I'm Not a River or a Giant Bird

I'm still thinking about Pippin, several days after seeing the immensely entertaining and powerful revival production on tour. Also, I was talking to someone the other night about Andrew Lippa's brilliant jazz musical The Wild Party, which we produced in 2010. And those two topics intersect for me.

That intersection is about interpreting songs as cheery simply because they're uptempo and the singer hasn't thought to really read through the lyric. Examples are legion, but the most egregious is "Send in the Clowns." Now, I can understand someone not getting the central metaphor (I didn't until it was explained to me), and I can even understand someone not finding out the song's narrative context (though they should be slapped for that), but I can't understand someone reading and singing the lyric to "Send in the Clowns," and thinking it sounds happy.

Even a casual read of the lyric is clear -- We're ridiculous and we'll never get it together. We're fucked and it's too late to do anything about it. Why do so many people completely miss irony in musical theatre? It's everywhere! Is it that still persistent myth that musicals are all silly and naive that makes otherwise intelligent people totally miss the irony? If these singers would expend any effort in finding out why the damn song is called "Send in the Clowns," (it's the Information Age, kids!) they'd learn that in a circus, they send in the clowns when a circus performer is hurt or killed, to distract the audience while they carry the body out.

Changes that song for ya, don't it?

Now you can see the genius in Glynis Johns' original performance.

Lately, we've had a lot of college girls singing "Life of the Party" from Lippa's Wild Party, for New Line auditions. They sing it all happy happy joy joy, utterly clueless that the entire lyric is ironic and coming from a self-loathing, aging drunk. She's inviting us to be like her, but we find her horrifying. Probably means you shouldn't wear the scrunchie to the audition.

But I think what drives me the most batshit of all is actors missing the point of "Corner of the Sky."

So many people hear this admittedly beautiful song as a straight-forward anthem of individuality and drive. But it's not. In context, it's the shallow bullshit of an immature, self-involved kid with zero self-awareness. Babies get everything they want; adults don't. There's a cluelessness about this song, a too-earnest, almost cocky vibe about it that could come only from youth. In Fosse's original production, Pippin's heartfelt anthem is met with sarcastic applause, muted laughter, and rolling eyes.

At the end of the show, Pippin himself will come to see just how silly these declarations are, when he sings:
I'm not a river or a giant bird
That soars to the sea.
And if I'm never tied to anything,
I'll never be free.

Life is complicated and contradictory, he now knows. And he's just a man. Freedom doesn't come from a lack of responsibilities; it comes from enjoying the journey. And joy comes from connection, not from disconnection.

Pippin is not going to find complete fulfillment. The Players know that. We know that. Pippin's not extraordinary (in fact, sometimes he seems more than a bit below average). He's just a kid, and life is just life, and as Spelling Bee teaches us, "Life is random and unfair." His dreams are no different, no more interesting, no more potent than every other kid he knows. He's at that moment in life when we all have these sudden revelations about how the world works, and we think we're the first ones to achieve this kind of enlightenment. (Exhibit A: the musical Glory Days). But we're never really the first to achieve that kind of enlightenment, and as we age, most of us figure that out.

What I think a lot of young people miss about Pippin is that the song "Extraordinary" is not a song about how extraordinary Pippin is; it's a song about not extraordinary he is, and that merely declaring it doesn't make it so. The real point of the song -- like much of the score -- is in the subtext. There's no evidence anywhere in the story that Pippin is extraordinary or that he ever will be. "Corner of the Sky" has to be bullshit.

And really, "Corner of the Sky" is a lot richer for all this complexity, and a lot more emotional. Almost everyone in the audience is older than Pippin and we all know what it feels like to think those things and we also know how little we understood of life at that age, and how anxious we were to Get Started. The show's original audience in 1972 also knew how the confusion and chaos of the times made that all even harder. We could make the argument that the same is true today. But life isn't a race to a destination; it's an adventure. When you reach your destination, it's already over. The fun/scary/interesting part is the journey. Pippin hasn't learned that yet when he sings this song.

And that brings us to the structural, narrative reason why Pippin has to start the story shallow and annoying. This is a Hero Myth story, in which our hero must grow up. He must go through a series of obstacles with the help of a Wise Wizard, do battle with an Evil Wizard (which is sometimes the hero himself), and gain new enlightenment. The reason we love Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz is that the Hero Myth is a human life in miniature, and though we don't usually register that consciously, we learn from these experiences, even though they're fictional.

Unfortunately for Pippin, in this postmodern concept musical, his Wise Wizard and Evil Wizard are the same person! Sucks to be Pippin. Though I guess you could argue that Berthe is also a Wise Wizard figure, a randy Obi Wan Kenobi who helps set him on his journey.

For Pippin to go through that Hero's ordeal, for him to change and finally grow up (or at least start to) by the end, he has to start out young, stupid, and self-involved. Very much like Luke Skywalker and Dorothy Gale, and also Rob Gordon in High Fidelity and the Youth in Passing Strange.  (Back when we produced Passing Strange, it hit me how much it is a companion piece to Pippin.) Our hero will not achieve any of what he describes in "Corner of the Sky," not because he's a failure, but because the dream is wrong and the ambition misdirected. He was dreaming of what he could get for him, how he could best showcase his extraordinary awesomeness. By the end of the show, he's thinking about what he can do for Catherine and Theo.
And if I'm never tied to anything,
I'll never be free.

The reason Leading Player and the gang fail at getting Pippin to do the Grand Finale is because Pippin has been changed over the course of his Hero Myth, and the Players are still playing to the former, more selfish Pippin. True, Pippin almost succumbs to the seduction here, because he's still in transition; he's not grown up, just growing up. But ultimately, the flashy emptiness they offer doesn't grab him like it once would have. He's starting to see it for the bullshit it is.

The Players appeal to Former Pippin's dissatisfaction with his life, but this is New Pippin. They appeal to his desire for attention, but he's changed. They remind him of his dreams, but those dreams seem childish to him (and us) now. The Players even quote "Corner of the Sky," but he's just not that Pippin anymore. He's been through too much to not have been changed by it. Which is the whole point of the Hero Myth. And a human life.

At long last, he has some self-awareness. He can see where's been...
I wanted magic shows and miracles,
Mirages to touch.
I wanted such a little thing from life;
I wanted so much.
I never came close, my love;
We nearly came near.
It never was there;
I think it was here.

He knows now that those things were illusions (didn't Leading Players promise those at the beginning?). Pippin also knows that wanting "complete fulfillment" ("such a little thing") from life is too much to ask. Life is good and bad, easy and hard, yin and yang. He also understands for the first time that alone is alone, not alive. He knows that he couldn't find happiness alone ("I never came close, my love"), but with Catherine he found something close ("We nearly came near.").
And if I'm never tied to anything,
I'll never be free.

He knows now that fulfillment was never in what the Players offered or in what he was seeking ("there"), but it might be with Catherine ("here"). Now that he recognizes that he was on the wrong path, he can also see that what the Players were offering him wasn't real. Everybody has to find his own path, his own Real; and their path isn't his.
They showed me crimson, gold, and lavender,
A shining parade;
But there's no color I can have on earth
That won't finally fade.
When I wanted worlds to paint
And costumes to wear,
I think it was here,
'Cause it never was there...

The real color and light is in human connection. And what are we left with at the end (in the original version, anyway)? Literally nothing but human connection. Nothing in the way. By taking away all the artifice of theatre at the end, both inside and outside the narrative, Fosse, Hirson, and Schwartz (sounds like a law firm!) made Pippin one of the most honest musicals ever written. We leave the musical and return to the theatre at the end, even before we return to the theatre at the end.

And no, I don't expect a singer to communicate all of this through the way they sing "Corner of the Sky" in an audition, when they're already nervous and their mind is racing.

But I do expect in a theatre audition that they act the song they're singing for us, and when it comes to "Send in the Clowns," "Life of the Party," and "Corner of the Sky," if they give it to us all cute and chirpy with a self-congratulatory money note at the end, I'll just think they're lazy. Might as well sing "Old Man River" or "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" all happy happy joy joy too.

Yes, I can be a curmudgeon sometimes when people don't respect great musicals. So sue me. One of the things that makes this tour of the Pippin revival so extraordinary is the acting. Serious, subtle, intelligent, insightful acting. It's what great writing deserves. These folks know that theatre is the noun; musical is just the adjective.

Here endeth my rant.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Some more overall thoughts on Pippin here.


London Accountants Lady | October 15, 2015 at 9:01 AM

'And if I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free' is such a fascinating line, such an interesting paradox but one that really works!