Award-winning revival of 'Pippin' heads to Baltimore

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The circus is coming to town, sort of. It's the distinctive revival of the 1972 hit musical "Pippin."

Last week, an idealistic young man went on an eventful, musically vivid journey on a Baltimore stage. This week, another idealistic young man is about to do the same.

The first hero, the title character in the brilliant 1956 Leonard Bernstein musical "Candide" that received a terrific presentation by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, decides in the end that he can't change the world. But he can find contentment with a family and simple values.

The second hero, the princely title character of the 1972 musical "Pippin," will reach more or less the same conclusion in the highly colorful, multiple-Tony Award-winning revival of the show that reaches the Hippodrome Theatre on Tuesday.

Both works tap into age-old questions and aspirations.

"There is still a yearning for what to do with our lives, a collective yearning for institutions we can believe in, and a time that makes sense," says Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist of "Pippin" and the more recent mega-hit "Wicked."

Very loosely based on the historic Pepin, the rebellious son of the ninth-century King Charles (aka Charlemagne), the character in the musical is on a mission: "So many men seem destined to settle for something small," Pippin sings. "But I won't rest until I know I'll have it all."

He goes through any number of experiences during this quest to find his "corner of the sky" — war and revolution; a fling with (temporary) fratricide; and lots of meaningless physical relationships. Meeting a widow with a farm and a young son unexpectedly turns Pippin's head around.

"How far do we have to go in our lives to prove we're extraordinary? That's a question at the heart of 'Pippin,'" says Diane Paulus, who won a 2013 Tony for her direction of the show's revival, which puts a distinctive, circus-based layer over the original. "It's a theme particularly pertinent to our lives today, considering how intensely we push ourselves to prove how great we are."

John Rubinstein, the versatile veteran actor who originated the role of Pippin and now portrays the king in the national touring production, finds lasting appeal in the musical's ultimate message.

"There is as much glory and extraordinariness and excitement in family as there is in being a warrior, or a sex champion, or a politician who changes the running of the country," Rubinstein says. "You can invest your full self in loving your wife and children, in being a generous and less selfish soul."

Such a message fit neatly into the world when "Pippin" first hit Broadway with a cast that included Irene Ryan (famed as Granny on the sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies") and Ben Vereen, directed and choreographed by the now-certified theater legend Bob Fosse. Finding oneself and carpe-diem-ing were very much a part of the early-1970s mindset.

This musical, with a book by Roger O. Hirson, also owed something to a contentious aspect of the times.

"It comes out of the cynicism and trauma of the Vietnam War, which was such a culture-wide, omnipresent issue then," Paulus says.

That war was very much on the mind of a 26-year-old actor when he made his Broadway debut in "Pippin."

"Everyone watched the Vietnam War on the three TV networks every night as we ate our roast beef sandwiches," says Rubinstein, now 68. "There would be the [tallies] of the dead and wounded — always more Viet Cong than Americans. We heard that every single day for years, like the way we hear about the weather now. And there was the draft; I had to worry about that."

Early in the musical, Pippin returns from school to his father's court, where war is in the air. He joins Charlemagne's army to the tongue-in-cheek strains of a jazzy song-and-dance rouser, "Glory."

"When we came strutting on the stage and turned war into a sort of sexy, hideous ballet," Rubinstein says of the original production, "it was a very pointed, chilling moment for the audience."

That number feels different to Rubinstein in the revival.

"Nowadays, we're, of course, tragically still at war," he says. "This country loves to be at war because so many people make money off of it. But the powers-that-be decided to keep it off TV this time … and the country can go on about its business. So when we now strut in on the stage, ['Glory'] gets a laugh, but it doesn't get into the hearts of the public as much. [This production] is more about entertainment."

Schwartz offers a different take.

"I'm not sure I entirely agree with John," the composer/lyricist says. "'Pippin' was always an entertainment. But I worked with Roger Hirson to strengthen the story [for the revival], and it seems to have more kick and weight to it now. I don't think it has lost depth. On the contrary, I think it has more. But I do agree it's not quite as dark as [Fosse's] take on it."

"Pippin" has an unusual framework that involves a troupe of actors and its Leading Player (the part won Vereen a Tony), who serves as a kind of master of ceremonies, engaging the audience and setting the scenes for the tale of the unsettled prince. There's something a little shifty, even diabolical, about that figure.

"I was 24 when the production opened," says Schwartz, now 67, "and my point of view was very much Pippin's then. But [Fosse's] point of view was Leading Player's. A darkness, a certain cynicism was something he brought to [the work]. I wasn't entirely prepared for that back in the day. The tension between us is the same kind of tension that exists in the show. But now I see a great deal more from his perspective."

Rubinstein's viewpoint is different, too.

"Revisiting this play after a generation or two, my perspective has changed," the actor says. "It's complicated for me, and very personal, obviously. There are moments when I think, 'We did that differently.' Somewhere, I'm still Pippin, and that sort of proprietary feeling is not necessarily a good thing."

Being in the father role makes a major change for the actor, too. When Rubinstein had the role of Pippin, he could relate to the character in an unusually personal way. The actor's father was Arthur Rubinstein, one of the 20th century's greatest pianists.

"We had moments exactly like in the beginning of 'Pippin,' when Pippin wants to tell Charles all about his experiences at college," Rubinstein says. "Charles is happy to see him but only cares about war. I remember coming home from school, and my father would ask me how it was going. I would start talking about a class I had and, midsentence, he would change the subject. That definitely informs how I do the role."

(Rubinstein's parents saw him in "Pippin" on Broadway, "but about the actual show I don't think my father said a word," he says. "My mother came backstage and said, 'You certainly can jump high.' But they were proud of me.")

In addition to having something of his father in mind, Rubinstein says he is also inspired by the "old classic British sound" of the late Eric Berry, who created the role of Charles. Rubinstein's Pippin is Sam Lips, who understudied the role on Broadway.

Sasha Allen, a finalist on NBC's "The Voice," is the Leading Player in the touring company. And Adrienne Barbeau, who was in the original "Grease" on Broadway and played Bea Arthur's daughter on the sitcom "Maude," has the role of Pippin's grandmother, Berthe (played by Ryan in 1972).

The first "Pippin" was perhaps best known for Fosse's direction and choreography. That may be one reason why it took four decades to get the show back on Broadway.

"The original production had such an impact in the '70s," Paulus says. "The question for any revival is: How do you pay homage to the original? I was pretty clear that I wanted to [reference] the Fosse choreography, because it was inextricably linked to people's memories of 'Pippin,' but I did not want this to be a museum-like replica."

Paulus, who saw the original three times when she was a girl and learned every note of the original cast recording, devised a concept that ended up transforming the show.

"I knew I had to identify who the troupe of players was," she says. "That was the key."

Paulus hit upon the idea of making them circus performers. She was inspired by the work of Gypsy Snider and the Montreal-based company Snider helped to found, Les 7 doigts de la main, which has developed a circus style Paulus describes as "very human and powerful and visceral."

As Paulus got deeper into the project, she found reassurance that she was on the right track.

"Our choreographer [Chet Walker] had worked with Bob Fosse and told me that Bob was fascinated with the circus," Paulus says. "The show's original logo looks like a circus image. And there was some juggling and pantomiming of swallowing swords in the original production. But Fosse didn't go deeply into that."

Paulus takes the plunge, adding vivid circus acts throughout "Pippin."

"Running away with the circus is a popular metaphor," she says. "What does it mean to have a dream like that? Pippin thinks you've got to live it all to understand it. That means a lot of choices, a lot of ups and downs. When you're in your 40s, like me, you're always musing on the choices you made."

Over the years, Schwartz and Hirson made several choices to pass on possible revivals of "Pippin" proposed by various people.

"None of their ideas made that much sense to us," Schwartz says. "At first, I didn't get what Diane was talking about, either, to be honest about it. But when I understood her concept, I enjoyed it enormously. I love this production. I'm so happy with what Diane did, and I loved working with her. The process wasn't all that much fun the first time around."

The future for "Pippin" may include a movie version. ("There is talk," Schwartz says, "but it needs considerable adaptation.") Meanwhile, the Paulus-guided revival will continue crossing the country on tour.

"Diane has this amazing mind," Rubinstein says. "She's a theatrical wizard, really. The metaphorical and physical nature of her concept works so beautifully. When I first saw it, I was thinking, 'They're not listening to the lyrics, they're not paying attention to the journey of Pippin.' But I've changed my mind. I love it now. And I think audiences really do follow that journey."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

"Pippin" opens Tuesday and runs through nexy Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $125. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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