Making Magic on Broadway

By Marc Williams

The Tony Awards are Broadway theatre’s version of an Oscar, recognizing the highest levels of achievement in commercial theatre. This year’s nominees include a revival of Pippin, a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1972 and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since that original production.

Pippin poster

Pippin was conceived by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is best known Godspell and, more recently, the Broadway mega-hit Wicked. Schwartz began working on Pippin as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and after achieving a seemingly overnight success with Godspell in 1971, the 23-year old Schwartz and his collaborator, Roger O. Hirson, were able to find a producer willing to put Pippin on Broadway.

Like Schwartz’ earlier hit Godspell, Pippin had great popular appeal. The scores to these musicals contain pop/rock songs that became crossover hits on top-40 radio. The original Off-Broadway cast recording of Godspell’sDay By Day” climbed to the #13 position on the Billboard Top Singles chart, while songs from Pippin were recorded by the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson (solo), the Supremes, and Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. On stage, Pippin was a bona fide Broadway hit, running over 1900 performances–one of the longest runs in Broadway history. An interesting side note to Pippin’s successful run was its very effective marketing campaign; Pippin was the first Broadway musical to use clips from the production on a television advertisement. The famous “Manson Trio” dance number was featured in this minute-long television commercial that is credited for generating much of the musical’s early ticket sales (pardon the water mark):

Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in Bob Fosse’s 1972 production of Pippin.

While Pippin enjoyed popular success, the script and score were not embraced by the influential New York critics. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes called Pippin a “trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills.” He similarly wrote of Schwartz’s score, “It is a commonplace set to rock music, and I must say I found most of music somewhat characterless.” However, Barnes praised the production as a whole, noting its inventive staging and choreography, the work of the stage designers, and the triumphant performance by Ben Vereen as the Leading Player.

Bob Fosse.

Barnes and other critics took notice of Bob Fosse’s work in particular, which deemphasized the script’s naïve and passive title character and focused on the dark, dangerous agenda of the musical’s ringmaster, Vereen’s Leading Player.

Stephen Schwartz.

Rather than Schwartz’ story of a young man’s search for fulfillment, Fosse viewed Pippin’s plot as the story of a young man being seduced into self-destruction. In an effort to support the theme of seduction, the production visually evoked burlesque and carnival performance, highlighting themes of sexual exploration and discovery. The 24-year old Schwartz, whose musical influences were more James Taylor and less Jimi Hendrix, perhaps had not imagined his musical with such a seedy underbelly and as a result, the rehearsals for Pippin were famously contentious, with Fosse, Schwartz, and Hirson battling for control of the production’s tone. Eventually, Fosse banned Schwartz and Hirson from attending rehearsals!

Some criticism of Schwartz and Hirson’s work is warranted. The story is fragmented and the central action unclear. The musical’s original ending is among the most jarring and dissatisfying endings one is likely to find in a musical. Structurally, Pippin is incomplete and any production of Pippin seems to require additional directorial focus in order to hold the entire script and score together into a cohesive evening of theatre. Fosse seemingly knew this, and his work earned him a Tony Award in 1973 for Best Director of a Musical; Fosse also won a Tony Award for his iconic Pippin choreography.

Diane Paulus

Forty years after Fosse’s original production, a new production opened on Broadway April 25, 2013. Directed by Diane Paulus, the new production has been called a “natural extension” of Fosse’s, a Pippin for a 21st century audience. If Fosse’s production was suggestive, Paulus’ production seems to opt for excess. Fosse’s dancing ensemble, for instance, was conceived as a group of traveling burlesque clowns. Paulus’ vision for these traveling players is less burlesque, more Cirque du Soleil. In fact, Paulus’ production employs a troupe of Canadian acrobats that creates a sense of grand spectacle throughout the show. If Fosse’s production is a story of seduction, Paulus’ production seems a story of astonishment. Here is a glimpse of Paulus’ new production:

Much has changed on Broadway since Fosse’s Pippin opened in 1972. The 1980’s was an era of musical spectacles, lavish musicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon that boasted some of the most eye-popping visual effects ever seen on stage. More recent musicals like Wicked and

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark have continued that tradition into the 21st century. In my BLS course, Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss musical spectacles and how 21st century audiences have come to expect a certain degree of “eye appeal” at a Broadway musical. With many of these musical spectacles, the stage designs are frankly more impressive than the scripts the designs are attempting to support. Some of these productions could be called “style without substance,” in spite of their commercial success. In the case of Paulus’ Pippin, it seems the director is using the fad of musical spectacles not to distract from the script’s flaws but rather to enhance the script’s central action and deliver a story about amazement to an audience that demands to be amazed. Given the positive reviews and ten Tony Award nominations Paulus’ production received, one wonders if Pippin is poised to be a Broadway hit yet again.

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An interesting “Making of…” feature published on the New York Times’ website, demonstrating how Paulus and her collaborators conceptualized Pippin’s famous opening number, “Magic to Do.”

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