An acrobatic 'Pippin' revives on Broadway

The cast of "Pippin" at Music Box Theatre The cast of "Pippin" at Music Box Theatre in Manhattan. (March 2013) Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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Preview audiences attending "Pippin" aren't waiting for the end of the opening number to clap. They don't even wait for the cast to come onstage. Or Patina Miller to sing the first lyric, "Join us ... " At the first syncopated notes of the piano riff that starts the song "Magic to Do," as the cast -- hidden behind a curtain -- prepares to sing its first "WOO-ooo-OOO-ooo," cheers and applause erupt from the crowd.

Quite a reception for this musical, which opens Thursday at the Music Box Theatre, and was last seen on Broadway nearly 40 years ago.

"Pippin," by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson (book), opened in 1972, directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. Starring Ben Vereen as the charismatic "Leading Player" of a mysterious theatrical troupe, and John Rubinstein as Pippin, a medieval prince searching for his purpose in life, the show went on to win five Tony Awards, and ran for more than four years.

Broadway has stayed away

Given those stats, one can't help but wonder why Broadway producers have seemed loathe to revive it.

"I have the same question," says director Diane Paulus. Though, she points out, "It's actually had a lot of life in community theaters, schools, camp."

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True. But that only begs the question: Why not Broadway?

Fosse (who died in 1987) may be part of the problem.

"The original production was so much about Fosse ... and unless you're going to copy everything he did, the question becomes," and here Paulus starts to laugh, "how do you do 'Pippin' if you're not Bob Fosse?"

Try, perhaps, being P.T. Barnum. That's what Paulus has done, sort of, melding circus acts into musical comedy. Her jointless, rubber-band ensemble -- made up of traditional singer-dancers and acrobats, and led by "Spidey" alum Matthew James Thomas as Pippin and "Sister Act's" Miller as Leading Player -- leaps, flips and somersaults across the stage. They're the new "quadruple threats" -- acting, singing, dancing, plus mastering trapeze, hoops, poles and more.

It's a bold addition, but even Paulus, known for the recent revivals of "Hair" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," was hesitant.

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"I didn't think I could do this show," she adds, "until I identified ..."

And then she says something very fast. In French.

"Lay SETT dwah duh la MEHn"

Translation: "Seven Fingers" -- a Montreal-based troupe founded by seven circus performers.

Paulus admires their work, and pitched co-founder Gypsy Snider the idea of adapting her acrobatic talents to the Broadway stage. Snider, born into San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus, didn't know "Pippin." Upon reading the script, she immediately identified with the title role, and Pippin's desperate attempts to not just live a life -- but an extraordinary one. It reminded her of "sacrifices performers make, how far you push your body ... to be extraordinary."

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"She's also a mom with two kids, like me," says Paulus, "so we connected on all these choices you make, and the trade-offs."

Integrating acrobats with musical theater performers was no easy task. Chet Walker (who danced in the original "Pippin"), oversaw choreography; Snider, circus creation. After casting the show, they held "Fosse boot camp," teaching his stylized, isolated movement. Popped hips. Jazz hands. And ...

"It's about acting," says Paulus. "Every move is a metaphor."

They soon realized there were similarities, a kind of sly "ta da" type presentation, shared by Fosse and acrobats.

Still, the acrobats couldn't just do their usual stunts. They had to land striking a Fosse pose, to "weave the acrobatics and choreography together," Walker explains.

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The results are impressive -- aerials, handstands, hoop routines, mixed with Fosse bump and grind. Then there's Orion Griffiths, a circus performer since age 4 with thighs like cables on the Throgs Neck Bridge.

"Oh, those boys are cute, aren't they?" says Tony winner Andrea Martin, sitting cross-legged on a couch in her dressing room. "But I play Pippin's grandmother, so I try not to go there.

"I'm in awe of these kids," she says. "The discipline -- they knew when they were children they wanted to be in the circus. And their parents let them go to circus school."

Not exactly every parent's dream, she observes. "I mean, if my son said, 'I wanna learn the trapeze,' I'd say 'Over my dead body.' But these parents knew there was something in these kids, and they allowed that passion to blossom. I find that moving."

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Are you afraid of heights?

There are other ways in which this revival differs from the 1970s original. Much of the choreography, while an homage to Fosse, is new (except for the famed "Manson trio" dance, which is "100 percent Fosse," says Walker).

But it's the circus elements that will distinguish this production.

Just ask Miller, whose opening number includes mounting a trapeze bar, rising above the cast, then nailing five aerial maneuvers -- including hanging by her legs. At another point, she even touches her foot to her head.

"I had no idea she could do that," Snider recalls, sitting in the theater before a rehearsal.

Did Miller?

"I don't think so," Snider says. "We just figured it out one day."

Miller, fresh from a physical therapy session in the theater's downstairs lounge, walks down an aisle in the orchestra section, en route to her dressing room. Paulus asks her how she's doing.

She stops, turns, looks back at her director with mock -- and not-so-mock -- weariness. Then smiles and continues toward the stage.

"I'll be ready by 8," she shouts.

 

ROSLYN HEIGHTS TO BROADWAY HEIGHTS

Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz started writing shows for himself and his sister to perform in their Roslyn Heights home as a child. After graduating from Mineola High, he honed his craft at Carnegie Mellon University, where he wrote "Pippin Pippin," a rough precursor to his eventual (shorter-named) Broadway hit.

He was just in his 20s when he had three Broadway hits running simultaneously ("Godspell," "Pippin" and "The Magic Show"). He'd go on to write "Working," "Children of Eden" and a little-known juggernaut called "Wicked" (and nab three Academy Awards for film music).

But "Pippin" remains a theatrical landmark. It was one of the first so-called "concept musicals," guided more by theme than plot. And it made history with its sexy, 1972 TV ad, featuring Ben Vereen and two dancers performing a sultry, synchronized, very-Fosse dance number -- the first commercial for a Broadway show to reveal clips from the production. A new, media-savvy Broadway was born.

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