Friday, June 12, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "The Finale" (on Schwartz and Hirson's Pippin)

the finale
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Roger O Hirson (book), Bob Fosse (contributions to the libretto) Pippin / 1972. The production I saw was filmed for Canadian Television. 

I never saw Pippin on Broadway and had no inclination to listen to an original cast recording, particularly since Stephen Schwartz—despite his great successes with Godspell and Wicked—the latter of which I listened to simply because I was trapped on an airplane, and had already listened to classical music and jazz. I was not impressed, to say the least. May the tourists keep the show open for years, but I’ll never visit it.
      I very much like the dancer/singer Ben Vereen, but from the few clips I’d seen of Pippin it seemed to be more like a circus than a serious musical. And I must admit, I’ve never been a deep admirer of circuses.

The other day, however, I noticed that a Canadian television version of the musical was available on my HDBroadway site, and decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.
      And yes, there is a kind rowdy circus atmosphere to much of the show, particularly with those who guide the confused young Pippin, son of the conqueror Charlemagne, through his search for a meaningful life.
      Pippin, who has been well educated—perhaps in the manner of Candide by Dr. Pangloss—believes that he destined for an identity that defines his being. As he sings in “Corner of the Sky”:

Everything has its season
Everything has its time
Show me a reason and I'll soon show you a rhyme
Cats fit on the windowsill
Children fit in the snow
Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?

Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I've got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky

     To find how he might fit into the world the young Pippin (played in the production I saw by William Katt) first explores war with his violent half-brother, whom even Charlemagne (Benjamin Rayson) calls an idiot. War is clearly not the gentle Pippin’s destiny.
     The troupe—who through Bob Fosse’s choreography and directorial additions look more like figures out of Cabaret than a traveling circus band--next proffer up to Pippin a magical landscape of sex, lesbian, gay, and heterosexual. The educated young man clearly does not perceive this as his “corner of the sky.”
     Hearing the protests of the peasants against the harshness of his father, however, turns the son suddenly, and with a little help by Vereen, into a revolutionary. As his father goes to pray at Arles, Pippin meets him there and attempts to change Charlemagne’s ways without success. The only way to rule is through power, dominating your subjects, argues the King. The musical suddenly speaks to us in Trumpian terms.
     Charlemagne argues that if Pippin thinks he can do better he should kill him, which Pippin quickly does by stabbing him in the back.
      Immediately crowned King, Pippin is suddenly met head on with numerous conundrums, none of which he can solve. Begging for release from his newly attained position, Pippin begs for his father’s return. The Leading Player suddenly brings Charlemagne back to life, Pippin stalking off in search of his true destiny once more.
      All along this musical has also been a sort of statement about theater itself. And there is no better evidence of this in the next adventure along Pippin’s path when he meets a wealthy widow with a young boy who is smitten by the arch of Pippin’s foot.
      Taking him back to her home, she nurses him back to health, and encourages him to become one of her hired hands, who plant her gardens and fix up any areas of the estate that need carpentry.
Pippin, expectedly, grows tired of this as well, and she finally invites him into her home to sit at her table, possibly becoming her new husband. The two have sex, the first time a disaster, but the second time a success. As she pleads with Pippin to sit at the head of the table, The Leading Player suddenly reappears to criticize her acting, demanding that she do the scene over, scolding instead of speaking pleasantly.
      This time Pippin is almost tempted to take on the new role, but still believing he is of special worth cannot be bothered with such a closed-off destiny, and sadly leaves the widow.
      The Leading Player and his troop try to cheer him up with their Finale, which does include magic tricks, including one figure who seemingly immolates himself. Pippin scoffs, knowing it was a trick. “But it won’t be when you perform it,” argues The Leading Player.
      In short, they demand for the finale of the show that the always searching Pippin end his searches by allowing himself to be burned up alive.
      If Pippin utterly rejects the idea, they cajole him on how perfect it would be, the audience going home teary eyed for the death of the always unhappy hero.
      Suddenly Pippin determines that he is better off with the widow and her child that being dead, and determines to return to her.
      Angry with the course of events The Leading Player and his troupe suddenly take away all the theatrical elements of this work, halting the orchestra’s instruments, stripping the stage of curtains, lights, and other elements of the set. It is a stage the way it might appear before any theatrical sleight-of-hand.
       The widow, Pippin, and her son now stand, almost naked in theatrical terms, on a devastated stage, but sure of their futures and, finally for Pippin, his own true identity. It is the story of Candide all over again. They almost sing “Make Our Garden Grow.”
       One commentator complained that the Canadian production “truncated” the original, primarily it seems, by dropping two words and cutting one song, “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” But any production that also brought in three Broadway legends: Verren, Chita Rivera as Charlemagne’s sexy and plotting wife (“I’m just and ordinary housewife,” she declares), and Martha Raye as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother (who demands that the audience sing along with her until last chorus, when she takes over),  is just fine with me.

Los Angeles, June 12, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2020).

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