Before Andrew Lloyd Webber destroyed Broadway with his tuneless operas, there was Stephen Schwartz who wrote the songs for two iconic musicals of the early 1970s: Godspell and Pippin. Then he more or less disappeared from Broadway until 2003 when it seemed he shocked the theater world with Wicked. Apparently, the audiences were impressed to learn that songs could be crafted that were memorable. I should be clear, though. I think Schwartz is a great songwriter. But it’s not like he’s always on. There is such a tendency for musical comedy songwriters to write for more than they should. That’s especially true of Webber, who really is a major talent but who has been doing little more than grinding out scores for two decades now.
Two years after Pippin, Schwartz wrote the music to The Magic Show, which was incredibly weak. And frankly, since then his work is mostly that kind of banal songwriting that we’ve come to know and hate from otherwise talented people like Randy Newman and Elton John. But all the cylinders were firing on those first two plays. And so I was pleased to see an add for a new production of Pippin.
The ad came on before a YouTube video. It was one of those things where you have to wait 5 seconds before you can skip it. And I almost did. I could hear “Magic To Do” playing, but that’s a song that is used for all kinds of things. It looked like it was being used for a circus. And that’s why I continued to watch, even though the commercial was slated to be over two minutes long. You see, Pippin is quite cleverly structured by Roger O. Hirson not as a story about Pippin but as a story of a group of actors performing a play about Pippin. It seems pretty clearly to be an homage to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And just as in that play, it becomes a postmodern mess at the end. The difference is that Pippin is an entertainment and so all ends well. Stoppard’s play never clearly delineates what is supposed to be reality. (The movie version is more clear.)
The original production of Pippin had all this as subtext, with musicians and juggler and such. But this production takes this aspect to the extreme. Check out the video below. There are a few things that stand out. One is that we have Andrea Martin playing the original Irene Ryan part as Pippin’s grandmother. (Ryan died while in the cast.) Another is that this production has a woman as the Leading Player. And they do a great thing with hoops that recreates the original banner that is above. (Maybe they did that in the original; I never saw it; I was only 8 and I lived in California.)
On the other hand, there is something about all Broadway productions that bugs me. I would like to see this production because I love the book and songs. And it includes all the parts of a circus that I like. (What I like: everything but the clowns.) But there is a sense that theater tries too hard to be video. I saw a rock concert recently (I just noticed that I’ve forgotten to write about it!) and with all the effects and video screens and cameras, I thought it was a joke. In that case, I would rather sit in some bar listening to a guy with an acoustic guitar. And when it comes to theater, in general, I would prefer if the production would embrace its limitations. Because I think there are things you can only do live. For example, the one person show doesn’t really work on screen. There is something intimate that cannot be otherwise be recreated. And I think there are great untapped opportunities in the art form if only producers would try.
But Pippin was never supposed to be anything but an entertainment. What’s more, I understand the appeal of a production like Cirque du Soleil. And it looks like this production provides this—along with a number of catchy tunes and a very sweet story.