There was a big debate in my family last night on the drive back from NYC—was the new Pippin, which we just saw in previews at the Broadway Music Box Theatre—revamped enough from the classic Bob Fosse-directed original 1972 musical to have its own signature?
My sister and I have memories of that magic from when it opened in 1972, and we saw the original cast in the early months of this show with our parents and grandparents. And yesterday we took my son to see it in revival, hoping to recapture some of wonder. So, we were initially mildly disappointed when the opening started without the classic dark screen jazz hands that sets the tone for the whole play….but as the show went on, it had many new delights and much of the old charm. My son, who only saw clips of the original I dug up on Youtube (which now seem dated, even to me), much preferred the new version, and felt it was unique.
The original was literally a hard act to follow. Aside from being directed by Bob Fosse, it launched the Broadway (and beyond) careers of Ben Vereen, John Rubenstein, and Jill Clayburgh. It also had songs (and especially lyrics) nobody seems to forget by Stephen Schwartz (whose credits also include Godspell and Wicked):
And time weaves ribbons of memories
to sweeten life when youth is through
But I would need no memories there
if I could share
my life with you…
TIME and LEGACY are the running themes of this show, which, despite taking place at the time of the Crusades. is THE MEANING OF LIFE. The book by Roger Hirson follows Pippin (the first son of Charlemagne—) through his imaginary journey to find his unique fate. The songs eloquently take you there, where he variously tells you, “ I gotta find my corner of the sky,” and “when you’re extraordinary you got to do extraordinary things.”
The score is so singable that the audience even gets the opportunity to sing along (on one song only). My sister and I sang it the whole way home in the car, with my son now jumping in.
Oh, it’s time to keep living
Time to keep taking from this world we’re given
Time to take time
For Spring will turn to Fall
In just no time at all.
It launched Ben Vereen in a part he continued to play for more than 2 decades, even recovering to dance it again after a devastating car accident. It also starred Jill Clayburgh, in her first major Broadway role, and John Rubenstein, whose face (minus the big afro) you have seen on every TV show, from NCIS to West Wing, Bones, House, Desperate Housewives and Law and Order (and in a film I worked on, Hello I Must Be Going).
And there was Fosse burned into every move. The shape of a Fosse-directed figure, the way it moves, is something completely outside of other dancing styles. Picture the Broadway shows he directed, Sweet Charity, 1966, Pippin, 1972, Liza with a Z, 1972, Chicago, 1975, and Dancin’, 1978, and you see the tipped heads, sharp outlines, curved spines, in-turned feet, and spread fingers jazz hands.
And there were the movies he directed, including Sweet Charity and Cabaret, and the darkly honest self-portrait, All That Jazz. Fosse was a fascinating artist, and a disastrously self-destructive and somewhat explosive personality, who died in 1987 at age 60 of heart attack brought on by years of excess. But he left his mark on shows we still enjoy today, and watching Pippin back in 1972 and again in 2013, it’s clear his fingerprints are as much a part of the show as the music itself.
The moves are still there, although current director Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, cleverly introduces the backdrop of circus acrobatics to fill the stage in a way the original couldn’t. The individual chorus players, mostly trained circus performers, move forward to capture the audience attention in wonderful moments that do help put a new stamp on this show—a little Cirque du Soleil on Broadway. Even Andrea Martin (yes, of SCTV) literally gets into the act in a delightful off-the-ground spin as Pippin’s elderly grandmother.
The CAST of the current show is nearly as wonderful as the original. In 1972, I didn’t know who Ben Vereen, John Rubenstein or Jill Clayburgh were, and I’ve never seen these new cast members either, but I think they will go on to big careers just like their predecessors.
Patina Miller has the challenge of playing a lead character who doesn’t even have a name—most of us call him “the Ben Vereen character” after the dancer who is so embedded in this show’s history. She does a great job, and those who never saw Vereen (like my son) will enjoy her performance immensely, but I still hear his delivery and see him dancing beside her on stage. Maybe next time I see the show, I’ll be able to see her more clearly on her own.
The lead character of Pippin is wonderfully played by Matthew James Thomas (formerly Peter Parker in Spiderman on Broadway). He sings and charms his way through the show, creating a new performance separate from others who have played Pippin before him (William Katt performed the role after Rubenstein left), and brings a new, gentle physicality to role that was previously missing.
And then there’s the role of Catherine, the young(ish) widow. I loved Jill Clayburgh in everything she did (she died much too soon in 2010), and I have powerful memories of her from this show….but…even then, I felt surprised she was in it. She was never a singer, and the numbers she did really called for a strong, sweet voice. ENTER Rachel Bay Jones, singing beautifully, and bringing a really freshly funny new play on this character that is even more enjoyable.
And yes, whatever they say about the choreography, it has enough of the Fosse feel to hold the uniqueness of the initial physical shape of the show on stage to be very recognizable, while still bringing in a contemporary feel all it’s own with the jaw-dropping acrobatics. It’s not the same, but of the same artistic pedigree (Schwartz and Hirson both worked with Paulus to make changes that would be relevant to today’s audience, and choreographer Chet Walker admittedly worked closely with and under the influence of Bob Fosse).
My one complaint—and it is, to those have loved this show all along, a big one—is that the opening absolutely needs the jazz hands. This may be a new 2013 version of a show that opened 40 years ago, but opening speaks “Pippin” as much as the name, and it feels very flat without it.
SPOILER: The opening to the original Pippin, which is now in revival on Broadway.
But the new Pippin still has Magic to Do. Listen to the original cast album, or watch the original opening here, if you want to see how it was, although you may prefer to see it as it is, without any shadows of the past performances. Either way, if you go to one show in your lifetime, Pippin should be it.
And luckily, Pippin is back on Broadway. Probably for a very long time. A very long time. The show is in previews until the opening April 14 when it officially opens, but judging by the lines around the block, that is just a technicality. You’ll want to see this show, whether it brings back memories, or creates new ones.