An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 30, 2013

Diane Paulus, dir., Pippin

Pippin directed for the American Repertory Theater by Diane Paulus with scenic design by Scott Pask, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, costume design by Dominque Lemieux, sound design by Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm, orchestrations by Larry Hochman, and choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse” by Chet Walker.

Starring Patina Miller (Leading Player), Charlotte d’Amboise (Fastrada), Andrea Martin (Berthe), Erik Altemus (Lewis), Terrence Mann (Charlemagne), Martin James Thomas (Pippin), Rachel Bay Jones (Catherine), and Andrew Cekala and Ashton Woerz (Theo). 

Review of the April 26, 2013 matinee performance, by Kevin J. Harty (

Pippin comes to Broadway by way of Cambridge, Mass., where the production was first developed for the American Repertory Theater and ran from December 5, 2012, to January 20, 2013.  The Broadway production opened on April 25 at The Music Box on West 45th Street.  Both the Cambridge and New York productions were directed by Diane Paulus, known for her previous Broadway revivals of Hair (originally for the Public Theatre in Central Park) and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

The original Broadway production of Pippin, directed by Bob Fosse (who also choreographed and contributed to the libretto) with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, ran for almost 2000 performances from 1972 to 1977 and spawned a several-year long road tour.  The Fosse production garnered eleven Tony nominations (winning five) and five Drama Desk nominations (winning them all), and launched Ben Vereen’s stage career as he won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for the role of the Leading Player.  A 1973 London transfer ran, however, for fewer than 90 performances.  

Subsequently, Pippin was licensed for production only in a highly sanitized version, and became a staple on the high school and community theater circuits.  The musical was revived for a signed production in Los Angeles in 2009.  A 2011 production in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory reimagined the musical as a video game—the critics were less tolerant of this remake than I was, though the production couldn’t hold a candle to several of the Menier’s previous musical revivals, which transferred to the West End and eventually to Broadway.  A 2012 production in Kansas City turned Pippin into a rock opera.

Pippin tells, with the aid of song and dance, the story of Charlemagne’s son, the eponymous hero, who returns home to court from college in Italy and tries to find himself.  (Historically, Charlemagne’s eldest son was Pépin, or Pippin, le Bossu, “the Hunchback,” who was disinherited by his father after leading a revolt against him and who died in exile as a monk.)  The musical presents a play within a play, as a troupe of actors under the guidance of the Leading Player arrive to put on a magical miracle-mystery play in a circus tent about Pippin’s travails while he searches for meaning and happiness.  

The plot itself is hardly original—a young gifted lad sets out on an adventure to discover the meaning of life—think Candide or Peer Gynt (very) light.  Pippin tries warfare, religion, reform-minded politics, and, of course, sex, but all lead nowhere.  His step-mother Fastrada schemes to replace him as heir to the throne with her dim-witted, muscle-bound hunk of a son, Lewis—in a plot line that eventually evaporates.  A bit of regi-patricide at the end of act one gets Pippin nowhere, and is easily undone thanks to some stage magic by the Leading Player  at the beginning of the second.  

Finally, Pippin does find happiness in the arms of a good widow, Catherine, and resigns himself to finding the extraordinary in the plainly ordinary to the disgust of the Leading Player, who in a moment of pique and further metadrama calls a halt to the production, tells the troupe to strike the set, dismisses the orchestra, and leaves Pippin and spouse and her young son, Theo, alone in the dark on the stage.

The current production, which marries Fosse’s choreography with the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, offers up an alternate ending. After Pippin and the widow Catherine leave the stage, her son Theo returns to sing a solo that reinvigorates the Leading Player and the troupe of actors, seemingly to begin the play again, and to continue, in the process, the show’s quest for meaning in life.

Paulus’s production has some other notable variations.  In a decidedly sinister instance of gender bending, Vereen’s playful, albeit oleaginous, huckster of a magister ludi becomes Patina Miller’s almost Mephistophelian Leading Player.  The stage antics of the acting troupe are enhanced by the addition of illusions by Paul Kieve and a series of jaw-dropping circus acts created by Gypsy Snider and performed by the Montréal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main.  The most notable of these is a leggy and wonderfully over-the top acrobatic sing-along performance of “No Time at All” by the estimable Andrea Martin as Pippin’s sympathetic grandmother, Berthe, which would do an actor half her age proud.

In the original Broadway production, John Rubenstein’s Pippin was almost Hamlet-like in his indecisiveness.  Here Matthew James Thomas’s Pippin has all the poutiness and frowns of a millennial slacker.  The book’s thinness becomes especially apparent in the second act—the musical can be performed in one act, so the decision as to where to insert an intermission is at times tricky.  Much of the plays oomph and its best staging are foregrounded in the first act, and the account of Pippin’s travels and travails more than drags on and on  in the second act. This production doesn’t quite jump the shark in the second act, but it does offer up a dead duck, a live dog, and an almost-fiery faux ending to keep going.

We have never exactly been inundated with medieval stage musicals—or straight plays, for that matter.  Opera has always been more hospitable to the medieval. Twang!!, a 1965 send-up of the Robin Hood legend with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart,  and a book by Bart, Harvey Orkin and Burt Shevelove, went through several directors before opening in London, received what might charitably be called scathing reviews, closed in less than a month, and cost Bart a fortune, both in terms of his career and of his wallet—according to the review of the original production in the Montréal Gazette, Twang!! was, at the time, “the most expensive flop ever presented” in London (2 April 1966).

Goodtime Charley, with a book by Sidney Michaels, music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Hal Hackady, offered a less-than-reverential take on Joan of Arc and was intended as a star-vehicle for Joel Grey as the Dauphin and Ann Reinking as the Maid of Orléans.  The musical opened in Boston in early 1975 to tepid reviews and with an ungodly running time of more than three and a half hours (it seemed much, much, much longer when I sat through a preview)—subsequent cuts for the Philadelphia tryouts reduced the running time to 90 minutes and garnered better reviews.  That trimmed-down production subsequently moved to Broadway in March 1975, proved a hit earning seven Tony and seven Drama Desk nominations (although winning none), but was forced to close after fewer than 120 performances because the leads had previous theatrical commitments they had to meet, and no “name” stars could be found to replace them.  Charley has never been fully revived, though there have been occasional one-off staged performances for the benefit of a variety of charities.

King Arthur has fared slightly better than Robin or Joan. Camelot, a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) adapted from the T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, opened on Broadway under the direction of Moss Hart in 1960, ran for almost 900 performances, won four Tony Awards, inspired a 1967 film and a 1982 HBO made-for-television version, and has been the subject of numerous foreign productions and revivals (notably a 2010 production by Providence’s Trinity Rep set in an underground station during the Blitz), and continues to have a life as yet another staple for high schools and community theaters. 

Monty Python's Spamalot is a 2005 send-up of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, itself a send-up of the Arthurian legend and the seriousness with which it is treated in academic and other circles.  The original stage production, directed by Mike Nichols, was nominated for fourteen and won three Tony Awards, including that for Best Musical.  That production ran on Broadway, after an extended preview in Chicago in 2004, for over 1,500 performances, toured the world, played to packed houses for two years on the Las Vegas Strip in a 90-minute one-act version, and has now become a fixture on the bus-and-truck circuit.

Pippin falls somewhere in the middle of these stage musicals.  While markedly better than either Twang!! or Charley, Pippin clearly doesn’t quite have the staying power of either Camelot or Spamalot.  Nonetheless, as Paulus’s production hints every once in a while, there is currently “magic” to be found under the big top tent on the stage of The Music Box Theatre on Broadway, and maybe, just maybe, Pippin deserves still more attention and additional productions to determine just how “extraordinary” it might just be.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University, Philadelphia