career, doing all that I was striving for. Later it was time to be seen in something new and that was Grease. (The original cast members) are still my closest friends.”
She won a Theater World Award and a 1972 Tony Award nomination for Grease. The role eventually led to her being cast as Carol in the hit television series Maude in 1972.
Barbeau and the cast, including the inimitable Bea Arthur as the titular character, had no idea the series would be so successful. “I didn’t even know TV,” she recalls. “I had been working on stage since I was in high school. I remember going to dinner with friends one night before Maude started and they were talking about this guy Norman Lear and his show All in the Family that was getting some noticeability. I had no idea. Even when we started, I took an apartment on a month-to-month lease. Who knew how long we were going to last?”
The comedy dealt with such issues as women’s liberation and abortion. When media started to turn to Barbeau as a spokesperson for the issues the show was dealing with, it hit her. “I realized we were having an impact,” she says. “I love shows like that, that have some social significance. Whatever you believed in, we were about something. I was very proud.”
In the late 1970s after Maude concluded its run, Barbeau began collaborating with horror director John Carpenter. 1980’s The Fog was her first leading role, and she later did Escape from New York with him.
It was a different time then for TV performers looking to break into film. “If you were doing TV, no one would see you for film,” she says. “It was before John Travolta went from a Sweathog (on Welcome Back, Kotter) to Saturday Night Fever. Now of course, the fastest way to film is being on TV.”
She met Carpenter on a TV movie he wrote and directed called Someone’s Watching Me! They became close and later married for five years. “He told me he was going to write a role for me. The Fog was my first feature. Had it not been for that, I don’t know what my first feature would have been. The Fog — I loved it. I loved (my character, radio DJ) Stevie Wayne. We wound up buying a home up (near where we shot).”
The actress continued to work in the horror/action genre in films such as Creepshow and Swamp Thing. These days, she continues to act in all mediums. In 2006, she played Judy Garland for three months in a one-woman off-Broadway show, The Property Known as Garland. The production got mixed reviews, but she enjoyed the challenge of bringing Garland to life every night.
Besides a recurring role on TV’s Revenge, she has over half a dozen feature films that are either in pre-production or complete. She’s the author of three books, including the best-selling memoir There Are Worse Things I Could Do, and a voice-over performer for Catwoman in Batman, The Animated Series and more. Basically, to her it comes down to the role and character.
Pippin has been a great gig at an opportune time. It’s taking her some time to feel completely comfortable on the trapeze, but she’s getting there. “By the time I get to Atlanta, I should know what I am doing,” she quips.