If you've somehow never seen a production of Pippin, the 1972 musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson that had an award-winning 2013 Broadway revival, don't worry – Adrienne Barbeau was in the same boat. "That would have been me about a month ago," laughs the Tony-nominated icon of the 1970s and '80s as we discuss her newest role – Berthe, the high-flying grandmother of the title character in the touring Pippin playing the Dr. Phillips Center April 21-26.
Of course, Barbeau has a good excuse: "I was on Broadway at the same time doing Fiddler on the Roof or Grease [she created the role of Rizzo], so I never saw it." And she was too busy to catch the revival since in the last year she shot six films and a television movie, and penned the third novel in her Vampyres of Hollywood series. So what else could a 69-year-old mother of three do for an encore, but learn to swing (and sing) from the flying trapeze?
"When they asked me if I was interested in taking over the role of Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, I went online and watched a little bit of the scene, and there was no question in my mind I wanted to be a part of this company," Barbeau tells me. "Singing, and dancing, and doing trapeze work – it's really a magical evening in the theater, I think. It's well worth seeing."
Barbeau's ovations in this show are hard-earned, as she had to quickly learn some circus arts for the role. "It meant having to learn how to sing and perform hanging upside down from a trapeze. When I first told my sister I was going to be doing this, she said 'Yeah, but with a net, right?' No, there's no net.
"I don't have a lot of imagination, so it doesn't cross my mind what could go wrong. I just get up there and trust. I'm working with this fantastic dancer-acrobat, Preston Jamieson. It requires ultimate trust in Preston, because he's flying me around and hanging me upside down. He's doing the hard work."
Though Barbeau first came to fame in Broadway musicals, she's done few in the decades since. "Before Pippin I thought, 'There aren't that many roles or that many musicals that attract me.' It's not my favorite art form as a performer. But Pippin put all that to rest ... because I'm loving this as much as I loved doing Fiddler."
Barbeau is perhaps best known as Carol Traynor, daughter of Bea Arthur's Maude, which was recently released in a DVD box set, but you won't catch her watching old episodes between Pippin performances. "It is sitting on my shelf unopened, waiting for me to die so that my boys can look at it when they're 40," Barbeau says. "I don't think that I can go back and watch it, between the hairstyles and the wardrobe. I'm not a person who usually watches anything they've done more than once."
Even so, she's very proud of the show: "It's still incredibly timely, especially when you look at our political arena and women's rights. In reproductive rights, in many ways we're going backwards. The young girls don't know what it was like before Roe v. Wade. They take a lot for granted, and they're probably going to be discovering that some of what they've been taking for granted is being pulled out from under them."
I was too shy to ask Barbeau about her legendary topless scene in 1982's PG-rated Swamp Thing, but I did inquire about her relationship with ex-husband John Carpenter (who directed her in Escape From New York and The Fog) with pleasant results: "My history with John is one of love and great respect. I look at [the films] and remember how much fun we had and how much we both loved being in Inverness for the shooting of The Fog. We ended up buying a home there." In fact, she hopes Carpenter – along with their son Cody – will score Love Bites, the film version of her novel.
Still, it seems the role she relishes most is mom to her teenage twins. "The most difficult part, what caused me hesitation in even taking this job, is that I have two 18-year-olds who are just going to graduate from high school in three months. ... When they first approached me about doing this, I said, 'I can't be away from the boys for their last three months of high school.' But ... I'll be back for their graduation, and then it will be summer and they can come hang out with me, and I'll be finishing with the show in time to get them off to their college dorms."