the wonder of Stephen Schwartz’s musical Pippin

<span>‘Such a resemblance’… Patina Miller, center, as the lead in Pippin on Broadway in 2013.</span><span>Photo: Joan Marcus</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 157f7386″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 7386″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=‘Such a resemblance’ … Patina Miller, center, as the lead in Pippin on Broadway in 2013.Photo: Joan Marcus

In the 2019 bioseries Fosse/Verdon, Sam Rockwell flashes a vulgar smile in a rehearsal room scene, playing groundbreaking choreographer and director Bob Fosse. As he outlines his bizarre plans for a new musical called Pippin, about the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, eyebrows are raised among his ensemble. “I know that look,” he says, noticing their skepticism. “Remember that look, ladies and germs. It means we’re onto something good. We take what is here, we blow it all up and we see what happens.”

What happened? A Broadway run of nearly 2,000 performances and five Tony Awards (out of 11 nominations). Fosse’s production of Pippin opened in 1972 and when it closed in 1977, it was one of the longest-running productions in Broadway history. Not bad for a meta-musical that constantly breaks down how it tells its story. With a book by Roger O Hirson, it spins a biting existential picaresque set in the Middle Ages and follows a restless, rather whiny prince who learns life lessons from a colorful cast and, at one point, a sickly duck named Otto.

Its composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, would later have one of the biggest musical theater successes with Wicked (currently being made into two films starring Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande). But when Pepijn opened, he was only 24 years old, thrilled off an Off-Broadway and London hit with Godspell. Schwartz could seductively sell a story and whet your appetite, just like Fosse in the rehearsal room. Take the lyrics of Pippin’s opening song: “We have magic to do, just for you / We have miracle games to play / We have roles to perform, hearts to warm.”

Few songs capture the wonder of theater as well as Magic to Do. “But also the magic of life,” adds Broadway and Glee star Alex Newell, during a break from rehearsals for a Pippin 50th anniversary concert at the Theater Royal Drury Lane in April. Newell takes on the role of the Leading Player, whose job is “to seduce not only the audience, but also Pippin and the players around him,” as the prince searches for answers through sex, war and politics.

Newell has had unfinished business with Pepijn for years. “I was supposed to do it in high school, but I couldn’t because I had to go to the movie Glee,” says the actor, who made history in 2023 with J Harrison Ghee as the first two non-binary winners of the Tony Awards. Newell stayed with the musical theater series for several years, playing trans teen Unique Adams. “I missed that time doing Pippin as a teenager, so it’s wild to do it as an adult.” For Newell, “Pippin is such a parable that it stands the test of time.” They saw Patina Miller as the leading player during the 2013 New York revival; the role was created by Ben Vereen who appears in a filmed version of that production.

“There have been two great people [on Broadway] who preceded me in this role, both received awards,” says Newell. “They both got to show a completely different side of what everyone thought they were and what they could do. If you are a huge singer or a huge dancer, you can never connect them – they only know you for one thing. To have something that is known for its movement and storytelling, and the dark humor of it, is just so brilliant.

London had never seen anything like it – and didn’t know what to think

Patricia Hodge

In the Drury Lane concert – featuring a 20-piece orchestra and a 50-piece choir – Pippin will be played by Jac Yarrow, who made an acclaimed professional debut in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium in 2019. The cast includes Lucie Jones (waitress), Cedric Neal (Guys & Dolls) and Zizi Strallen (Mary Poppins) – plus the option of Patricia Hodge playing Pepijn’s wisely humorous grandmother Berthe. Hodge played the role of Catherine, who falls in love with the prince, when Schwartz’s musical debuted in the West End in 1973.

Hodge agrees that the young composer had the gift of writing for generations. As Berthe she will sing the stirring No Time at All (“Oh, it’s time to start livin’ / Time to take a little from this world we’re given / Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall / In just completely no time.”) The musical is “full of great philosophy,” says Hodge, who wondered: “How could someone so young have written this? I’m older now [Elisabeth Welch] who played Berthe when we did the show and you think: this is such wisdom!”

In 2011, Hodge almost played Berthe in the revival of the Menier Chocolate Factory – which added a video game-style concept – but the dates didn’t work out. Pippin was staged again in 2017 at Manchester’s Hope Mill theater (transferred to Southwark Playhouse) and again in 2020 at the newly opened Garden open-air theater in Vauxhall, in those strange times of socially distanced Covid performances. With a cast of six, in keeping with the then ‘rule of six’, the celebration of theatre’s escapism was particularly bittersweet.

How Hodge got the role of Catherine was fairytale, even though Pippin’s flight to London had problems. She and Diane Langton starred in a rock musical version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and had contracts that bound them to that show. Then Hodge’s friends Anthony Andrews and Georgina Simpson returned from a trip to New York where they had seen Pippin and told her that Catherine’s character was perfect for her. Both Hodge and Langton went to the audition in London and got roles: Langton as Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada. They were duly released from their Two Gents contracts. “You couldn’t make that up. Someone tells you to play a role and then you get it. It was amazing. At that moment you feel like that’s what life is like. Later you realize that that is not the case and that those things are extremely rare.”

The problem was that Fosse was now working on Lenny, his film starring Dustin Hoffman as stand-up Lenny Bruce. Says Hodge: “We didn’t really get him until the last ten days of rehearsal. It had a big impact on how the show went. Today, West End performers are so brilliantly trained that they can rival Broadway. At that time we were not. We only rehearsed for four weeks… It wasn’t sharp enough.” Moreover, “London wasn’t ready for it in the same way as New York. They had never seen anything like it and didn’t really know what to think about it.’

London’s Pippin closed within three months, when Edward Heath’s government introduced the three-day week to save electricity. Hodge remembers the generators placed outside the theaters and “a depressing time for West End visitors”. But her memories of the stage magic burn brightly, including those of Tony Walton’s innovative designs and the gripping opening. “It was a completely bare stage and then the music started – not a big overture – and suddenly there was a light curtain at the front with all these dancing hands, and the Leading Player’s face appears out of it and he sings, ‘Join in, let’s your field bloom…”

If you are a huge singer or a huge dancer, you can never combine them

Alex Newell

Choreographer Joanna Goodwin has been brought in for the Drury Lane concert and will feature a scene inspired by Fosse’s famous ‘Manson trio’, the hair-raising silky interlude in a battle scene so captivating it was used to advertise Pippin in an American television commercial. If Pippin is a time capsule of a certain era of American horror, the Leading Player is a cult-like control figure like Charles Manson; the war with the Visigoths is inextricably linked to the Vietnam campaign – it still resonates today.

Newell sees parallels with today’s US, where “everyone is at such polar opposites… instead of thinking about the bigger picture of everything.” It is also a musical about the difficulty of making progress. ‘You make Pippin look at his father and say, well, I would never do things that way. But in the end he does the same thing… You find out that change doesn’t just happen overnight. You don’t go to sleep one night and the next day everything changes just because you are in power.”

What text does Newell return to? ‘It’s not even my song [in the concert] but spread a little sunshine.” That number is used as part of a manipulative plot by Fastrada, but at first glance it has a simple beauty in itself: “And if we could all spread a little sunshine / All could light a little fire / We could all have a a little closer / To the desire of our hearts.” Newell recites a few lines from the song and concludes, “If we did that, and all gave a helping hand, we would be so much better than where we are now as a society.”

• Pippin is at Theater Royal Drury Lane, London from April 29 to 30

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