∞ musical numbers: On the Right Track from Pippin; music and lyrics by Steven Schwartz
If there’s a song that defines Pippin, apart from its bookends “Magic to Do” and “Finale”, it is the act 2 opener and bona fide showstopper “On the Right Track”. The Leading Player and Pippin sing an intricate, dazzling, twisted duet, Pippin oblivious to the obvious manipulation he is falling to at the hands of his great and powerful leader. It’s just the two of them on stage, everything in their dark sub-reality stripped down to the raw and primal basic communication of their two voices and bodies acting and reacting. In this exploration of the show’s key concepts, the Leading Player plays Pippin like a fiddle. He is the puppet to the Player’s sick plan. It’s not certain what the plan is, but it’s that mystery of the unknown that helps to give this show its essential twist. It is like witnessing a cat-and-mouse seduction game, compelling and telling, light and shadow, drawing Pippin and the audience in like moths to a burning flame. Unlike Pippin, we sense something is wrong but follow anyway into the unknown, our hearts running away with the circus behind the wizard. We are tantalised and intrigued and hypnotised and golden.
It is so telling that the revival uses no circus elements in this number. But of course it doesn’t. The number is elemental, basic, and a complete action of character and theme portrayed so perfectly through movement and performance that it calls for nothing more. It is so completely a part of the 1970s Broadway style of stripped-down, intimate and slinky staging, embellished with side-eyed cynicism and ambiguous morality, that “On the Right Track” may even define the aesthetic. Pippin was known during its original run to be one of the most innovative shows of its time, and this is one of the most innovatively conceived numbers in the show. In Pippin’s 2013 re-incarnation, the innovative nature of this number remains as it was like from a time capsule re-presented but still relevant. Fosse’s choreography and direction fuse with character and performer to create harmony, as the two characters develop their synchronisity with one another . This and the song’s pop appeal are strong points, although it’s hard to listen to the song itself without seeing the travelling movements of Pippin and the Leading Player in the mind’s eye. Once witnessed, the visuals are inseparable from the sounds and feelings of this unique experience. It’s theatre at its most essential level.
It is only in these pure moments in theatre that the performer, material, and audience can be at one - and here, there’s such joy in it. The fluid movement around the stage is like a journey through stages of life, and it is delivered with so much life and humour. There’s a spontaneity to the vocal punctuations and sly glances and grins interwoven into the number, which breathes a kind of reality to the show’s other-worldly magic. The leader is working their magic, and Pippin is basking in it. The minimalist style of the number naturally allows its two performers to do what they do best, and to enjoy it. Such simplicity and such humanity may pose and answer to the question of what theatre is essentially about. A connection between performers and between them and the audience is allowed to shine through, as is genuine talent. A raw reflection of the human experience through its primal exploration of Pippin’s concept, “On the Right Track” is at the show’s cold and shrivelled heart, circulating its brilliance throughout it all.