NEW YORK — The truth is, she didn’t want the part. At least that’s what Lucie Arnaz, the singer, dancer and daughter of Lucille Ball, believed when she first turned down a role in the red-hot revival of “Pippin.”
She was too tall.
She could never do the trapeze.
She didn’t want to be away from home so long.
“She’s done this 100 times,” says her husband, actor Larry Luckinbill. “She tries to talk the producer out of hiring her.”
Barry Weissler doesn’t typically get talked out of much. The veteran producer listened and then came back to Arnaz with another offer. Weissler needed her to play Berthe, the brassy grandmother, in the touring version of the musical he and his wife, Fran, had helped revive on “Broadway.”
“She’s talented, she’s idiosyncratic, she has all the goods,” says Weissler. “So I chased her.”
In the end, the Weisslers got their way. On Dec. 16, Arnaz takes the stage at the National Theatre when “Pippin,” reinvented as a musical circus by Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus, begins a 2
Arnaz might be playing a grandmother, but Berthe is no frail senior knitting a scarf from a rocking chair. In the physically dazzling production, Arnaz takes to the trapeze, her best moment coming while suspended above the stage.
“I love what it does for me physically, and I love what it does for me emotionally,” Arnaz, 63, says over lunch in Manhattan during a month-long stop in the Broadway production before heading back on the road. “You get tremendous applause and tremendous laughs. And you get an incredible ovation at the end of the show.”
She pauses and smiles.
“I think the reason I’m having so much fun is that I didn’t give a s--- about it.”
That’s not exactly true. Arnaz does care about “Pippin.” She saw the original, directed by Bob Fosse, back in 1972, a production partially funded by Motown and starring John Rubinstein as the boy prince searching for life’s purpose.
At the time, Arnaz was 21 and playing a teenager in her mother’s sitcom, “Here’s Lucy.” She bought the musical’s soundtrack and memorized every song.
Flash-forward to the revival, which opened last year on Broadway and made Paulus the third woman to win the Tony for best director, after Julie Taymor and Susan Stroman.
“It blew me away,” says Arnaz.
She was particularly struck by Andrea Martin, who almost stole the show as Berthe.
“The funnest part on Broadway,” Arnaz says she remembers thinking, “and they’ll never ask me to do it. I thought you had to be a really squatty grandma girl to do it.”
And that’s the first thing Arnaz said when Weissler called.
“I’m too tall,” she recalled.
“No, you’re not,” he said. “We just want somebody who can put the song over and break your heart and be believable.”
She was born in 1951, only six weeks before Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz debuted on “I Love Lucy.” A brother, Desi Jr., arrived two years later in more dramatic fashion, the pregnancy carried out as one of the pioneering program’s main storylines.
In her teens, Arnaz had bit parts during her mother’s second sitcom, “The Lucy Show,” before earning a more central role on “Here’s Lucy.” Later, she would branch out into theater, film (Roger Ebert called her “the best thing” in 1980’s otherwise lackluster remake of “The Jazz Singer”) and, eventually, tour in front of her own Latin big band.
Despite all of that, Arnaz says she has never taken her career too seriously. That might sound refreshing if the issue weren’t more complicated.
“I’m not competitive enough,” she says. “I’m not ambitious enough. I think my dime-store psychology tells me it’s because I never want to become as famous as the people I grew up with. I can’t run the whole race because I don’t really want to win. I know what’s behind those doors, Dorothy. Same life, better shoes.”
Luckinbill, whom Arnaz married in 1980, believes that his wife wanted to establish a proper home. Together, they have three children: Simon, an artist; Joe, a musician; and Katharine, a recruiter for large corporations and a writer.
Arnaz takes great pride in her homemaking skills, whether cooking for the holidays or hosting birthday parties.
“Her home, growing up, was lovely,” said Luckinbill. “It was furnished with every possible grace you could have. But her mother was not afforded the chance to be the mother that she really did want to be because of her work. That’s why Lucie has always been conflicted about her work.”
The theater, though, has always offered a kind of escape from the pressures of her celebrity upbringing. Early on, Arnaz knew she preferred the stage to the screen, choosing to attend an all-girls, Catholic high school mainly because of its top-notch drama program. On stage, she can emerge from the shadow of her parents.
“It was my way of carving out a corner of the sky,” said Arnaz. “My dad was an actor, musician, producer and ran a studio. My mother was film and television. My brother was an actor and had a rock group. Nobody was in the theater.”
Arnaz does not shy away from her past — she just doesn’t want every project she does now to revolve around it. Too many times over the years, Arnaz has emerged from the stage door after an exhilarating performance and encountered the ultimate, celebrity offspring buzzkill. “You don’t know how much I loved your mother,” they’ll say, handing her a program to sign.
Before this interview, Arnaz’s publicist specifically directed that there be no questions about her parents. When told that, Arnaz laughs.
“Listen, I have made documentaries about them,” she said. “It’s not like I try not to talk about my parents. I just decided that if you’re going to do an article about Lucie and the fact she’s coming to ‘Pippin,’ do that. Usually, we get into these morning shows and everything is about ‘I Love Lucy’ — ‘What’s your favorite episode?’ ‘Can you bring us some never-before-seen photos?’ ”
“After a while, it becomes insulting, but I’m supposed to go with the punches and go with the questions and be polite, because it’s their icon,” she says. “Finally, I realized I had to set boundaries.”
She is no prima donna. When Weissler called, Arnaz made only one demand. It wasn’t for a gold leaf star on her dressing room door. It was for a few extra days off so she could get home and celebrate Luckinbill’s 80th birthday in November.
Then she set about making Berthe her own. Martin and Tovah Feldshuh were among the women who played the role before her.
Before she took the gig, Arnaz called Feldshuh. What did she think?
“Oh my god,” Feldshuh told her. “The best company you’ve ever worked with and they are literally going to pay you to be in the best shape of your life. When you leave this, you are going to be ripped.”
Paulus said that Berthe isn’t an easy role to play.
“You have to be up for it mentally,” she said. “And she was. She’s got that quality of life — ‘Let me at it. I can do it.’ ”
Arnaz signed on for six months, although Weissler wanted more. Will she stay on after her contract expires in mid-January? Who knows.
With “Pippin” playing Las Vegas at Thanksgiving, Arnaz couldn’t host, as she usually does, cooking the turkey, fixings and her Grandmother DeDe’s special stuffing. She and Luckinbill moved from Connecticut to sunny Palm Springs last year, and that’s where she wants to spend more time.
Of course, she’s played hard to get before.
“I didn’t want to be away that long, but I love what I’m doing,” Arnaz says. “I have run away and joined the circus — literally.”
PIPPIN Dec 16-Jan. 4, National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-628-6161. Tickets: $48-$98. Visit thenationaldc.org