Thursday, December 3, 2020

400. PIPPIN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Ben Vereen and company.
PIPPIN [Musical/Period/Politics/Youth] B: Roger O. Hirson; M/LY: Stephen Schwartz; D/CH: Bob Fosse; S: Tony Walton; C: Patricia Zipprodt; L: Jules Fisher; P: Stuart Ostrow; T: Imperial Theatre; 10/23/72-6/12/77 (1,994)

Leland Palmer.

What follows is the 400th entry in this series, which began shortly after my reviewing gig came to a screeching, Covid-19-induced halt in March. My last review was of Girl from the North Country, seen on March 10. It was my 181st review of the season; the next two months promised a flood of new shows that would probably have taken me into the 220s. 

My life, like everyone else's, has changed radically because of the pandemic, but I have greatly enjoyed digging into the entries from my unpublished Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1970-1975, which was intended to cover the entire decade before my publisher and I decided to put it aside and start the encyclopedia project with the 1920s. Three thick volumes followed, taking the project to 1950 before circumstances out of our control forced the publisher (Greenwood Press) to bring it to a close. 

Eric Berry and company.

The 1970-1975 entries (written on a typewriter in the pre-Word days and thus lacking a digital file) lay dormant in a fading paper manuscript until the pandemic--and the existence of my blog, Theatre's Leiter Side--lit the spark that led to posting these entries on a daily basis,  As you may know, they have appeared in addition to my other columns, "Leiter Looks Back," for Theater Pizzazz, and "On This Day in New York Theater," for Theater Life. 

All of which is to say I'm happy things worked out so that #400 in the series, which includes so many clunkers, describes Pippin, a show many (although I'm sure not all) readers have enjoyed, in one version or another.

John Rubinstein and company.

By the time Pippin rang down its final curtain, nearly five years after its opening, it had climbed to a position among the dozen longest running Broadway hits of all time (twelfth on the list in June 1980); that number, of course, would be altered in later years by other, much longer-running blockbusters (think, for example, A Chorus Line, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, the revival of Chicago, and Wicked). This success came in spite of the general agreement, as Brendan Gill noted, that it was “simultaneously a great show and a poor musical.”

Roger O. Hirson’s flimsy book is about Pippin (John Rubinstein)—historically, Pepin—the callow son of Charlemagne, the great eighth-century emperor and general, here called Charles (Eric Berry). Pippin attempts to be an even greater leader by following liberal policies directly opposite to the tyrannical ones favored by his dad. He finally realizes the impossibility of his dreams and settles down to a married life of bourgeois complacency.

Ann Reinking, Ben Vereen, and unidentified.

The story is told in kind of commedia dell’arte framework, as if by a troupe of itinerant players. The actors often step out of character to make remarks about the story. Their dancing and singing Leading Player was portrayed by the gifted Ben Vereen, then at the height of his Broadway powers.

John Rubinstein and company. Ann Reinking is resting on his left leg.

The plot and characters were thought banal. Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics were accepted only on the most modestly approbatory level, such as Gill’s “not very interesting,” Harold Clurman’s “rapid,” and Henry Hewes’s “generally pleasant,” but “bland and characterless.”

Pippin’s immense success came from the sensationally creative costumes, sets, and lighting, and most particularly, the razzle dazzle show biz knowhow of director-choreographer Bob Fosse, at his peak in a year that saw him acclaimed with the three major theatre, film, and TV awards of Tony, Oscar, and Emmy. Fosse, who allegedly contributed a good deal to the book, developed the show’s conceptual approach, beefed up Vereen’s role, let the show be an openly admitted work of virtuoso theatricality, and created a series of stunning and sensual terpsichorean vaudeville-like routines that easily diverted attention from the flaws in the writing.

John Rubinstein and company.

John Rubinstein’s Pippin was “unexpectedly vulnerable and touching,” wrote Gill. Irene Ryan, as Pippin’s grandmother, stopped the show with her one number, “No Time at All” (her own time ran out when she died during the run). Vereen emerged as a major star in the role of the serpentine, derby-hatted (this was a Fosse show, after all), and bowtied Leading Player. He “moves beautifully and with infectious verve,” noted Clurman.

In the cast were such up-and-comers as Leland Palmer as Fastrada, Jill Clayburgh as Catherine, and John Mineo as "Musician." The chorus included Northern J. Calloway, who understudied the Leading Player, and future star and Fosse collaborator, Ann Reinking, who understudied Fastrada.

    Irene Ryan and company.

The show was nominated for a Tony, as were Hirson’s book and Schwartz’s score, not to mention Leland Palmer in the Best Actress, Musical, category, Ryan in the Best Supporting Actress category, and Patricia Zipprodt for her costumes. The Tony winners were Fosse for Best Director, Musical, and Best Choreographer; Vereen for Best Actor, Musical; Tony Walton for Best Scenic Designer; and Jules Fisher for Best Lighting Designer. Fosse also won an Outer Circle Award and Drama Desk Award, Rubinstein a Theatre World Award; Vereen, Walton, and Zipprodt Drama Desk Awards; and Fisher a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award.