The blurb deep in the theater notes of the May 26, 2002, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch included a few lines about a run of “Winnie the Pooh and Tiggers Don’t Climb Trees” at Lee Playhouse at Fort Lee. Tickets were $3 apiece.
The short item mentioned the director, the backstage personnel and a few members of the cast, including “Sam Pinkleton as Tigger.” That was a big deal for a high school kid.
“I have such specific memories of auditioning to play Tigger,” recalled Pinkleton, who grew up in Hopewell and graduated from the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology in Petersburg. “It was the first audition (of a nonschool production) I ever had.”
For Pinkleton, “Tigger” led to a role in “Babes in Toyland” at what was then Theatre IV. He was rolling.
“I remember I got paid $25 a show … while I was in eighth grade, and I remember feeling like I was a Broadway star,” Pinkleton said. “I thought I had totally made it.”
Pinkleton, of course, hadn’t made it at that point, but you could make the case that he has now.
Pinkleton, who doesn’t turn 30 until July, is working on Broadway and everywhere else it seems.
Over the years he found a home behind the scenes, and at the moment is the choreographer of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” “Significant Other” and “Amelie,” all of which are running concurrently on Broadway. The cast of “Comet” includes pop star Josh Groban, and the show has been widely hailed by critics. The New York Times described it as “a witty, inventive enchantment from rousing start to mournful finish. It is both the most innovative and the best new musical to open on Broadway since ‘Hamilton.’”
He also is in Kansas City, Mo., this month to direct the world premiere of Larissa FastHorse’s “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Before that, he had a show (an earlier version of “Amelie”) on the West Coast.
A man in perpetual motion, Pinkleton acknowledged in a phone interview from Manhattan that he’s come a long way since “Tigger.”
“I blame everything on ARGS,” he said with a laugh about his alma mater. “I went there to play saxophone.”
Instead, he found his true calling.
Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori was in need of a director for a 2016 revival of “Runaways” for New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center, the program for which she was artistic director.
“I kept hearing his name,” Tesori said in a phone interview. “I knew he was doing more and more work. We met, and it was an immediate connection.
“Sam has a contagious playfulness about him. It comes across immediately that there is a very curious mind, but also a tremendous heart.”
Pinkleton says it’s been quite a journey from Hopewell, which, he acknowledged, is not necessarily “the kind of place you grow up and (say), ‘I’m going to move to New York City, and I’m going to work on Broadway!’ ”
Pinkleton credits his parents, his own resourcefulness and a fortunate way the fates fell in place for him — despite his best efforts.
“The only thing my mother ever made me do was go to the governor’s school,” he said. “I fought her tooth and nail. I just wanted to go to Hopewell High School and be president of my class and go to football games. But she made me do it.”
“I really mean it when I say it saved my life,” he said. “That school felt like this crazy island where every weird, smart, special kid who maybe wouldn’t have had that good of a time at their home school was totally safe to be themselves. To be surrounded by strange, creative, diverse, radical, hilarious people … who were being encouraged to be themselves and to follow the thing that they love, … that is the greatest gift a kid could have.”
He and his saxophone showed up at the school, but his heart came up with other plans after he walked into a “Godspell” rehearsal in the auditorium during his freshman year.
“They were on ladders and had their faces painted and they were laughing, and I was, ‘I have to do this right now,’ ” he recalled.
Pinkleton wanted to be part of the show, but Kay Ingram, former chairman of the musical theater department at the school, wasn’t so sure.
“When he stood onstage, he had a good presence about him, so I cast him,” Ingram said. “It did not take me long to regret that decision.”
“Godspell” would be part of a statewide theater competition, and Ingram so wanted Appomattox Regional, then a relatively new school, to make a good impression among much larger schools. “In competition, you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” Ingram said, and Pinkleton was appearing to be such a link with his inability to nail an all-important pivot turn, among other shortcomings.
But then one day, Pinkleton did indeed nail the pivot turn — an essential element of stage footwork in which a performer turns without actually going anywhere, shifting weight from front foot to back foot.
“It was like from that moment on, he just took command of the stage in many ways,” Ingram said. “I considered that a magical moment for him — and a major sigh of relief for me.
“If I had to pick a word for Sam, he’s just ‘motivated.’ He’s a hard worker. He’s one of the hardest-working, naturally talented artists I’ve ever worked with. I used to have some students be jealous of him because they thought things came easy to him. I think one of his greatest talents is that he makes what he does look easy.”
Something else he picked up at the governor’s school was the ability to juggle multiple projects at once.
“It was a pressure cooker,” Ingram said, “and it was a great training ground.”
“Yes, I’m doing 36 shows at the same time,” Pinkleton said in a slight exaggeration, “but I was doing 36 shows at the same time when I was 16. The only difference is I get paid for it now.”
He moved to New York City at age 18 to attend New York University, where he thought he would be a “chorus boy” but wound up drawn to directing and choreographing. Not dancing per se, but choreography.
“I was never a dancer,” he said. “I got a very specific advice from my ballet teacher in college: ‘Sam, you’re going to be a success; you’re smart and creative. You’re going to be fine as long as you don’t dance.’ ”
As a choreographer in musical theater, Pinkleton see his job description as “theater maker.”
“My job is to move people around,” he said. “Sometimes that means dancing and sometimes that means getting chairs offstage and sometimes that means just figuring out how they don’t run into each other.
“What I do really changes, depending on the show. For something like ‘Great Comet,’ it’s a massive undertaking. It’s staged all over the theater in a rather nontraditional way. It’s a 10-headed monster, and it continues to evolve. It’s really like a true athletic event and required an extraordinary amount of preparation. For ‘Significant Other,’ my job is to create a series of wedding receptions and bachelorette parties … where there are people having the time of their lives. If it looks like there’s a choreographer, then I’ve failed.”
Pinkleton hasn’t performed onstage in a decade, and from that distance it “feels like another life,” he said.
“It always felt like I was wearing somebody else’s clothes,” Pinkleton said of performing. “That may have looked OK on me, but I knew they didn’t fit. There are so many people who were put on this Earth to perform, and when it happens, it’s magic, but I never felt that way.
“But when I started doing this thing I do — directing and choreography — whether I’m good at it or not, when I’m doing it, I feel the most myself. I think that’s what we’re all after.”