Director Diane Paulus Works Her Magic on Pippin
By Mervyn Rothstein
The Stephen Schwartz-scored musical fable Pippin, about manhood, identity, love and conflict, gets a fresh and acrobatic approach by Hair and Porgy and Bess director Diane Paulus. American Repertory Theater is hosting the revival.
"I've wanted to work on this show for years," Diane Paulus says. "I saw the Broadway original three times as a kid. It made such an impression. And the music — I listened to the album through high school and college. I know it by heart."
The show is Pippin, and Paulus, artistic director for American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, is now getting her chance. At her theatre she is directing a revival of the 1972 musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and book by Roger Hirson. The revival stars Patina Miller, a 2011 Tony nominee for Sister Act, as the Leading Player, a role that garnered the Best Actor Tony for Ben Vereen. Other Cambridge players include Matthew James Thomas (Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark) as Pippin and Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise — spouses in real life — as Pippin's dad, Charlemagne, a.k.a. King Charles, and his evil stepmother, Fastrada.
The tale, set in early medieval days, concerns the princely Pippin, who returns after university and tries to give himself a special life. The Broadway original lasted 1,944 performances, winning five Tonys — including for Direction and Choreography by Bob Fosse. Its score features "Corner of the Sky," "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" and "Magic to Do."
The heart of Pippin holds "a powerful story," says Paulus, a Tony nominee in 2009 for Hair and last season for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess — both Tony winners for musical revival, the latter originating at A.R.T. "Pippin, for me, is about how far we go in our lives to prove we're extraordinary. Pippin tracks the story of a young man trying to find the meaning in his life, but it's an emblematic journey, almost like a pageant play, a morality play. So yes, it's a young man's journey, but for me it can speak to anyone, whether you're like me — a mom in my 40s thinking about my life and my choices — or an 18-year-old. It can speak across generations. It takes that theme and expresses it completely through theatre, as a play within a play, using the metaphor of theatre — a troupe of players comes to town to do this show."
The revival's choreography, in the Fosse style, is by Chet Walker. Then there's something Paulus says makes her Pippin different from others — "circus choreography" by Gypsy Snider of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a Montreal circus troupe.
"Taking the Fosse and expanding it to include a vocabulary of circus is thematically totally connected, because the life of an acrobat is literally 'How far will I go to prove I'm extraordinary? Will I stand on my head on top of someone else's head, will I jump through a hoop, will I walk on a tightwire? How far will I push myself physically?' The circus metaphor reinforces the thematic issues."
Does a female Leading Player change the musical? "That was one of my first questions to Stephen. The cast list just says Leading Player. I said, 'Can this Leading Player be a woman?' And he said, 'Absolutely.' I think the Leading Player has been a woman in other productions. I've met 15-year-old high school girls who said they've been the Leading Player. The most important thing is the energy and the charisma and the seduction."
Is Broadway in this Pippin's future? "Right now we're completely focused on A.R.T. Our mission is to expand the boundaries of theatre. And having acrobats standing on their heads singing choruses is definitely an expansion of musical theatre."
(This feature appears in the January 2013 subscription issue of Playbill magazine. Want to subscribe?)
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