More than 40 years after Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s entrancing musical Pippin premiered on Broadway, a new, circus-inspired revival is back on the boards, starring Patina Miller as the Leading Player and Matthew James Thomas as Pippin, the young prince looking for his “corner of the sky.” Chart the journey of Pippin from Carnegie Mellon University to Broadway—and back again!
While most mid-1960s college kids were out partying or protesting, Carnegie Mellon (then Carnegie Tech) theater students Stephen Schwartz and Ron Strauss had musicals on their mind. Strauss had the idea to write a project based on the real-life story of Prince Pepin and his father, King Charlemagne. According to the legend, Pepin was encouraged by nobles to assassinate his father, and when the attempt failed, Pepin was sent to live out the rest of his life in a monastery. Schwartz, who had studied piano and composition at Juilliard while still in high school, offered to help Strauss with his new musical, and they collaborated on the double-titled Pippin, Pippin, a loose interpretation of the tale.
Pippin, Pippin premiered at the student-run theater group Scotch ‘n’ Soda on April 28, 1967. An album of the production, recorded for the cast to keep, fell into the hands of a producer named Harry Lynn. Lynn wrote a letter to the composers, asking if they’d like to pursue a professional production. “Strauss didn’t really believe in the letter and said he was moving to Oregon, but wished [Schwartz] luck,” Carol de Giere wrote in Schwartz’s biography, Defying Gravity. Schwartz shortened the title to Pippin and headed to New York City.
On the Right Track
The precocious Schwartz found quick success on Broadway with Godspell, which opened in 1971 and earned the 23-year-old composer two Grammys, as well as the English language text for Leonard Bernstein's Mass. Bernstein's agent sister Shirley reignited interest in Pippin, suggesting to Schwartz that playwright and TV writer Roger O. Hirson punch up the script.
Together, Schwartz and Hirson completely revamped the musical. “Not a note or lyric remained the same,” Schwartz said in Defying Gravity. The new score included “Glory” (inspired by “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana) and “Corner of the Sky,” a song about Pippin’s search for his life’s purpose—originally titled “Maybe You’ll Show Me.”
But it was director Hal Prince who inspired the biggest change. “[Prince] didn’t want to direct it,” Schwartz recalled. “But he said, ‘I’m more intrigued by what happens after your show ends. You should take the entire show [which ended shortly after Pippin’s assassination attempt on his father] and make it the first act, then tell the rest of the story.’ Because he was Harold Prince, naturally we took his advice.” And although Prince wasn’t interested in the new musical, Bob Fosse was.
With the legendary Fosse as director and choreographer, all Pippin needed was a cast. John Rubinstein was cast in the title role alongside future movie star Jill Clayburgh as Pippin's widowed love interest Catherine. A smaller role, The Old Man—leader of a performance troupe—proved more difficult until Fosse called in Jesus Christ Superstar alum Ben Vereen (decidedly not an old man). In Ebony magazine, Fosse noted that the role “kept growing with Ben’s ability to take anything and make it into something wonderful.” The character was changed to “The Leading Player,” and Schwartz expanded it to mimic the Emcee in Cabaret, adding a new opening number for Vereen, “Magic to Do.”
The rehearsal process wasn’t smooth sailing. Fosse and Schwartz constantly butted heads: Schwartz wanted to keep the show wholesome and whimsical, while Fosse leaned toward a more sexually charged, mysterious energy. “There were times I would see things that Bob did that I thought were vulgar and stupid and crass and simplistic and completely at odds with what I wanted the show to be,” Schwartz said. After arguing with Fosse in front of the cast, Schwartz was permanently banned from the rehearsal room.
Following a tryout in Washington D.C. Pippin opened on Broadway on October 23, 1972, to mixed reviews. “The [critical] response to the show was very annoying and hurtful to me,” Schwartz said in Defying Gravity, “Some of the things we got blamed for were things we had no control over; they were things Bob Fosse did.” Thanks to a vibrant TV spot (the first commercial ever to feature a live clip of a musical) and word of mouth, Pippin became an audience favorite and took home five Tony Awards, including a Best Actor win for Vereen. It ran for 1,944 performances, closing on June 12, 1977.
Spread a Little Sunshine
Of the thousands of fans who came to see Pippin on Broadway, one audience member was particularly moved: Hair and Porgy and Bess director Diane Paulus, who saw the production as a child. “Pippin has entered our zeitgeist over the last 40 years, and I think it’s because the music is so powerful,” Paulus told Broadway.com. “I got excited about creating a version of the show that would allow audiences to relive their memory of the original Pippin, but also introduce it to the next generation.”
The director teamed up with Gypsy Snider of Les 7 Doigts de la Main to bring a circus-inspired flavor to the show, and original Pippin dancer Chet Walker signed on to choreograph in the iconic style of Fosse. “We’ve got some surprises—I actually got some of the leading characters to get in on the circus, and that’s been so much fun,” Snider told Broadway.com. Paulus assembled a team of Broadway heavy hitters (who do their own stunts!), including Matthew James Thomas, Terrence Mann, Charlotte d’Amboise, Rachel Bay Jones, Andrea Martin and Patina Miller, who gives a spellbinding new twist to the traditionally male Leading Player.
After a sold-out pre-Broadway engagement at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Pippin began performances on March 23 at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre. With word of mouth spreading like wildfire, the imaginative new production is poised to become a Broadway hit. “Come ready and willing to run away with the circus,” Miller told Broadway.com. “This audience better get ready. You’re about to be rocked.”
Pippin is set to open on April 25 at Broadway's Music Box Theatre.