Guest post by Becca
One of my new favorite experiences is taking someone who has never seen Pippin to see it. Maybe it’s an excuse to see Pippin repeatedly, or maybe it’s the fun I get seeing someone’s facial expression change from one of excitement and wonder to that eyes-as-big-as-saucers-shock. One of my friends lovingly explained Pippin as a “sucker-punch to the soul.” She is absolutely right.
Pippin is often described as “the circus musical.” It makes perfect sense to use this description, even though “circus” is only one of many things that set it apart from the rest of the shows on and off Broadway. It also sets part from the original version of Pippin. Pippin originally came to Broadway with music and lyrics written by Stephen Schwartz in 1972 and with a book written by Roger O. Hirson. Diane Paulus, the current director of Pippin, (and soon to be directing Finding Neverland on Broadway) knew she wanted to make her revival of the show circus themed.
Paulus spoke with Gypsy Snider, a founding member of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a circus founded in Montreal in 2002. Snider connected the story of Pippin searching his “corner in the sky” and Pippin’s struggle to be extraordinary with the circus. Pippin’s internal need to be special could be directly compared to the mentality of an acrobat.
From there the revival took the circus theme and ran with it. It took two years to find the right combination of tricks for the show to make it entertaining and cohesive. Though the circus element drew people in with its unique and colorful feel, the choice for a circus was less about the superficial aspects of the story and more about creating a perfect setting for a coming-of-age story, especially for a boy like Pippin. (Side Note: An exception to this is never to see the movie version of the Fantasticks. Where Pippin succeeded with flying colors, The Fantasticks was an EPIC FAIL).
Pippin is the story of Charlemagne’s first son and heir to the throne, Pippin, played in the original version by John Rubinstein, and in the revival by Matthew James Thomas, who was succeeded by Kyle Dean Massey.
The fourth wall is constantly being broken by “The Players.” In Pippin, our Players are, in fact, circus performers, led by the Leading Player or “ringmaster” (originally played by the amazing Ben Vereen and played in the revival by Patina Miller, who was succeeded by Ciara Renee). The Players activate events and control everything around them except Pippin. All of the side characters are played by members of this circus. Everyone, the entire ensemble and the audience, realizes these people are false and merely playing a part. Everyone except for Pippin himself. He is living through these situations for the first time.
We are immediately introduced to the kind of young man Pippin is; a man who wants to find his “corner of the sky.” . He is so hopeful in his quest you cannot help finding him charming; the boy who contemplates life and awkwardly seeks to impress his father by going to war, stumbles through an orgy at the instruction of his grandmother, and tries anything and everything to find true happiness. And through all of this, Pippin finds that “all that glisters is not gold”; all the painted faces and acrobatics that he is shown are not what give life true meaning at all.
The music from Pippin is some of the best to ever come out of the fingers of Stephen Schwartz, with songs like “Magic to Do”, “Corner of the Sky”, and “With You”, and the book truly sings as well. The script is comedic, exciting, and surprising, with a plot that specifically meanders, leading you to believe that it is going in one direction, then suddenly turns in another. As an audience member this capricious direction-changing means you are always engaged. For example, the producers of the revival made “No Time at All” a joyful sing-along. The audience thus feels it is a part of the show and is interacting with the players so intimately that it feels as if it has some ability to affect the plot. This contrasts beautifully with the finale of the show, a finale that the Leading Player has been promising us for two hours. The entire audience is collectively silent and truly disturbed. (I will not be spoiling this for you, go see it yourself!)
In terms of performance, I can only say the original cast was so spectacular that I will never forget the exhilarating experience of seeing them work together. Every single performer was perfect for their role. Matthew James Thomas had the innocent optimism, boy-like determination, and uncoordinated movements of a growing boy down to a “T.” Though their performances differ slightly, both he and Kyle Dean Massey are wonderful; Massey sang with tears streaming down his face at the end of the play. Patina Miller played the role very differently from Ben Vereen, which made it all the more interesting. Though she smiled throughout the play, acting like a friendly angel, the smile never touched her eyes; her movements were crisp and meticulous; she embodied the devil leading a boy astray. Her performance in this play earned her a Tony Award with good reason. Vereen played the part differently, he improvised more, acted like he and Pippin were buddies; everything he was doing was really for Pippin’s own good.
While most of the original cast has left, the cast member whose character has the most significant difference from the original musical and is the glue which holds the story together has stayed: Rachel Bay Jones. In the original play, her character, Katherine, the older widow/player who cannot remember her lines and falls in love with Pippin, is played straight. She is one-dimensional; a pretty but sad woman who has no flair and little personality. But in Diane Paulus’ beautifully directed version, Katherine is ironic and hilarious, sweet and quirky, and most of all, vulnerable. And Rachel Bay Jones is a true actress, embodying her own description of Katherine as “a delicate mess, who really can’t be contained.” Jones encapsulates everything a widowed women with a growing boy would be. In short, she completely breaks your heart.
All of the circus performers are indeed from circuses. They are a flurry of color and movement and make it fun to repeat this show, because you can watch something different every time.
A show this good does not come to Broadway every day. It will make you laugh, cry, and gasp, and it will make you want to go back and watch it again the minute it’s over.
Here’s a list of what you should keep in mind about Pippin should you decide you want to see it:
• Seats are a little bit cramped.
• Everyone will enjoy
• Bathrooms are very clean, but not so many stalls
• Full view from the mezzanine.
• Wonderful cast
• the Acrobats are Spectacular