DIVA TALK: Chatting With Bare Star Missi Pyle

By Andrew Gans
January 11, 2013

News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



MISSI PYLE
Missi Pyle, who made her Broadway debut in the comedic farce Boeing-Boeing, is currently starring Off-Broadway in the coming-of-age rock musical Bare at New World Stages. The singing actress plays Sister Joan, a progressive nun who challenges the powers that be at the Catholic boarding school in which the often-moving Jon Hartmere-Damon Intrabartolo-Lynne Shankel musical is set. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Pyle — whose screen credits include "The Artist," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Big Fish" — about her first musical role in New York. The charming artist spoke about her road to New York, her Broadway bow and the importance of her current role; that interview follows.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Missi Pyle: I was born in Houston, TX, and I was in Katy, TX, until I was about 13, and then I moved. My parents got divorced, and I was in Germantown, TN, which is right outside of Memphis, which is where I went to high school [and] junior high.

Question: When did you start performing?
Pyle: I started performing in high school. There was a pretty great drama department at my school, and that's when I started doing plays and musicals.

Question: Were there any actors or singers who influenced you at that time?
Pyle: Well, you know, I'd never seen a play or a musical when I was a kid, outside of the church. I was in a Southern Baptist Church… I saw the movie "The Princess Bride," and I couldn't believe it. I thought it was the most perfect thing I'd ever seen. It was so funny. I must have watched it 50 times, and I think I got some of my sense of humor from that movie. When I got to Germantown, there was this place called the Poplar Pike Playhouse, and there were all these billboards — posters — for it in my junior high. I was like, "What is this place? What is it?" And, it was actually the name of the theatre at the high school that I ended up going to, and so when I got there, it was this crazy great drama department. I just couldn't believe it. There was a man named Frank Bluestein, who ran it. Chris Parnell went to school there, and other people… I was totally blown away by the performances that I saw there at the high school, and that was kind of my first taste of theatre. I was so tall, so they wanted me to play basketball, but I couldn't do both, so I immediately quit basketball and joined the drama club. [Laughs.]

Pyle in Boeing-Boeing.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When did performing change from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career or wanted it to be your career?
Pyle: Well, I remember thinking, when I was a kid, when I watched TV, "How do people do that? How does anyone do that?" [Laughs.] And, when I was in high school I remember seeing a production of Bye Bye Birdie that I went to see that came through town. Tommy Tune was in it, and Susan Egan. And, I was totally blown away by her voice, and I just thought, "Oh my God!" I was totally blown away by that entire show, and then when I was at Germantown High School, every year they would give a junior a scholarship to go to North Carolina School of the Arts for the summer program. You had to apply for it, and I applied for it my junior year, and I got it, and I thought, "Oh, this is what I want to do. I want to get into this school, and go to be an actress." I really hadn't done any theatre — even seen much theatre — until I was in high school, and then all of a sudden I realized, "Oh, I can do this. I can do this for a living." So I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts… I got an agent early on. I moved to New York for three years and was just constantly auditioning. Doing auditions for a lot of theatre… I loved musical theatre, but it wasn't something that I had studied tremendously. I did a lot of musicals when I was in high school and college, and I did summer stock, but never was quite good enough of a singer. I couldn't actually use a certain part of my voice, and then, just in the last couple of years, I've been seeing some different teachers who have kind of showed me how to sing a little higher. It's funny because I remember thinking, "God, I wish I had known how to do this 15 years ago. I would have loved to have done musical theatre a little bit earlier."

Question: Your Broadway debut was Boeing-Boeing. Do you remember your first night on Broadway?
Pyle: Yes! [Laughs.] I remember standing there — because I had taken over for Mary McCormack, who'd been nominated for a Tony… I remember coming into town. First of all, she had been offered the role, but there was a while she wasn't sure she was going to do it, so initially, I was maybe going to do it if she didn't do it, and then she ended up taking it. I came in early to watch the show, and they were like, "No, you can't watch the show," because it is a well-oiled machine. I don't think they used those words, but they were just like, "You cannot watch it," and so I rehearsed for two weeks, and then they let me watch it. And, I sat in the third row, and I remember I was literally so terrified when I saw it because it was so good and so funny and so fast! I couldn't believe how funny she was, and I thought, "Oh, my God." And, I knew that I was coming in, and I was going to be doing a different performance. It was different, and I was so scared, but I remember standing backstage. I had this big yellow suit on with a big yellow hat and giant blonde wig — it was so big — heels and this giant bag of laundry, and I was just like, "I can't believe I'm about to go!" [Laughs.] Because I had to make this crazy-big entrance, and I walk in and kiss Christine Baranski on the mouth [and I'm] screaming in German. It was just like getting shot out of a cannon. I remember thinking, "I can't believe I'm about to go out on stage on Broadway!" I just couldn't believe it, and then "Bam!" You're just right in it. Humping the furniture! [Laughs.]

Pyle in Bare.
Photo by Chad Batka

Question: How did Bare come about for you?
Pyle: My friend Jon Hartmere is the librettist, and he wrote the book, and he had been telling me about Bare for a long time, and I didn't know anything about it… About a year ago, I was coming into town, into New York, to give my friend a baby shower, and he was doing a reading of it, and he said, "You know, I was just thinking you'd be really good for this part. Do you sing?" He knew that I sang, but he said, "Could you put something on tape? Would you mind learning this song and putting it on tape and sending it to us?" So, in my kitchen I put something on my iPhone and sent it to him, and they were like, "Yeah, we think we can work with this," which is so funny, and I came and did the reading, and I sort of just fell in love with the part. I love Jon. I think Jon is a great writer, and I love his sensibility. And, when they asked me to do it, I was so excited. I had auditioned for Matilda. I'd had a couple callbacks, and just really wanted to come and wanted to do a musical, just really wanting to sing. And then Matilda didn't end up happening, but then he literally called the next day, and I thought, "Oh God! It was just fate that I would come and do this show."

Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know the show is quite different from what it was originally. Were there a lot of changes made during rehearsals?
Pyle: Well, there were a lot of changes that happened, obviously, before we started. There were changes from the last time I had done the reading. They had done another reading that I was not a part of. There were so many changes! [Laughs.] We would get pages and pages every day of new stuff, and then that all happened when we were rehearsing at 42nd Street Studios, and then we went into tech. And, once we started previews, the show changed drastically from the first preview until we opened. We just kept trying and changing different things, trying to really update it. Obviously, the show has so much to do with modern technology and how one photo can just change a person's life. The stage is covered with Instagrams. I think it was just trying to find how to fine-tune everything, but it was a lot, a lot of changes. I remember one day I came in, and I had this number where I had to do this lounge act as the Virgin Mary, where Peter [played by actor Taylor Trensch] has a "trip"… It used to be a longer song and a shorter lounge act, and one day they just handed me five new pages for that night. [Laughs.] I think Jon said it was 50 new lines that they had given me for that night… [Laughs.] But that was also one of the most fun nights I've had, just trying to figure out if I could actually remember it and then just do it in front of an audience.

Taylor Trensch and Jason Hite in Bare.
photo by Chad Batka

Question: How would you describe Sister Joan?
Pyle: Sister Joan is a progressive nun. I think she's the progressive voice in the Catholic Church… A lot of Catholics will come to this show, and they're just nervous that the Catholic Church is going to be portrayed in a certain way — that tends to happen, I think, sometimes in film or TV or theatre… But she's progressive, and she loves these kids, and it gets her into a lot of trouble because, obviously, she's a nun. She's married to the church, but at the same time, she definitely follows her heart as opposed to doctrine, and so that gets her into a lot of trouble, and she sort of can't ignore her heart. She's been transferred a couple of times, but she really loves these kids and has this great, great number, where I say, "You're not alone. You're a perfect child of God, and this part of you is the heart of who you are." It's just really lovely. I really enjoy that moment every night.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with director Stafford Arima.
Pyle: Stafford is such a unique human being, and it always feels very sacred — the space — working with him, and he really allowed me to explore her. And, you know, there's so many characters in this show, and I think a lot of times, in musical theatre, people have to be introduced and a lot of times it's hard to find who the character is, so we spent a lot of time just talking about who she is… He was just very good at helping me create this woman and not making her a stereotype. I loved working with him.

Question: You mentioned before that you grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. How did that play a part in your approaching the role of the nun?
Pyle: Well, you know, it's very different, obviously, Catholic and Southern Baptist. My family is still very Southern Baptist, and they're religious. My brother works in the church, my sister works in the church, my father was the minister of the music at our church when I was a kid, and so a lot of the issues in this play, or this musical, have been things that surrounded me my entire life. So, for me, it's actually hugely important to be able to be on stage and just say, "Who you are is okay." … People have talked about, "Is this show still relevant?" because so many great things have happened for gay rights in the last decade, but in the Catholic Church, things haven't changed. So I feel like to be able to go up and say, "This is okay" is kind of a big deal. I have some of my family members who are coming to the show in the next couple of weeks, and I'm just really excited to put this out there for them and anyone who may think a certain way about homosexuality. I feel just to be able to go up there and show them this piece is really exciting.

Pyle on opening night.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: I know the musical has lots of devoted fans from the previous production and recordings. How has audience reaction been to this version, and have you gotten the chance to talk to people at the stage door?
Pyle: Yeah. I've talked to a lot of people at the stage door. I've never experienced anything like this — the kids that come back again and again and again. I mean, there are several people who come… People come twice in a day — six, seven, eight times, and they just keep coming back again and again and again. And, a lot of people have said, "I was skeptical." … I tried really not to, especially initially, to ask people what they thought because I didn't really want that to color my perception of the show… A lot of people have said, "I really loved the first version, and I loved the changes in this one." I mean, for some people it was a little bit hard, as it would be for anyone, but I think that a lot of people — the general consensus — is that they really like the changes, and it still really speaks to them clearly. And, they just come again and again. [Laughs.]

Question: What do you think is the message of the musical, or what does it say to you?
Pyle: There are so many different messages… Jason [played by actor Jason Hite] just really felt like he was alone, and I feel there's just so many kids out there that feel that way… The idea that these things are so overwhelming, and that it's so overwhelming that you choose that you would rather not be here because you can't handle it, and the idea of, "I'm wrong" or "There's something wrong with me." And, [the musical says], "You are perfect just the way you are. You are created in the image of God. You are created in His image; you're a perfect child of God. And, this part of you is the heart of who you are." I really think, to me, that is the message… It's funny, you know, because being in New York, for me… I live in Los Angeles, and I came here by myself. Sometimes it's hard, and sometimes I find myself cheering my own march and singing at least a little bit to myself. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Pyle: I did a pilot for TVLand with Ben Falcone and Elliot Gould, and we're going to find out soon if that gets picked up. And, I have a couple movies coming out, and I'm actually working on an album with a girl named Jenna Price out in California, and I'm going to do maybe a gig in the next month here—trying to do something at Rockwood.

[New World Stages is located at 340 West 50th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue). Tickets for Bare are available at Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200. Visit BareMusicalNYC.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.