This past weekend I saw the national touring production of Pippin at the Pantages Theater in LA. I had previously seen the Best Revival Tony-winning production in New York City back in January, where it ended up being my favorite of the four shows I saw that trip. The Los Angeles leg of the tour was lucky enough to see Andrea Martin reprise her Tony-winning role as Berthe, as well as the return of Matthew James Thomas, who originated the role of Pippin in the revival. I was especially thrilled to see Martin, who had already departed the NY production before I saw it.
Pippin, which features music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, was first performed on Broadway in 1972, with choreography by the iconic Bob Fosse. The fictional story follows Pippin, the young son of Charlemagne, as he attempts to find meaning in his life. The plot unfolds as a show within a show: a mysterious performance troupe led by a character known only as the Leading Player (played spectacularly at my Los Angeles performance by understudy Lisa Karlin) is performing the story of the titular character, and the actor playing Pippin is actually playing an actor playing Pippin. Got that? Throughout the performance, the fourth wall (if it can even be called that) is often broken by the Leading Player interrupting to critique her actors and keep them in line. While the show is known for its pop score and death-defying circus tricks, I actually find the story, which is quite deep and unsettling, to be its strongest component. The ending, revised for the 2013 revival and which I will go over in a bit, has hit me with a punch to the gut both times I have seen the show. It is worth noting that in 1972, the Leading Player was male (Ben Vereen) and in 2013, female (Patina Miller). Both won Tonys for their performances, marking the first time two actors of different genders have won for the same role.
Director Diane Paulus won a Tony for her work on the revival, and worked to incorporate more circus acrobatics and illusions into the show. All of this is truly impressive to watch. One of the highlights is when a man runs from the wings to jump through a hula hoop that is held at least 6 feet in the air. From the first notes of the show-stopping opening number, “Magic to Do”, the show is absolutely dazzling, but when you look beyond the spectacle there is a truly meaningful story here, one that I find to be possibly even more relevant today than it was in 1972.
Pippin is a young man who believes he is “extraordinary.” When the troupe begins to tell his story, noting that the actor playing Pippin is new to the role, he sings about longing to find his “Corner of the Sky” and become totally fulfilled. Pippin tries a variety of things in an effort to find where he belongs, from being a soldier in his father’s army to having lots of meaningless sex to planning his own revolution. He eventually becomes king, which backfires horribly. Feeling utterly lost and directionless, Pippin collapses in despair and is found by a widow, Catherine, who prides herself on being an “ordinary kind of woman.” She takes Pippin in, and he eventually falls for Catherine, helps run her estate, and bonds with her young son, Theo. After a year, however, Pippin feels restless again and decides to abandon the nice life he has built for himself because he remains convinced he is destined for more. Upon his leaving, the Leading Player announces it is finally time for the much-teased “perfect finale.” She and her troupe try to convince Pippin to commit suicide in a spectacular fashion by jumping into a pit of flames. Much to the Leading Player’s dismay, the actor playing Pippin refuses to complete the act, after encouragement from the actress playing Catherine. Straying completely from the troupe’s script, he realizes he has never been more happy than when he was living an ordinary life with Catherine and Theo, and accepts that maybe there ISN’T more to life than that. The Leading Player furiously instructs everyone to strike down the sets and pack up because the performance is now over. The original production ended here, with Pippin and Catherine facing their new life. When Catherine asks him how he feels, Pippin responds “trapped, but happy.” The 2013 revival, however, features an alternate ending that composer Schwartz himself has said he prefers. After Pippin and Catherine leave the stage, young Theo remains, and hesitantly begins singing an a cappella version of “Corner of the Sky.” The Leading Player and her troupe excitedly return to the stage and the cycle begins all over again.
Upon seeing this production for the second time, I really started thinking about how Pippin’s journey relates to that of the typical, much talked about “millennial”. While I do not believe that all millennials are entitled brats, Pippin certainly is one, and unapologetically so. Just as more and more children these days are raised in a world where they are repeatedly told they are “special”, it takes practically dying for Pippin to realize that maybe he isn’t special or extraordinary- or at least that if he is, it still may not matter in terms of his future. The life he eventually, in his words, “settles” for is the life many choose and are very happy with. Pippin and Theo, like many young people, are seduced by the possibility of a life of grandeur that, for most, doesn’t actually exist. The lesson of the show to me is that if you are constantly searching for something bigger and better, you are probably not appreciating what you already have. Although Pippin’s tale is extreme and over-the-top, at its core his struggle is the same one many young adults have. After all, aren’t we all just looking for our corner of the sky?
Pippin runs at the Pantages through this Sunday, November 9th, before continuing to tour the country. For a list of upcoming dates click here. The Broadway production is currently playing at the Music Box Theater through January 4th.