Two years ago, the Broadway show Pippin won the Tony Award for best musical revival. It’s the story of the titular medieval prince wandering in search of his grand purpose in life – but all of it is told through circus acts and musical razzmatazz. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says this Pippin — which has come on tour to both Dallas and Fort Worth this month — has gone big for big-top showbiz, much more than the original did in 1972.
- Dallas Summer Musicals presents Pippin through July 19th at the Music Hall in Fair Park
- Performing Arts Fort Worth presents Pippin July 21st through July 26th at the Bass Performance Hall
- Dallas Morning News review
The opening number of Pippin — the signature song, the one in the ads — is “Magic to Do” (“We’ve got magic to do just for you! We’ve got miracle plays to play. We’ve got parts to perform, hearts to warm”). It sets up the show’s premise, and this new Pippin follows through with magic to do. Lots of it: illusions, acrobats, fire jugglers and gymnastics.
But does “Cirque du Soleil with a plot” really amount to a rewarding musical? As fun as it is, Pippin has always needed a shot of magic to make us overlook its thin emotional appeal — its weakness, in short, at warming our hearts. Seriously, why do you think this is the first Broadway revival in more than 40 years?
Written by Roger O. Hirson and composed by Stephen Schwartz — before his success with Godspell — the musical was inspired by a son of the great French king Charlemagne, the son who rebelled against Dad, the Holy Roman Emperor (and lost). But here, the story of Pippin’s life is akin to Candide. He’s yet another young lad dabbling in (and suffering through) whatever might give his life some larger meaning: war, revolution, politics, sex, family life.
But for Bob Fosse — the original show’s director, choreographer and uncredited co-writer — Pippin embodied his favorite metaphor: life as showbiz (think: All That Jazz). Or, considering this was 1972, it was ‘life as a troupe of hippie troubadours and mimes.’
So Pippin got Fosse’s trademark razzle-dazzle choreography and Broadway ballyhoo. The troupe’s Leading Player, something of the show’s M.C., delivers a classic carnival barker’s sales pitch: “Ladies and gentlemen, this evening, for your entertainment pleasure, we present our most mysterious and miraculous tale. You will witness acts of lust, murder, holy war. And a climax — a climax that you will remember for the rest of your lives!”
Actually, you might remember it. I did, the first time I saw it. In any event, Fosse was a chief reason Pippin was a hit. The credits for this revival even state Chet Walker has choreographed it in “the style of Bob Fosse.” So we get the jazz hands, the canes and the slinky moves — Fosse’s appealingly brazen feel for theatrical strut and seduction. Fitting into that — and another reason for the original show’s success — was the great dancer Ben Vereen as the Leading Player, fresh off his star-making turn as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. (In fact, the roles are highly similar: an enigmatic black character commenting on and seemingly trying to orchestrate the action in ways that make him more interesting than the long-suffering white male lead. It’s a set-up that still holds here with Sasha Allen’s Leading Player and Sam Lips’ Pippin).
But 40 years on, director Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theatre in Boston — where this revival began — decided to scrape away all the hippy-dippy trappings. If life is showbiz, then let’s make it like today’s showbiz, make it like a Las Vegas circus spectacular. Bring on the acrobats and hula hoops. All of which are enjoyable to watch, especially Adrienne Barbeau. Yes, that Adrienne Barbeau from TV’s Maude and action-horror movies such as Escape from New York and The Swamp Thing. The 70-year-old Barbeau plays Pippin’s grandmother and shows off just how impressively fit she is in a blatantly sexy trapeze duet. She deservedly gets some of the show’s biggest applause.
As Charlemagne, John Rubinstein hams it up royally, delightfully. And as the ringmaster, the steely, sultry Sasha Allen may not make us forget Vereen’s dancing, but she has one of those awesome TV competition singing voices. Her Leading Player may remain an enigma (just who is she in this metaphor? God? Fate? The Devil? The human resources department?), but her singing has so much brass and soulful power you fear she’d probably crush a tender ballad if anyone was foolish enough to give her one.
But amid all these hard-working wonders, Pippin can feel like it’s just filling time. It doesn’t help that Magic to Do is the show’s first song and the only strong one — after that and “Corner of the Sky,” the score just coasts. It also doesn’t help that as the prince, Lips is mostly a likable empty vessel. At one point, a cute puppy runs on stage — yes, it’s shameless but it almost seems a comment on Lips’ utterly pleasant and frictionless performance. The only edge he shows comes when he tells the puppy it’s a failure. Take that, warm and fuzzy.
But at its heart, the show has always tended toward spangles and special effects. Pippin’s whole life-is-a-carnival idea can turn war and revolution and patricide into … just another illusion, just some more showbiz. Not much seems truly at stake here.
Which is another reason Pippin feels changed since 1972. War, revolution, sex, politics: These are always relevant. But in 1972, Vietnam, militant civil rights protests, generational battles, a corrupt presidential campaign – it seemed as if America itself was at stake. And as lightweight as the show may have been, all that lent Pippin some heft. The comic bits about the brutality and futility of politics actually seemed to mean something.
So times change, and shows are changed. That’s one reason we have revivals. But it’s rather telling: In the ‘70s, Pippin was famous for its stark ending — that heralded climax we’d always remember — an ending in which real life was chosen over stage antics. What does it say about us today that this hit revival expressly reverses that ending? It chooses showbiz.