Two nights in a row I saw new stagings of shows originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Big (dancing) shoes to fill, and the directors, for the most part, avoided Fosse-esque filigrees. But Diane Paulus’ reimagining of Pippin denuded what was originally an avant garde and even somewhat dangerous entertainment. The new concept is to do it as a circus, and many of the stunts are impressive. The musical it most resembles is another 1970s hit with a Stephen Schwartz score, The Magic Show. One could argue that this production more resembles Barnum, but all the stunts in that served a purpose, telling the life story of a renowned showman. In this Pippin, the stunts serve the purpose of distracting us from the hollowness of the material.
Indeed, Fosse’s production used tricks, amazing sets and fantastic dance episodes to divert us from the story’s lack of drive as well. But it was all of a piece: Ben Vereen’s character, called the Leading Player, keeps hinting of some unnamed daredevil excitement. He’s a sexy Mephistopheles, and we think Pippin, an aimless young man, will be easy prey. Their relationship – and you never know when the Leading Player will pop up – provides the only tension in the musical, plotted with as much aimlessness as its title character. I’m also reminded of Candide, the learning-journey of a naïf who, in the end, embraces the simple peasant life; that show doesn’t quite work either.
The Paulus production is a sort of Cirque du Roi du Soleil (yeah, I know that’s a different French king, but this show is set in a tent, not a place in history). Patina Miller, a pretty woman, is now the Leading Player and there’s absolutely nothing remotely dangerous about her; she’s more angel than devil. So, that one bit of tension I mentioned is nowhere to be found. In the original, the company sings “We’ve got magic to do…miracle plays.” This time we get no miracle plays, nothing even vaguely medieval, and “magic” is broadly defined to include hanging down from trapezes. Is there a point to this? Is Pippin buffeted on the trapeze of life, somehow? You go to a circus, of course, and don’t demand meaning. But theatre like this is obviously heavy with metaphor, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask that the metaphor make some sense. Pippin’s grandmother’s on a trapeze, and is charmingly self-assured. Charlemagne rides a unicycle at one point; is he in danger of tipping over?
Well, yes, I guess. Regicide rears its ugly head, and, annoyingly, has no emotional impact. We feel no horror, sadness, nor the joy associated with toppling a tyrant. And then the libretto employs a different sort of magic and brings him back to life, teaching the audience that nothing matters in this show: anything that’s done can be undone.
And, in the second act, the Leading Player starts arguing with someone else, which is weird. For a long stretch, Pippin is not even spoken to. The show has claimed to be an “anecdotic revue” but the farm episode, involving no fewer than four songs, is far longer than everything else, with a new central character. At this point, the non-leading players get to don masks and do funny imitations of farm animals, which can seem a creative use of a company of dancers. But, in this revival, filled with actual circus strongmen and strongwomen, it’s a let down that they’ve gone from balancing on boards to clucking like chickens.
But that’s a good example of the perils of coming up with a totally new concept for a show originally conceived by a genius. Many things that made sense in the original are rendered senseless under this big top. I suppose if I loved circuses, I might have been happy rather than antsy. But, you know what I love is storytelling, and all those acrobats inhibited the story from getting across, landing.
You rarely hear me complain about a musical director, but boy some of those songs went by quickly. All sorts of lyrical jokes went unappreciated by the audience. I think Pippin’s score is one of Schwartz’s best, far superior to Wicked and his forgotten long-runner, The Magic Show. What he achieved here is a musical idiom firmly grounded in then-current rock that also managed to include enough ancient ornaments to feel simultaneously medieval. A product of the Vietnam War era, we’re meant to see Pippin as typical of the unable-to-find-myself generation. But I love the trills in the intro to With You, the quick harpsichord waltz that leads into Spread a Little Sunshine (unheard here), and the unusual time signature of Love Song. It’s a score worth examining, filled with smart ideas. Some of the singers – Matthew James Thomas and Rachel Bay Jones in particular, do nicely by them.
I hope Schwartz is happy. I would have been miserable had I written a hit Broadway musical in a certain style, telling a story, and, forty years later, a revival adopts a completely different style and doesn’t tell the story. But, of course, the first thing has to happen before the second.