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Theater insiders talk 'Pippin'

Staff writer
How “Pippin” went from Broadway hit to hot revival

"Pippin" has been a stage favorite since it debuted on Broadway in 1972. But the show went from perennial (and extremely toned-down) performances in regional and amateur theaters before becoming a hot ticket again on the Great White Way in 2013, winning four Tony Awards.

"Pippin" plays fast and loose with the medieval history and lore of Charlemagne's son Pippin as he tries to find his place in the world and the significance of his life

For the 2013 revival, director Diane Paulus ("Hair," "Porgy and Bess" and the upcoming "Finding Neverland") refreshed the show by placing it in a circus milieu, complete with high-flying acrobatics and magical feats.

In addition to Paulus, we talked about this version of "Pippin" with:

• composer Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Godspell").

• lead actor Sam Lips ("Cinderella," national tour of "Wicked").

• choreographer Chet Walker (a protégé of Bob Fosse, who gave the original production its distinctive style).

• actress Adrienne Barbeau ("Fiddler on the Roof," "Grease" and TV's "Maude), who plays Pippin's grandmother Berthe.

THE BEGINNING

"Well, there was a club at Carnegie Mellon that put on an original musical … every year. I ended up writing the show all four years I was there. Ron Strauss, he was also a drama student, and he found a paragraph in a history text about Charlemagne and the plot one of his sons had to overthrow his father. Now, this was a time when we drama students were very enamored with 'The Lion in Winter,' with all of its medieval drama and court intrigue and people doing in each other for the crown. The show at Carnegie Mellon was basically that."

— Stephen Schwartz

"I got involved with Cirque du Soleil [directing "Amaluna," which recently played Miami Gardens' Sun Life Stadium]. 'Pippin' was on hold when there was a production in London. We didn't get the rights. So it was this crazy coincidence that at the time I had immersed myself into acrobatics and the world of Cirque when I came back full circle to 'Pippin.'"

— Diane Paulus

"The thing I had to crack is who are these players? The script doesn't tell you much. I started to get the idea of … what if they were a circus? There was something about the metaphor of them inviting you into the circus. You either run away with the circus or you go back to your life. There was so much about the circus, that metaphor that illuminates the theme of 'Pippin' to me."

— Paulus

"As interest surfaced for the show's possibilities in the future … I transmogrified it, and it became what it is today … the story of a young man in search of what he wants to do with his life. But the show now had one foot in the time of Charlemagne and one foot in contemporary time."

— Schwartz

"I got a call from my agency asking, 'Would you be interested in going on the road?' My first thought was, 'No." These are the last three months before my … twins graduate high school … So we sort of worked it out that I could get time off for the boys when they graduate. And then, I had been playing Madeleine Stowe's mother — well the mother of her character [Victoria Grayson] — on 'Revenge,' and I had to film one scene and come right back again. They were willing to work with me, so I'm here."

— Adrienne Barbeau

THE CIRCUS

"I think [Paulus] came up with the idea after working with Gypsy Snider [a founder of the Montreal-based circus Les 7 Doigts de la Main]. Diane has always wanted to do 'Pippin.' And they said, 'What if instead of a troupe … it was a circus group traveling from town to town?' And I told them that there were three things that Mr. Fosse loved: one [was] matadors, two was religious artifacts and the third was clowns. He loved clowns. He was so excited about clowns."

— Walker

"Chet told me that Bob Fosse loved the circus, he loved Fellini and clowns, that whole world. And he told me that this was in the original 'Pippin.' You can see it with the album cover from back then, but it was never fully realized because he was working with dancers. Chet told me, 'It's in the DNA of 'Pippin.' You just extended what was there.'"

— Paulus

"The trickiest part would have to be 'Extraordinary,' the number in Act 2. It's the only time I have to sing and do acrobatics at the same time."

— Sam Lips

"Broadway ensembles have changed since the day Chet and myself were working on the original 'Pippin.' Back then, people tended to stick to their own disciplines, their own comfort zone. Those days are long gone. Now, everyone needs to be a triple threat; sing, dance, act and increasingly they need to be able to play instruments or do acrobatics. The skill level of the professional ensemble player in theater is so high now."

— Schwartz

"Later on ,someone asked me what would Mr. Fosse think of this production and the circus. I answered that he would say, 'I wish it were my idea.'"

— Walker

"I went to YouTube and watched the scene that Andrea Martin [who played Berthe in the Broadway revival]. I thought, 'Oh, wow, that part works.' I love the character. And so we just took it a step at a time. They flew their acrobatic master out to L.A. and worked. It's been great so far. I did some trapeze work in L.A., which thank God it seems like I have a proclivity for it. We just started rehearsals here in Greenville [S.C.], just started yesterday."

— Barbeau

"Everyone who was an acrobatic person wanted to sing, act and dance. Everyone who was to sing and dance wanted to do something in the circus world. So our job was not so hard."

— Walker

THE MUSIC

"I was hugely influenced by the Motown sound. Especially Holland-Dozier-Holland. They really changed how I listened to music. So by the time I was writing, I had assimilated that. It's very much all the way through all my work. You can hear it all over the score of 'Godspell.' And then, Motown was the financing so there were a lot of Motown covers of the songs: Michael Jackson, the Supremes, Diana Ross. Phil Ramone was a close friend, and he helped me co-produce [the cast album] on Motown."

— Schwartz

"The part I love is the song 'Love Song' I sing with Kristine Reese, who plays Catherine. It's the first time in the show we get to take a breath. It's just a very tender moment between the two of us onstage, where we get to be still and sing this sweet song to each other. I look forward to it every night, and I've loved it even when I saw the show for the first time."

— Lips

"When I started to write shows and get them produced, the sound of Broadway and musical theater was a different sound. It was very much in the Rodgers and Hammerstein through Sondheim tradition. When I started working, I and a couple of my contemporaries brought the sound of songs we were listening to on the radio and on albums. At first, there was resistance by some of the people writing about theater and parts of the theater community. They thought you couldn't really use … pop music, that you can't really use that for storytelling. And now, it's all pop music. But [Andrew Lloyd] Webber and [Alan] Menken, both of them are my contemporaries. We were a bit of a lonely voice in the crowd for awhile."

— Schwartz

"I had never seen 'Pippin,' because I was doing ['Grease'] at the time [with the original 1972 production]. I never made it over there."

— Barbeau

"The only number that is the same is the 'Manson Trio' [the famous soft shoe that follows a gory war sequence and references a cult leader]. That's purely his. I think they look at what I did, and they say I skewed in the style of Bob Fosse. It is and it is not. It's an homage to him, an homage to the style of Bob Fosse."

— Walker

LOOKING BACK

"It was a complete and absolute joy pulling this together. We never knew exactly what we had because we were finding new elements right up until we opened."

— Walker

"When I first wrote the show in my late teens and early 20s, I was looking at the world through Pippin's eyes. And now as a grownup, with kids of my own, I see it more of like some of the adult characters, perhaps even the leading player. It's certainly a more balanced perspective."

— Schwartz

TODAY'S RELEVANCE

"Here's another war. And another war. And another war. And even with what's going on in politics today. ['Pippin'] is timeless. Unfortunately so, I guess, in some way. We're still persecuting people, and we're still fighting over religious differences. It's still relevant. Maybe sadly so, because of the issues we're still dealing with. We're still going around killing everyone who doesn't believe the way we do and take their land."

— Barbeau

"It was a show about a young man. You know, usually it's not about a young man. The young man is the second or third lead. The journey that Pippin took, that young men take, is not always looked at. Men are strange characters, so misunderstood."

— Chet Walker

"I think in some way, our society has evolved, but the underlying issues are still the same. It's the same circus of war and politics and how it's all a bit of a game. That is all still an element of today's society. The one person versus the 99 percent. That is prevalent in the show. Taking from the poor and giving to the rich. That is still an issue going on. I think that the script is written in such a good way, it allows it to apply to an issue in that realm. You know, it's just such a timeless piece. It's written so well."

— Lips

"I think we're at a time where there is incredible pressure on the individual in our culture to be extraordinary, to be a celebrity. That idea of achieving greatness is all over our lives. This is a pressure young people face when they become adults or graduate college … What do you focus on? … Do you focus on your kids, your family, your work? What are your values? How far will you go to prove you're extraordinary? And can we shut off the noise and listen to what's inside? It's like a Rorschach test for the audience. I'm interested in theater that grabs you viscerally, makes you think and feel at the same time."

— Paulus

'Pippin'

What: Touring Broadway show

Where: Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $33.75 and up

Call: 844-513-2014

Online: DrPhillipsCenter.org

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