I saw Pippin three times during its original four and a half year New York run in the 1970s. I enjoyed it thoroughly but I always thought of it as a minor musical which a major director (Bob Fosse) transformed by staging it within an inch of its life, and by casting the very young Ben Vereen in the seminal role of his career, the so-called “leading player.”
From the get go when Vereen poked his white-gloved fingers through a beaded curtain and invited us to “join us; we’ve got magic to do,” I was hooked. I remember thinking the book was sophomoric, trying hard to be witty but coming up with lines like “the fornicating I’m getting is not worth the fornicating I’m getting.” As played by Eric Berry as King Charlemagne., it got a pretty good laugh. As read by Terrence Mann in this new production at the Music Box on Broadway, it gets a roar, and deserves it.
And therein lies the answer to the hypothetical question: “If the original ran for 1944 performances, how long should the current production run?”. The answer should be “at least 3500 performances.” That’s not an impossible task in this day and age, not with Mamma Mia!, Chicago and Phantom of the Opera already way beyond that.
You see, Diane Paulus, when asked to direct this revival, has said that she agreed because one word popped into her head. The word was “Circus!” And that’s what she’s delivered. Not only via an assemblage of dancers and acrobats who bring more excitement to the stage than a multiple cannon salute, she’s hired herself a cast of actors who are adroit at playing farce, and that’s not easy to find. Too much, and things go flat. Too little, and they don’t inflate at all.
I vividly remember Ben Vereen’s supporting cast of the original — gifted actors like Mr. Berry (as the King), Leland Palmer (as Fastrada his Queen), John Rubenstein (as Pippin), Irene Ryan (as Berthe, his grandmother) and Jill Clayburgh as Catherine (his love). All of them brought talent to the stage. Mr. Rubenstein had surprised us when he showed he could sing. Leland Palmer was considered a possible successor to Gwen Verdon (she actually played a version of Ms. Verdon in “All That Jazz” directed by Mr. Fosse in 1979). Jill Clayburgh was a promising actress on her way to movie stardom, Irene Ryan, an aging character actress, was a great crowd pleaser from the TV series, “Beverly Hillbillies.”
In this production, Patina Miller, Terrence Mann, Charlotte D’Amboise, Matthew James Thomas, Rachel Bay Jones and Andrea Martin play the same roles. But now each is a clown of first rate proportions, except perhaps Mr. Thomas who is as charming a young leading man as one could possibly wish for — slim, appealing, loose-limbed, agile, whose recent run as Peter Parker in Spider Man, Turn off the Dark clearly lost him among all the scenery and harnesses and wires. But it must have limbered him up, for one kept seeing a young Dick Van Dyke wooing his Rosie in Bye Bye, Birdie, or a pretending-to-be young Ray Bolger selling us “Once in Love With Amy” in Where’s Charley?
Andrea Martin rejected her first costume as Grandma because it made her look and feel like an old lady. Grandma’s age is said to be 66. But Ms. Martin is having none of it. The costume she wears is some sort of royal robe in which she could easily pass for 50. When at one point she yanks it off, she is under dressed in a little number that reveals her shapely legs, in which she joins the acrobats for some serious frolicking up in the air. And she takes the roof off the theatre with her one solo, “No Time At All.”
Rachel Bay Jones’ approach to Pippin’s love interest is highly original too — she’s on her way to becoming Georgia Engel, the adorable soft spoken actress who knew just how to handle Ted on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show. Ms. Jones enters the story late, but she makes her presence known and contributes to the fun while managing to make us care when she shows deeper feelings in “Love Song.”
Patina Miller has the toughest job for she is the new Leading Player, and not only because she’s a woman in the role created by a man; she’s young, gorgeous, there’s not an ounce of flesh on her that isn’t smooth as silk. She’s clearly having and giving us a fine time, but I must say I wish she’d given a little less in the big wrap up number called “The Finale”. Here she took over the entire company with such energy and verve that forced charm and nuance out the window. She’s good — she’s tops all night — but if Ms. Paulus never quite got to place a firm hand on that sequence, she might just have a second look. It doesn’t detract from the overall power of Ms. Miller’s performance, but I think it bears commenting on.
And my once again complaint is that Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm, forgetting their show is in the very small Music Box, have designed a sound system that would work in Yankee Stadium. Why should folks with normal hearing have so sit through most of the score with their fingers pressed firmly in their ears? Implementation, gentleman — good. Enhancement — excellent. Distortion — bad. Please check those decibel dials or whatever they’re called now. They are excessively high.
Which brings me to Roger O. Hirson’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s score. Suddenly the book seems witty and wise and very funny all through. The score, particularly the lyrics, on closer examination, are imaginative and character driven. It’s generally known by those who were colleagues when Bob Fosse was one of the masters at staging musicals that he, like Michael Bennett, was not fond of books, and was never as comfortable directing actors as he was choreographing dancers and staging musical sequences.
Here Ms. Paulus tops him — for she’s given her fine comical cast opportunity to explore the text and play it fully. I don’t know if Mr. Hirson, who was born in 1926, has taken an active role in this production, but I certainly hope he’s been involved so that he can enjoy his book the way I’m certain he meant it to be played. It won him a Tony in 1972, but I don’t think it’s ever been fully realized until now. And again, it was always Bob Fosse’s Pippin, not Stephen Schwartz’s and it’s known as well that the two did not get along. Everyone felt Mr. Schwartz was one lucky composer to have had a genius save his little musical. If revenge is sweet, Stephen Schwartz must be awfully glad he stuck around to be part of this delicious revival which is deservedly breaking box office records at the Music Box.
Pippin is onstage at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.