Pippin Takes Shape at A.R.T.
by Larry Murray
Just in time for Cyber Monday, we are pleased to share information on half price tickets to Pippin, the new musical at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. To access these tickets at super savings, use this link and sign in with your email Click me
American Repertory Theatre’s new production of Pippin has some real excitement as rehearsals begin, including a top notch cast that is already Broadway tested. And there are fingers crossed all over Harvard Square that it may get to the Great White Way after the Loeb. While no mention of it is coming from ART, there are whispers and a trail of quotes in the theatre media. Since I have had a bit of an obsession with this show (it has perplexed me for decades) I have watched it more closely than most. I never could figure out its great popularity.
Pippin is not a bad show, but neither is it on anyone’s top ten list of the greatest musicals of all time. So lots of near-great musicals still get done all the time. Pippin is just a so-so entry into the musical theatre sweepstakes.And it is not an all-time flop like Carrie or Via Galactica with its trampolines to simulate moon walking.
Still, Pippin holds the record as the 39th longest running show on Broadway, and Ben Vareen won a Tony, while the show failed to garner best musical in 1973.
And I certainly loved elements of the Stephen Schwartz musical which I first saw in 1972 on Broadway starring the sensational Ben Vareen, like Fosse’s floating hands which opened the first act. You can still see them on You Tube. I had scored a seat in the front row, close enough for Vareen to kick me in the shins as he sat on the lip of the stage singing. With such intimacy, I came to adore Vareen but found the show a bit vague, too allegorical, too Godspell, if you will. Lots of sizzle but no steak. Most of all, I hated its blah ending. Twice since then I have returned to the show and basically had the same reaction, sans Vareen. Nice music and dancing, but the story line? Contrived.
The UK vs the US
So last year when Schwartz let out that notion that there were two revivals of Pippin in the works, one in the UK at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London in 2011, the other in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2012, he suggested it was like a contest and he would pick the best version for a Broadway run in 2012-13. Well, the Menier folks chose to change the setting from the middle ages where Pippin and his father Charlemagne clash, into a simulated video game. The production flopped with most of the critics, to put it mildly. Both companies have said they would use Bob Fosse’s original choreography, but this was not one of his stronger efforts, despite the lovely floating hands. In London they added robot like jerky movements which didn’t read well as either a digital simulation or classic Fosse. The set design was lackluster projections on concrete walls. The story – which is a stretch to begin with – simply did not read well to the audience and so never transferred to the West End, much less Broadway.
Another regional production of Pippin ran in Kansas City last month, but it was no contender. The score was adapted to reflect a punk-rock style by Curtis Moore and featured Broadway performer Mary Testa.
But now enter Diane Paulus who probably has the best sense of contemporary musicals of any living theatre person. In the rehearsals which have already begun she is utilizing circus elements and the same original Fosse choreography, but with a difference which has set up some interesting speculation.
And what does Schwartz think of all this? Schwartz told the NYT: “I found it to be a fascinating concept, even if I have no idea if it will be workable or not. Just as the original ‘Pippin’ dealt with concerns of a young man coming of age at that time, this idea seemed to bring the enactment story into the present day without undercutting the tale that takes place around 800 A.D. The idea actually required very little change, just a couple of words here and there. It felt like it was worth a shot.”
He continued, “If it works out, the Chocolate Factory will make its own determination about the future of the show. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ve told Diane and Barry that if they’re still interested, we’ll pursue a ‘Pippin’ with them. There’s no bad blood. Everyone seems in agreement with just seeing what happens.”
London didn’t work out so ART is moving ahead. Collaborating with Les 7 Doigts de la Main whose latest show Traces was seen on America’s Got Talent, and which regularly appears as part of Arts Emerson in downtown Boston, the circus concept is alive and well. Gypsy Snider of that company is doing the circus choreography, while Chet Walker is revising the dance elements “in the style of Bob Fosse.”
Says Paulus on her concept: “Ms. Sniders acrobatic death-defying feats interwoven with the classic Fosse will give the show a unique physical life that evokes the musicals central musical question: how far is each of us willing to go in order to be extraordinary?”
It is hoped that this will result in a bold new staging of the dark and existential musical in a new light. Pippin, on a death-defying journey to find his “corner of the sky,” must choose between a life that’s ordinary or a flash of singular glory.
Paulus has my interest aroused with just her conceptual plans. Now on to the details.
The cast is led by Matthew James Thomas as Pippin, with Erik Altemus as Lewis, Andrew Cekala as Theo, Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada, Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine, Terrence Mann as King Charles, Andrea Martin as Berthe, and Patina Miller as the Leading Player. Other members of the company include Gregory Arsenal, Stephanie Pope Caffey, Lolita Costet, Colin Cunliffe, Andrew Fitch, Orion Griffiths, Viktoria Grimmy, Olga Karmansky, Bethany Moore, Phlip Rosenberg, Yannick Thomas, Molly Tynes, and Anthony Wayne.
As mentioned earlier, Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s beloved coming-of-age musical is directed by Diane Paulus with circus choreography by Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 doigts de la main (also known as 7 Fingers) and choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse. Set design is by Tony Award-winning designer Scott Pask, costume design by Dominique Lemieux, lighting design by Tony Award-winning designer Kenneth Posner, and sound design by Tony winner and A.R.T. Resident Sound Designer Clive Goodwin. Orchestration is by Tony Award-winner Larry Hochman, Music Supervision by Nadia Di Giallonardo, and the Music Director is Charlie Alterman.
Royal heir Pippin is spurred on by a mysterious group of performers to embark on a death-defying journey to find his “corner of the sky.” The original production of Pippin, directed by Bob Fosse, premiered on Broadway in 1972. It won nine Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards, and ran for close to 2000 performances before closing in 1977. Pippin has become a staple of the American Musical canon, noted for many memorable songs including Corner of the Sky, Magic To Do, l Guess I’ll Miss The Man, Glory, No Time at All, Morning Glow, and Love Song.
The ART Continues Under Paulus
The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University is dedicated to expanding the boundaries of theater. Winner of the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival for its production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the A.R.T. is a leading force in the American theater, producing groundbreaking work in Cambridge and beyond. The A.R.T. was founded in 1980 by Robert Brustein, who served as Artistic Director until 2002, when he was succeeded by Robert Woodruff. In 2008, Diane Paulus became the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director. The A.R.T. is the recipient of numerous other awards including the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, the Pulitzer Prize, and many Elliot Norton and I.R.N.E. Awards. Its recent premiere production of Death and The Powers: The Robots’ Opera was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Dates and Remaining Tickets
Previews begin at the Loeb Drama Center (64 Brattle Street, Cambridge) on December 5, with press opening on January 3, and running through January 20, 2013. Tickets have been on sale for a while and getting scarce which is why we are running this story so early. If you want to see this show, don’t delay, it will be a complete sell out before it even opens. Plan ahead if you want to see it. For tickets go the A.R.T. site and order. DO NOT use a ticket broker. For further information call 617-547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheater.org