The Scarlet Pimpernel : Broadway's Most Intriguing Musical.

Interview with Robert Patteri

I'm so glad I was given a chance to meet Robert. He was announced as the replacement Percy for the National Tour a very short time before my scheduled trip to Los Angeles but he graciously agreed to be interviewed by me. At the time I met him he had barely settled in with rehearsals so he was only beginning his journey with the character. However, it didn't take long for Robert and me to get to know each other. He is definitely not shy and within minutes of being introduced to me, he was joking and teasing and having a great time. We spent a lot of time laughing during this interview!

NR: OK - really dumb question to start off with. Do you prefer to be called Robert or Bob?

RP: Robert is fine. Growing up it was Rob. Dad's Bob. It's just one of those dumb things. If you called me Robert in my home town in Michigan, all of my friends would say, "Robert? Who's that? You mean Rob."

NR: You grew up in Michigan? Did you grow up near Douglas (Sills)?

RP: Yeah. Not too far away.

NR: Did you know each other?

RP: No, we didn't. He grew up in Franklin Village and I grew up in West Bloomfield, so it's actually not too far away. It's probably about five or ten miles away. Doug went to the University of Michigan and I went to Michigan State. He went to ACT and I went to the Asolo which are very similar programs and they're both MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs that are attached to professional training.

NR: Does that mean you just met now?

RP: We actually did - yeah. We have several friends in common but we had never met until he came up to me a week and a half ago when I first came to see the show and he gave me a big hug. He's a sweetheart - a very nice man.

NR: That's great. So, when did you decide you wanted to be a performer?

RP: (old man voice) Ah - way back in 1770. (normal voice) My dad wanted to be a theater major and he did it in college. His parents told him he was crazy. My sister likes it and my dad has the bug in him, so it's sort of in the family. When I was in high school, Mom and Dad encouraged me to sing with my sister in the choir, but I was a football/baseball/basketball player so of course I laughed that in the face - for about nine months until I ended up singing in the choir! Then the teacher plucked me out and gave me the lead in South Pacific. (laughing) So, I did Emile deBeque at seventeen years old, throwing the gray in the hair. I did that in high school and then when I went to college, I went to play baseball and football.

NR: That's what you went there for?

RP: Yeah. On a fluke I auditioned for West Side Story and it was quite comical because athletes think, "I'm agile. I can dance" and it's just the most humiliating thing in the world when they ask you to put two feet in front of each other. (laughs) You all of sudden start walking like Monty Python's funny walks, just trying to figure out how to do this. I thought, "No way are they going to cast me in this show" because I was in a major university and these guys were kicking their legs and I certainly wasn't going to get a lead with all of these seniors and grad students. Three weeks later, by a fluke, I walked past the theater department and found that I was the only one who hadn't signed in. They had cast me as Snowboy in West Side Story. I just freaked out. I fell in love with it and changed to a Musical Theater major. I was the first Musical Theater major for Michigan State University. They had a Music and a Theater department, but they hadn't put it together for Musical Theater. I was the first one who started that program. It was just a strange course of events.

NR: You didn't grow up watching theater?

RP: No.

NR: You never had an interest at all?

RP: I thought it was fascinating but I was an athlete. I was going to be a professional baseball player. My sister was the performer so I did watch my sister's plays, and my dad is very much a ham, and he's definitely a great spokesperson. He does a lot of public speaking for business. I think I had it in me. I was a clown myself and when I was younger I always wanted to be the first one to stand up and read in front of the class. I just got the bug when I started doing it.

NR: Hmm. I was going to ask you if a specific actor inspired you, but I guess not.

RP: Well, I think we all have our personal favorites, and people who are just inspiring role models. Those are always things that sort of stick out in your head. My father was always a great one for me because I always had the utmost respect for him and his work ethic. I was very fortunate to have parents who were always wonderfully "advice oriented" without pushing. They would always give me the choices. They would say, "This didn't work out, so you have this, this or this." They never said, "You should do this." I think that's really great as a parent. I think it's nice if they guide you and say, "Your strengths are here." They always presented the options which I think was really very nice.

NR: Now, you played Gaston in Beauty and the Beast?

RP: I did.

NR: That seems so different from Percy.

RP: Totally.

NR: Even vocally.

RP: It's completely different.

NR: You must have a very big range.

RP: (big laugh) Well, yes. I'm going to become a tenor with this role. When I was doing Gaston, my voice was (in bass voice) "a little bit lower." It was closer to William's (Paul Michals) voice - a much deeper voice. Just having rehearsed this for a couple of weeks, my voice has gotten up a little bit. Just from doing the (high pitched voice) "Lud, love me. So stunning" You know when you sort of do all that lovely stuff (gives a Percy laugh), you can't help but bring it up a bit.

NR: Are they going to change the keys at all?

RP: "She Was There" will probably come down. We're not sure yet. Maybe in the end, we just might not do the key change, and then in "Into the Fire" we won't do the key change. It's just a half step at the end. Those will be the only two changes.

NR: When I saw that credit, I was surprised because they were two completely different styles of performing.

RP: They are. They're completely different. I'm fortunate lookwise because I can do a variety of different things, and I was also twenty pounds heavier when I did Gaston. I was very big and sort of in my "athletic, football mode," but I've dropped weight since then. Now I'm sort of a thinner me - you know, getting into the "Percy thing."

NR: Did you work with William in Beauty and the Beast?

RP: No. Actually we just missed each other because he was standing by in Toronto and I came in to do Gaston in Toronto just after he left. But he knows my wife. They worked together. I met my wife in Beauty and the Beast in Toronto. I plucked her out of Canada.

NR: Where is she while you're on this tour?

RP: She's going to come with me until October and then she's going to go live with my folks because she's three months pregnant right now so we're going to have a little bambino in December.

NR: How long are you committed for this?

RP: Until April.

NR: Wow. Do you get time off to see the baby?

RP: Yeah. They're going to let me off when it's born. But, it's part of the thing that you never know what's going to happen in this business. It's the irony of trying to prepare for these things. As we said, "OK, we're ready to have kids" we weren't sure if we were going to be in Los Angeles or New York. My place was out here (L.A.) but I had just finished doing a show in Florida that was going to run for a year and it closed early.

NR: The show was Ben-Hur, right? I heard about that.

RP: Yeah, it closed early and so we went to New York and we weren't sure what we were doing and we just said "Well maybe we should wait on this" and then thought "You know what? God always takes care of you when you have kids." He just does - He provides. So you've just got to have faith and say there's never a right time. In life today there's never a right time. But taking a step further, in this business, there's just never a right time. Because even when you're working it's not the right time or when you're not working you're thinking, "I'm unemployed" So you just have to go ahead and live life.

NR: Did you know anything about this show and the history of it?

RP: Uh-huh

NR: You did? Have you seen any other versions?

RP: I saw 2.0 in 1998. And you know what? I went in with low expectations just because of what everybody said. I loved it! I had the time of my life. I get so tired of the theatrical critics - you know - everything has to be Arthur Miller or The Crucible or whatever. Mamet or Shaw or Les Miz. It's gotta be dark. Certain things are just meant for entertaining. And this show... you just watch the audience. It's the same sort of thing that happened with Beauty and the Beast. The critics will trash it but the audiences will walk away and they'll love it. It's a "feel good show." It's a ton of fun. The audience just rolls over themselves watching Doug have a blast up there. He's so fantastic with breaking that fourth wall.

NR: That's an interesting thing because he's historic in this role.

RP: Oh, totally.

NR: Now you're about to replace him.

RP: Yeah, and I'll never be able to fill those shoes. You can't even compare. Doug's known for doing it so I just have to go in and do what I do best. The essence of me is completely different than Doug. But he has created such a brilliant model that I'd be silly to fight what he's created.

NR: That's a good point.

RP: I don't want to do that. I have to sort of fill in where he's left off. Once I get in the show and I'm in it for awhile, I'm sure I will create my own things and things will grow. But I can't do that right now because I don't have the other cast with me. I don't have Amy (Bodnar) and William working with me every single day for eight hours a day for six weeks of rehearsals where you create those. I'm walking into a show where there are all of those beats and all of those moments, and they are inherently going to be a little different because of the essence of me and how I do things. I've got to stick pretty close to what's there right now.

NR: How are they working that with you? Do they work with you when they can?

RP: This is the first day I worked with William and Amy, but I've worked with understudies up to this point.

NR: Are you understudying at all, or is your first appearance going to be in Nashville?

RP: Nashville is the first time.

NR: Did you read any of the books?

RP: I haven't had time to yet. I definitely will. I definitely want to and it's one of those things that I would love to have done, but getting thrown into this role is just monumental. It's a monumental role if you're doing something like this that's dramatic, but if you throw in the comedy aspect of it too, and there's just so much time that you have to work with playing around with all of that.

NR: Yeah, it's huge. And you just found out about this recently, didn't you?

RP: A week and a half ago.

NR: It just so happens that this is the weekend I was planning to be here in L.A. I feel badly doing this to you so early!

RP: Oh, no, it's fine.

NR: Had you done any fencing before?

RP: Oh yeah, I've done a lot of stage combat. I've done a lot of Shakespeare, so whenever you're doing Shakespeare you know there's going to be some swordplay.

NR: That's right. You're sure there will be fencing and tights!

RP: (laughs) That's right - fencing or broadswords, and tights.

NR: Again, I know it's early, but can you give me some early glimpses into the character from your point of view?

RP: Early glimpses?

NR: Yeah. Can you describe your idea of Percy? (And I know it's early.)

RP: Well, it's a dream because it's that childhood hero that you always want to play, and the joy of getting to play a character who is literally like the fly on the wall. You're assuming another personality which allows you a wall and a distance from everyone else around you. You're not actually letting them into your thought process. It's a dual edge because it's very painful, but it's also a wonderful thing to be able to play with that. It's a character who has so many facets, and can manipulate so much, and can do it all in the name of injustice, which is the one thing that the audience identifies with. Everybody wants to be that super-hero who is able to go out and fight for a cause. In today's day and age, or any day and age, everybody's got their cause that they believe in and that's one thing that is a great core for me, because I just can't stand injustice in the world. I'm talking about Robert Patteri - race, creed, all the way down to disrespect of elderly people, to people littering or throwing a cigarette butt on the street. It just tortures me and I get into confrontations. I do it very nicely. I'll just walk up to someone and say, "Would you please not do that?"

NR: Really?

RP: (seeing my incredulous look and laughing) Watch - you're probably one of those people that throws a butt on the street!

NR: (laughing) No, not at all! I totally agree with you! I want to go up to people and say, "Excuse me, but who do you think is going to pick that up?" But I DON'T! I may think it but I don't say anything. (laughs)

RP: So, to be able to play someone who gets to fulfill that part of all of us that wants to go out and be able to live out their dream. Most of us in life are just not pushed into a corner far enough to be able to do that. And the people who are pushed into a corner far enough are the people who do wind up doing that - the people who start cancer research, a new foundation or who do something extraordinary. Their circumstances in life push them into a corner so far that they have two choices - to let it consume them or to take it to the next step and fight for that. That's what makes theater so great. You have two and a half hours to tell the most interesting thing, and what can be more interesting than someone who's had their whole world pulled out from underneath them?

NR: What do you think is going to be the most fun to do? I know you've only seen it, but haven't really had a chance to do it yet. What are you looking forward to?

RP: (laughs) I don't know. I'm sure that when I step onto the stage it's going to all surprise me. I'm sure the things that I think will be fun just might throw me. I don't know. The fop obviously is a joy, so that would be the obvious thing to go to - the drawing room, "The Creation of Man." It's one of those rare times when you're allowed to go as far as you want to, which doesn't really happen that often.

NR: (laughing) That's for sure!

RP: Usually you tell the director, "I'm going to give you everything and you pull me in." (laughing) I'm sure Bobby (Longbottom) still will.

NR: Hmmm, interesting. Are we going to see any ad libs from you at some point?

RP: Well, you know.... (leaning into the tape recorder) "I have no comment."

NR: (laughing) Is that because you're not allowed to have a comment?

RP: Yeah. I think I have to stick pretty close to what's written there right now.

NR: Ah, I see. That was a "special dispensation" for Douglas?

RP: Yeah, I have to stick pretty close to what's written there. It's a tough thing, boy, because watching is hard. We did the drawing room scene today and my rhythms get thrown because there are places when he'll just throw things in and I just have to go with what's written in the book, but it's strange because I'm used to hearing what he's doing.

NR: Are you just used to hearing him do it, or are you tempted because that's what you want to do?

RP: It would be both because there is so much room to have fun, but you have to stick to what an author has written on the page.

NR: (laughing) ...or help rewrite it as Douglas did in the first version!

RP: Exactly.... um .... "to be continued."

NR: Is there any part that's making you nervous?

RP: (long pause) "To be continued."

NR: (laughs) Oh, come on.

RP: No, nothing makes me nervous performance-wise. The only thing is just learning the pacing of the show.

NR: And the silly things like changing on the boat.

RP: Yeah, and vocally. I've done huge vocal demanding shows like the Yeston-Kopit Phantom. There are seven huge laments and big songs. Ben-Hur is like living the life of Job and there are ten songs, but this one is different because of the vocality I have to use. It's one thing if I'm using my own voice and singing in my own timbre but because you're playing one character here and (using Grappin voice) another there, it's going to be getting used to pacing that.

NR: That's a good point doing eight shows a week.

RP: This show definitely would cry for an alternate.

NR: Douglas did something like that in SP2. It started with Nat Chandler and then Bryan Batt took over. Douglas only had to do six shows a week. Sometimes he did more, but many weeks he only did six. Bryan did a lot of matinees, because that was exactly it. It's very demanding vocally.

What do you know about the League? Are you ready for the fans?

RP: I've heard. That's part of the price you pay when you're in this business.

NR: (laughing) Well, they're not a bad thing!

RP: No, no. But that's part of what comes with doing this stuff. I am not one of those "put-off people." I'm always willing to embrace people who are very supportive. I think it's wonderful, as long as people...and that happens. There are people who do go a little overboard.

NR: Have you done a lot of traveling with tours?

RP: Not with tours. I've been all over the world the last three years so I'm used to traveling a lot, but doing the week or two week thing...I haven't done that long term. I've done ten week tours but most of my stuff has been sort of "leave to go to London," "leave to go to Toronto," "leave to go to South Africa," "leave to go to Florida." I've had to transplant a lot.

NR: That's going to help but a lot of these are one week.

RP: Yeah, and you're traveling on your day off.

NR: That's going to be somewhat draining. I was going to ask you if you're bringing anything with you, but I guess you're bringing your wife.

RP: Yeah. I've got a wife and a tummy.

NR: I guess that answers my question! It's ridiculously early to ask this since you're committed to this for a year, but is there any role you're dying to play down the road?

RP: Well, you know, every actor dies to play Hamlet. I would love to play Hamlet. I really, really would. I've done bits and pieces of it. I did a thing called The Readiness is All in New York and it was a director who put together a piece which was introspective. The audience was participating in the various ways to look at Hamlet, which was very interesting. Three different actors did large portions of the play in different ways so that you could see the different ways to play it. It was great.

I'd love to play Cyrano. I really would love to play Cyrano because of the poetry. It's such a great role. Musically, a role I've always wanted to play but haven't done yet is Billy Bigelow. I love the show and I think it needs such tender care. Because of the abuse issue, it's a really tough, fine line to be able to like the guy and to make him sympathetic. A lot of times you see it and you just hate him, so it's a challenge.

NR: It has gorgeous music.

RP: It does. The music is beautiful. To be able to sing that "Soliloquy" is great.

NR: Well, good luck.

RP: Thank you.

NR: You have a lot of work ahead of you.

RP: Yes I do!

NR: You have a decent amount of time at least. You have about a month.

RP: Yeah, at least it's all under my belt now and now it's a matter of playing.

NR: And what a wonderful opportunity for you.

RP: It's great.

NR: There are not a lot of roles like this.

RP: This is a role of a lifetime. It's a dream. It's a tour de force. You get to play a character who gets to play all these characters on stage. You kind of get to take your "acting suitcase" out and have fun and play. I know the playing will begin for me once I get to perform because the rehearsals are going to be just falling on my can left and right, making a fool of myself, trying to find what works, which is what you have to do. It will be fun once I find the pacing, catch my breath and get past moments when I think, "This is just landing south. When Doug did it, it really got a big laugh!"

NR: Well, you don't want to do that, because it's not going to work.

RP: No I don't, and I won't do that. And you couldn't have a nicer person to replace. He's just so giving and he's so wonderful and so supportive and that's really nice, because I've stepped into shoes before that weren't quite as embracing.

NR: I think in this case he's very happy to see someone else pick it up.

RP: (laughs) Yeah, he did give me a huge hug and he said, "Thank God you're here."

NR: Robert, Thank you so much.

RP: You're welcome.

Robert certainly has his work cut out for him. He's about to begin ten months of touring around the country playing a very demanding role. He will no doubt be compared constantly to his predecessor. He will be away from his family for six months at a most precious time in their lives. He has all of these responsibilities looming over him, but you know what? He couldn't be happier! I think he'll embrace the challenge with abandon and make Percy his own. I wish him wonderful success in his run and I hope that he will receive tremendous support on the road.

Questions suggested by:

FreakyMartian, Christina Mavroudis, Anna Wilson, Leona Hoegsberg, Stacy McInnis, Nancy Miller, Janice Oeming, Laura Cutler

Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.


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