ON THE RECORD: The New Broadway Cast Album of Pippin

By Steven Suskin
July 21, 2013

This week's column examines the new cast recording of Stephen Schwartz's Pippin.

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Pippin is an unusual musical, as long-running blockbusters go. The original production was stunning, with the praise mostly going to the razzle-dazzle skills of director/choreographer Bob Fosse. The more accolades Fosse received, the less credit went to lesser items like songs and book. (Fosse, methinks, planned it that way; he was quite a showman and seemed to build the musical on a foundation of nothing.) Pippin has been more or less relegated to the "shows of their time but hopelessly dated" shelf.

It turns out, though, that there's life in the old boy yet. The old boy being Pippin, young son of Charlemagne but otherwise a minor historical figure. Rebellious young son, that is. The show came along in the midst of the Vietnam protest era, which was embraced by major hits like Hair and 1776. (The latter, which praised patriotism while lionizing pacifists — in the "Momma, Look Sharp" scene, anyway — and lambasted "cool, cool" conservatives, was produced by the same Stuart Ostrow who, four years later, gave us Pippin.)

Pippin sans Fosse seemed as unthinkable as West Side Story sans Robbins or A Chorus Line sans Bennett, but that overlooks the presence of songwriter Schwartz. He has never gotten much respect on Broadway, even when he had three concurrent hits in the 1970s (namely Pippin, Godspell and The Magic Show). Wicked, while not winning him any awards, has established his songwriting credentials now and forever. In fact, I would have to guess that his percentage royalty for Wicked — with multiple companies racking up millions of dollars a week — has caused him to out-earn all American theatre composers.

Given the continued strength of Schwartz's Oz show, it was inevitable that Broadway would eventually see a revival of Pippin. Fortunately, Diane Paulus, director of the recent revivals of Hair and The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, came up with a vision for the show that works exceedingly well. The Fosse touch is still there, after a fashion, with some choreographic flavors. Paulus had the canny idea of grafting circus onto Pippin, adding an important (and fitting) new element. Circus creation, as they quaintly term it, came from Gypsy Snider, of the Montreal-based company Les 7 doits de las main. (Theatregoers who saw Traces during its year-long run in Union Square will have an idea of the marvels to expect from the Pippin circus.) Snider's work has made the 2013 Pippin magical in a way that the 1973 production wasn't. Mind you, the 1973 Pippin had Fosse — and what could be the finest set of show dancers ever seen on Broadway.

Patina Miller
Photo by Joan Marcus
The original featured an remarkable performance from Ben Vereen as the Leading Player. How, one wondered when this Pippin headed to its tryout at the American Repertory Theater, could they ever match Vereen? They settled on Patina Miller, who had attracted attention in the mediocre Sister Act. Could Miller possibly match Vereen? At the Music Box, the answer is apparent. Miller launches into "Magic to Do," and the remembered excellence of Vereen is immediately pushed from our mind. No comparisons necessary. He was, and she is, wonderful in the role.

The other unforgettable performance in 1973 came in the form of a decidedly non-theatrical performance by 69-year-old Irene Ryan. Her fame stemmed from her casting, in 1962, as Granny in the sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies." In Pippin she played another granny, stopping the show every night with "No Time at All." The new revival gives us Andrea Martin, who unlike her predecessor is about as theatrical as they come. If Ryan was delectable in her singing of the song, Martin's entire performance — every time she blinks an eye — is an artistic triumph. Plenty of people are likely to follow in Martin's footsteps over the years, especially if Pippin runs half so long as the revival of Chicago. I expect they will all do well in the role and earn wild cheers for the showstopper at every single performance, but I would say: Go out of your way to catch Martin.

All of which is to say that Vereen and Ryan — the two performances that a viewer (or a listener to the cast album) might reasonably cherish — have been replaced by people who are just as effective. As for the rest of the original Broadway cast, I must confess that I liked but wasn't especially enthusiastic about any of them, except the dancers. So there is no appreciable fall-off from the other principals. Matthew James Thomas does fine as the title character, and Terrence Mann brings a much-appreciated musical comedy sense to the role of Charles. The hidden weapon of the enterprise is Rachel Bay Jones, who takes a role that seemed incredibly dull when Jill Clayburgh did it in 1973 and turns it into the heart of the show.

Let us also comment on the orchestrations. The late Ralph Burns was a genius, who provided immeasurable lift to No Strings, Little Me, Sweet Charity, No, No Nanette, Chicago and more. Larry Hochman has provided a new set of orchestrations for a twelve-piece orchestra, and, as with Patina Miller and Andrea Martin, the work of the originator is not at all missed.

And for the personal Pippin in you (and Leading Player or Catherine as well), Ghostlight has included four extraordinary bonus tracks — which is to say, the full orchestral accompaniment (less vocals) to "Corner of the Sky," "Simple Joys," "Kind of Woman" and "Extraordinary." So you can close the doors and windows, and sing 'em yourself. Loudly.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

PHOTO EXCLUSIVE: A Magical Two-Show Day at Broadway's Pippin With High-Flying Acrobat Viktoria Grimmy

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Where's Viktoria?! Hehe... This is what a circus couple's place looks like!
Photo by Viktoria Grimmy