theatre: pippin

Human rationality, to Hegel, is not a faculty possessed by human beings, like sensibility or the imagination, which they exercise in isolation as monadic units. He thinks of rationality as the considerations we offer each other when our actions affect what others would otherwise be able to do. Rationality is a social practice and it has a history, as do the elements connected with it, such as the concept of subject or agent.
—  Robert Pippin

∞ 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.

I had had these two enormous hits [“Godspell” and “Pippin”], during one of which I was in conflict with a Broadway darling [director-choreographer Bob Fosse], and then I had followed this up with another great big hit [“The Magic Show”] that people felt artistically did not deserve to be a hit. I felt like I had crashed this party that nobody wanted me to be at and that I had come in and had eaten too much of the food and had too much to drink. …

“It just felt clear to me that the New York theatre establishment saw me as an untalented upstart who had no business to be part of their club. When "Working” took a nose dive [in 1978], I started thinking, these are smart people, maybe they’re right – maybe I’m no good. … I felt like I had tried really, really hard and I didn’t achieve my goals. …

“I didn’t really do anything for three years. I took three years off. I didn’t see a single Broadway play between 1978 and 1981. I refused to go to the theatre. …

"When "Rags” failed [in 1986], I quit Broadway, but said, okay, I’ll try London. When that didn’t work [in 1991], I gave up. I thought to myself, I’m one of those guys who had a little flash of success at the beginning, sort of like being slightly more than a one-hit wonder, but it’s over for me, and nothing is ever going to work again.


Stephen Schwartz
Composer-Lyricist of “Wicked,” one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. (The above quotes come from various places in the excellent book Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz)


Anyone here who feels discouraged or wants to give up on something remember Stephen Schwartz. After several hits in the early 1970s Schwartz had flop after flop for years and wouldn’t have another hit on Broadway until 2003 with Wicked (that’s a 29-year gap!).

In 1986 he wrote out a vow in front of Annie composer Charles Strouse never to work in a commercial Broadway venue again. And by 1991 Schwartz was so discouraged that he quit songwriting entirely and was enrolled in a graduate program at New York University to train for a new career.

Imagine if he had actually kept to either of those resolutions! We would never have had Wicked, not to mention all his work in Hollywood.

Now what are the rest of us giving up on too soon?

5 Musicals to Watch Right Now

*This was originally a freelance project for a specific name but the dates got messed up and it never got posted. Enjoy Tumblors!

NBC has announced that it plans on airing another live musical event in 2014, perhaps in hopes of satisfying those underwhelmed by this month’s production of The Sound of Music. Fortunately if you’re a fan of the multi-camera Broadway-style musical you’re in luck, as some of the greatest Broadway experiences exist in their entirety online! So congrats on scoring orchestra level seats that double as your couch, because here are some full-length musicals that nailed the whole live-broadcast thing.

Company by Stephen Sondheim; starring Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Patti LuPone, Christina Hendricks, etc.

Company is a classic. Robert is a single man surrounded by lovers— his friends, his parents, acquaintances new and old. NPH brings amazing insecurity to Robert as his family pleads with him to settle down and take a relationship seriously, an idea that he finds complex and confusing even if nobody else thinks so. The last number is just tear-jerking and remains a timeless golden nugget within American musical archives. Bonus points for Stephen Colbert in a turtleneck and Joan Holloway-Harris looking happy for once.

Highlights: “Marry Me a Little” at 1:18:50—the lyrics are pretty much the most perfect modern-day wedding vows.

Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim; starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury

Ah, yes, the musical about quiet cannibalism and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, back with a vengeance. Sweeney Todd has seen numerous resurrections, the most famous of which is Tim Burton’s version of the sordid tale. Benjamin Barker is a barber who lives a happy life with his dream woman and baby girl until he is summoned away by a jealous town judge. Upon returning to his former life, Barker finds his wife dead, his daughter adopted and mistreated, and, luckily for us, a new friendship with the odd baker woman who works out of the shop below his own. The newly named Sweeney and an enamored Mrs. Lovett get revenge the only way they know how—with a twist ending that is to die for.

Highlights: the darkly-funny “A Little Priest” at 1:13:00 is the first time we see Sweeney smile and it is too sinister for words.

PIPPIN by Stephen Schwartz & Roger O. Hirson, choreography and direction by Bob Fosse; starring Ben Vereen and William Katt

Stephen Schwartz is beloved by most people without them even knowing it. Only the man behind the legendary music of Wicked, The Prince of Egypt and Enchanted could be responsible for Pippin, the entertaining and disturbing story of a young man seeking fulfillment in his life—whatever that may mean. Pippin’s story is told by a troupe of traveling performers including a brand new “Pippin” every night, so if the performers and their Leading Player are a bit manipulative and dangerously persuasive of their newest member, what are we to do but just sit and watch? This Canadian taping with most of the Broadway original cast demands your full attention and will earn it in seconds; Ben Vereen as the Leading Player has won countless awards for his performance of Bob Fosse’s insane choreography.

Highlights: “Glory,” which begins at 0:26:38, depicts a gruesome war (Heads on sticks! Impaled warriors!) and famed dance segment, “the Manson Trio,” about 4 minutes later.

Legally Blonde: The Musical by Laurence O'Keefe, Nell Benjamin, Heather Hach; starring Laura Bell Bundy and Christian Borle

If Sound of Music needs a few notes from a live musical broadcast, it can take them from Legally Blonde, prerecorded from a live performance in September of 2007 and aired on MTV that October. This show is effervescent and super girly and totally fun. With several dashes of adult humor (arguably more than the much loved film on which it’s based) and enough catchy songs to fill the longest road trip, this musical invites Elle Woods onto the stage where she absolutely belongs. Elle follows her ex to Harvard where she hopes to win him back and soon meets Emmitt, a hyper-logical law student who sees potential in Elle under the blonde blowout and scant pink attire.

Highlights: “Chip on Your Shoulder” at 0:48:58 is so hummable it’s not likely to leave your head all week. Plus, if Uncle Max was one of the highlights of NBC’s Sound of Music for you, you’re in luck.

Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber, filmed in Austria. Starring Drew Sarich and Steven Seale

JCS is the ultimate musical experience for so many reasons, and this version outdoes them all. This taping includes multimedia images projected onto a scrim in addition to some not-so-subtle alterations to the musical we probably all saw done in high school. This one is darker, louder and over-the-top at times, and the result is an intense hour and a half of straight rock opera. Drew Sarich leads the show as Judas Iscariot, through whose eyes we see a loose interpretation of the last days of Jesus’ life, culminating in maybe the most famous musical chorus of all time. Drew has the voice and vocal range of a symphonic superhero and will surprise you within the first 6 minutes of this worldwide classic.

Highlights: 0:10:52—only about 10 minutes in and the tension is tangible in “Strange Thing, Mystifying.”