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.
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!”). Like many opening numbers, it sets up the show’s premise, and this new Pippin follows through by piling on all the enjoyable magic it can: illusions, acrobats, gymnasts.
But does “Cirque du Soleil with a plot” really add up to a rewarding musical? As much visual fun as it is, Pippin has always needed a shot of magic to make us overlook its thinnish emotional appeal — its weakness, in short, at really warming hearts. I mean, 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 the real-life son of the French king and world-beating Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne who rebelled against him (no surprise: the son lost). But here, the story of Pippin’s life is more akin to Candide. He’s another young lad dabbling in (and suffering through) whatever might give his life some larger meaning: war, revolution, politics, sex, ordinary family life.
But for Bob Fosse — the original show’s director, choreographer and uncredited co-writer — Pippin embodied his favorite metaphor: life as showbiz (as in “life is a Cabaret, old chum“). 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, one that could have come straight from the Fosse character Roy Schieder plays in All That Jazz: “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. I have. 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 — some of that appealingly cynical feel Fosse had for theatrical strut and seduction. Embodying 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. (The roles are highly similar: an enigmatic black sidekick character commenting on and seemingly trying to orchestrate the action, making him much 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 forty years on, director Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theatre in Boston — where this Broadway revival began — decided to scrape away the hippy-dippy trappings and the mimes. 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 fire jugglers and long-legged showgirls. All of which are certainly 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. (Parental note: This revival does contain the occasional language and dance sequence not usually encountered under a Ringling Brothers tent.)
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 another 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 head of human resources?), but her singing has so much brass and power you figure she’d probably crush a tender ballad if anyone was foolish enough to give her one to sing.
But amid all these hard-working wonders, Pippin occasionally feels 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, the show is that shameless, but it almost seems a derisive comment on Lips’ pleasant, frictionless performance. The only edge he shows comes when he tells the puppy it’s a failure. Take that, warm and fuzzy.
At its heart, the show itself has always tended toward splashy shallowness with enough flair to disguise it. Pippin’s whole life-is-a-carnival idea, for instance, can turn war and revolution and patricide into … just another illusion, just more showbiz. Consequently, 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 if Pippin was both a frolicsome and beguilingly jaded entertainment, the show was lent some heft by our national torment at the time. The comic bits about the brutality and futility of politics actually seemed to mean something. Now they feel like amusing gestures. They barely qualify as skeptical.
So times change, and shows get changed. That’s one reason people create revivals. Let’s hit “re-set” and bring it up to date. But it’s rather telling: In the ‘70s, Pippin was famous for its stark, fourth-wall-breaking ending (stark by Broadway standards, at any rate). It was that ballyhooed climax we’d always remember, an ending in which stage antics were dropped and troublesome real life was chosen over mere theater.
So: What does it say about us and our future today that this hit revival seems to reverse that choice? It prefers showbiz.