We've Got Magic to Do

Last night, I saw the touring production of the recent revival of Pippin, directed by the genius Diane Paulus. She's one of my true heroes of this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre, a really smart, skillful, artful, fearless director who understands the texts of her shows really deeply and fully. She directed the masterful revival of Hair in 2009. I was so thrilled when I saw her Hair because she got everything about it so exactly right in every way. And that thrill was equaled last night when I finally saw her Pippin. I already knew this was one of the great works of our art form (despite what its detractors might think), and it made this musical theatre lover's heart swell to see that proved to an audience, with this brilliant, inventive, powerful, wildly entertaining production.

Like her production of Hair, this Pippin is very faithful to the original in a lot of ways, with just enough of Bob Fosse's original choreography sprinkled throughout; but it also very much reinvents the show for our times. In Paulus' hands, Pippin still feels so relevant and so Now.

On top of that, this may be the best touring production I've ever seen. The cast includes several of the Broadway cast, but everyone on the stage is at the peak of their powers, giving 110%, and clearly having a blast. I've never seen a tour with such an extremely high level of commitment and artistry. And what an incredible treat to see the original Pippin, John Rubinstein (who I got to interview!), as a really delightful, powerful Charles; and the incandescent Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, doing a trapeze act!

Diane Paulus has finally proved to the world that Pippin is as extraordinary as I always knew it was.

I realized, the first time I worked on the show in college (directed by my buddy, now Broadway arranger and conductor David Chase), that the entire show takes place inside Pippin's head. The second time I worked on the show, when I directed it for New Line in 1994, I wanted our audience to understand that too.

In our production, we built a runway from the stage, out through the audience, to the back of the house. To open our show, the house went to black, and a pinspot appeared on Pippin, out on the runway. He slowly raises his hand and we see a pistol in it. He raises the gun to his temple, takes a breath and holds it... and then he hears that famous tone fade in and the opening vamp begin. He lowers the gun as he turns around to face the stage, and the Players drift out of the darkness and into the light, as they sing to him...

I think our opening did shock a lot of people, but that wasn't the appeal for me. The appeal was that the audience would then have this in the back of their minds for the rest of the show. The idea of suicide would hang over everything and then payoff powerfully in the finale. And because the Players drift into Pippin's consciousness, because they were clearly there for him, not for us, the audience spent the whole show (still without an intermission, back then) having at least a sense that the Players aren't "real," that Pippin's family isn't really Pippin's family (we reinforced this further by casting the same Player as both Charles and Berthe), that something's going on here...

This is a world in which a severed head holds a conversation, Charles can give Pippin his knife back, and Catherine can ask them to hold her light. This is the chaos and random connections of a man's subconscious mind.

When Leading Player says to the audience during the final sequence, “Why we're right inside your heads,” the implication can only be that the Players have all been right inside Pippin's head this whole time. In retrospect, so much of the show's surrealistic moments then make more sense if the whole thing is happening in Pippin's head. And if we accept that premise, then Pippin is making himself fail at everything, and Pippin is convincing himself to commit suicide by self-immolation. In other words, the entire show happens in the moments just before he kicks the chair out or pulls the trigger. But like Pippin, the audience gets caught up in the literal images we see and we forget the metaphorical and symbolic significance of the characters and events in the show – until the finale.

If all this is happening in Pippin's head, so many of the characters and events in the show leap into sharper focus. Pippin's mind has created this world, and all its crazy dangers and temptations, in his own internal struggle. His subconscious has invented all this, including the Grand Finale. Notice that Pippin's family is made up entirely of stereotypes. Notice which stereotypes Pippin's subconscious chooses.

For a father, Pippin's troubled mind picks Charlemagne, a father so high on a pedestal Pippin could never hope to measure up, the impossible role model, the Emperor of the Holy Fucking Roman Empire! And really, who else but a college grad would dream himself into the Holy Roman Empire. Would you? Charles is the ultimate suffocating authority figure, whom Pippin describes as the most powerful man in the world. By choosing Charlemagne for his father, Pippin has guaranteed that he can never be as smart, as powerful, as successful. He can only fall short.

For a stepmother (read Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment for more on stepmothers), Pippin's brain conjures up Fastrada, an oversexualized, young stepmother, famously dressed in the original production in a red fringe cocktail dress. She's scary to Pippin because she's sexy, and that's Wrong and Oedipal-ish (we're seeing her through Pippin's mind's eye, after all), which maybe explains why Pippin conjures up Fastrada and Lewis' incestuous relationship, this forbidden sexuality he fears in himself. But Fastrada also comes from the fairy tale archetype, the evil step-mother who loves her own son Lewis more than her stepson Pippin.

For a stepbrother, Pippin's mind again chooses a male he can't measure up to. Lewis is dumb, pure id, pure appetite, but he's also everything Pippin isn't, and everything a man needed to be in the eighth century. Maybe Pippin is our modern idea of a "better" man than Lewis, but Pippin lives in the Holy Roman Empire.

Leading Player is Pippin's own Devil on his shoulder, but he's not only that. (I use "he" for Leading Player because that's how "he" was written, even though both productions I worked on in the 80s and 90s had women in the role, like this revival.) Leading Player is that most interesting of dramatic character types, the untrustworthy narrator. He has an agenda and it's not about helping Pippin. Then again, Leading Player is Pippin. As players in this troupe, Pippin's entire family is part of the plot to sabotage his quest and to encourage him to kill himself, and yet they are all inside his own head. Why has he created such a monstrous family in this hallucination of his?

Or maybe the real question the show asks is why do so many of us do much the same thing, playing destructive mind games with ourselves?

How often does a piece of theatre take you down an awesome rabbit hole like this? Pippin is deceptively complex, a classic hero myth story loaded up with the cultural baggage and confusion of the times, both then and now.

Still, as much as I think this revival tour is really, really wonderful...

I just don't think the revised lyrics in a few songs (which I believe predate this revival) are as good as the originals. The new lyrics don't match the playfulness or brashness of the lyrics around them. And while I sort of like the show's new ending, it changes what kind of story this is. The original ending (I'm tempted to call it a Beckettian "non-ending") said that life is a series of compromises and disappointments, but the truly extraordinary person understands that it's okay to be ordinary. Most people are. Pippin finally proves himself extraordinary when he gives up his childish demand for complete self-fulfillment, and for the first time thinks about what those around him need from him. He grows up and the sees the value in a normal life. It's not necessary to be extraordinary, to get attention, to stand out. He's never going to be the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This is a story about Pippin finally learning to be a man and finding that there can be joy in an ordinary life. (Leading Player told him he needed to find some simple joys, and he was right!) But growing up is a quiet thing. It's not a moment that needs a last song. It just is. Fosse's non-ending was about real life, at the end of a show about real life.

In the revised ending, Pippin and Catherine walk off hand in hand, apparently happily ever after. Pippin has found what he wanted: fulfillment. A loving family. Sure, Theo may have to go through a similar misadventure, but heck, all boys do, right? And Pippin got through it okay, right? Family is So Good.

I don't know, maybe that's not such a terrible message for these times, but to me, that's not really Pippin.

The original ending is so much more honest (which is kind of the point of the whole show, deep down), less obviously manipulative. The original Pippin was one of those early neo musical comedies with high style but genuinely realistic themes. Originally it was about that Vietnam Generation, lost in so many ways; and it documented quite honestly the fact of all our failing institutions, politics, religion, war, even the nuclear family. Does that sound familiar? What Fosse, songwriter Stephen Schwartz, and bookwriter Roger Hirson may not have realized back in 1972 was that there will always be Lost Generations from time to time, and Pippin will speak to all of them. It speaks to us today so powerfully because we're in another time of great crisis and transformation in our country, like the early 1970s, when Americans have lost faith again in almost all our institutions.

The majority of New Line's musicals recently have been about that theme.

Still, last night was amazing. Sometimes I see productions, often on tour, sometimes on Broadway that really just don't understand the show – or don't even try very hard – and it breaks my heart because I picture hundreds (thousands?) of people walking out at the end of the show thinking, well, that was okay, I guess, kinda funny, not bad...when I know the show is really great, maybe even brilliant.

So it thrills my little musical theatre heart when I see a production, particularly on Broadway, get a show so exactly right that I know everyone who sees it will see every bit of brilliance the show has. I felt that way when I saw Diane Paulus' production of Hair. I had directed the the show three times already, and had written a whole book about it, so I was one tough, fucking audience. But everything about it was perfect. Paulus and everyone involved understood Hair down to its wild, psychedelic core – and it's a really complex show! – even borrowing certain pieces of staging from the original. Their production was brilliant and beautiful and authentic and emotional and powerful...

It was really one of the great experiences of my life.

And now she does it to me again. I had that same experience seeing Pippin. I've music directed the show once, directed the show once, and wrote a chapter about it in my first book. I love this show deeply and wasn't sure how well I could handle such a drastic change in the fundamental concept. But you know what? It's not that fundamental a change. Paulus obviously, overtly respects Fosse's contributions to this iconic show, while making it entirely her own at the same time, giving it an entirely new vibe, but one that feels like an evolution of the original, not a replacement.

I've been listening to the original cast album (singing along with John Rubinstein!) since junior high, and I've been watching the commercial video of the 1981 remounting of the Broadway production since high school. Still, with all that baggage and famously strong opinions, I drove home last night one truly happy Pippin fan.

Diane Paulus, I love you. Keep making musicals.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. More thoughts on Pippin in this post.


Dærick Gröss Sr. | December 12, 2014 at 3:43 PM

This is the first review that I can recall reading wherein the reviewer not only understood either theatre OR the play, but both... and ALSO understood 'presentation'.
Wonderful review, and one that truly makes me sad that I did not get to see this.

Dærick Gröss Sr. | December 12, 2014 at 3:48 PM

This is the first review that I can recall reading wherein the reviewer understood more than 'theatre' or 'content' but the 'entirety of theatrical presentation' ... all that it takes to make the subject connect with the recipient within the chosen artform... AND had the articulate skill to convey his critical thoughts to a reader!
Tis reviewer has made me wish two things.
1... that I am so sad to have missed this production.
2... to read more of his reviews.

Jennifer Schillig | March 25, 2016 at 10:08 AM

Here's something for the Surprisingly Similar Characters/Stories file (as TV Tropes names it):

In this hit musical, a young man has just graduated from college. He doesn't really know WHAT it is he wants to do in life--he just knows he wants it to be extraordinary. However, he finds the search for identity much harder than he was led to believe it was--that he isn't quite as special as he was led to think. Along the way, he gets into a relationship with someone he has a real connection with, but breaks it off with her because he's afraid being tied down will keep him from gaining the kind of destiny he dreams of. By the end of the show, though, he has gotten back together with her, realizing that there can be a measure of fulfillment here after all. The show ends with him realizing that complete fulfillment is a myth, but that there can still be plenty of joy in life.

Now, am I talking about Pippin or Avenue Q?

Scott Miller | March 25, 2016 at 1:06 PM

Yes, Jennifer, both follow the classic Hero Myth structure, like thousands of other stories...

Jennifer Schillig | March 26, 2016 at 1:21 PM

Someone else said that the Bad Idea Bears were EVERY other character in Pippin. :)

Something else that's interesting about the show--how different the songs are out of context. The very first time I heard "Corner of the Sky" was at my college convocation--out of context, it sounds like an inspirational "I Want" song, but in context, it's (as you once said) a ridiculously naive statement of a philosophy (perfection or nothing) that will almost end up getting Pippin killed. That's pretty much true of ANY of the songs--if you listen to them without knowing any of the show's plot, they sound innocent and encouraging. Listen to the "Finale" (or at least the first part of it) without knowing what's really going on and you could be excused for thinking that the supporting cast is simply encouraging Pippin to have self-
confidence and go for his goals.

But then, that's true of a lot of older shows--back when most popular music came from the theater, songs were written that they could stand just as well outside their shows. "Where Is Love" from Oliver can sound as if it's about romantic love outside the show; inside it, Oliver is expressing longing for the mother he never knew. Similarly, "What I Did For Love" can sound like it's also about romantic love (as Richard Attenborough seemed to think), instead of love for one's profession.

The most jarring example of this that I know of personally? "The Hills Of Tomorrow" was sung at my sister's high school graduation. (Not that I knew anything about the song at the time.)