This week's guest blog come courtesy of my first ever guest blogger! Matthew Putman always has a something great to share whenever he guest blogs. In this post he makes some very interesting observations about Pippin both old and new. Enjoy!
P.S.- It's my Birthday! Help me make it a great one and come to ConnectorCon!
Take it away Matthew!
Over breakfast this morning my 7 year old daughter Juliette asked me a question which must have been a nagging feeling of confusion for her for 3 weeks. “What is that makes the old Pippin better than the new one?” While this may not seem like a profound Meta physical question, it does have both practical and philosophical resonance for me, as it obviously does for her too.
The story of Pippin in my life is only as a faint backdrop, but perhaps more importantly as a way of showing musical theatre’s ability to reflect and contrast life all at once. This was only part of the Fosse brilliance that defined several decades of Broadway and film throughout a political, and social climate in New York that is much different than now. Pippin was produced during the late Vietnam days, and pre-AIDS crisis days. Pippin was post Broadway’s golden era, and pre Broadway’s British invasion (Cats, Phantom et al ). Pippin wasn’t really about a time (Charlemagnes Europe far enough removed from history in this case as to be render the musical timeless), but was instead about the theatre, and how the theatre reflects life. This is at least as Fosse saw it. Legend has it that Fosse and composer Stephen Schwartz were in bitter disagreements about what Pippin was about. Rather than getting into the fundamental philosophies of the two here, you can look at the bleak and brilliant 1979 film “All That Jazz” to get a taste for what Fosse thought a show such as Pippin should be. To see Schwartz’s view, I guess look to all other Schwartz musicals such as Godspell and Wicked. These views are diametrically opposed to one another. Fosse saw theater as a showcase for life’s absurdities. Not completely unlike Samuel Beckett he did not avoid this but embraced the contradictions that are evident in a medium where tap dancing and death are not even separated by a cross fade or scene change. They blend. Who else would have the last scene of a movie about a life on Broadway end with the autobiographical main character being zipped into a body bag while Ethel Merman belts out the classic “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The problem for Fosse with Pippin (I am speculating) is that the end of the show as written does not end with Pippin in a body bag, or giving his grand finale as the Leading Player suggests. It doesn’t even end with ambiguities about compromise, but instead with a misunderstood interpretation of Voltaire’s “Candide” who remarks at the end that “we must cultivate our garden". Both Voltaire and Fosse would cringe at the end with Pippin’s last sung lines from the book “I wanted worlds to paint, and costumes to wear. I thought it was there. I think it is here.” The here is referring to a life with a woman who annoys him, a child that is not his and who treats him fairly disgracefully, and most importantly a life of mediocrity on a farm. I do not know what Fosse thought of the value of Pippin’s choice, but we do have a good indication of what he thought about it as a valid ending to the musical. In the original musical Fosse had some ambiguity to play with as the lights went down by having Pippin say, with the child in his arms, that he feels “trapped” but that "isn't too bad for the end of a musical comedy." With this flippant and powerful rebuking of the final message, Fosse turns the tables on the meaning of life from his perspective. That is whether musicals are fun, bloody, hard or amazing, when looked at from the outside they look a lot like life. The have a beginning and end and for a musical you have a spectacle. “Magic shows and miracles. Mirages to touch.” Fosse himself lived that life on stages, and that life off of the stage. The most beautiful song in Pippin is the ballad “With You”, which in a recording sounds like a simple and pretty love song. In the show it is an orgy of sexually excess, where Pippin is experiencing the full potential of nihilism and discovering himself in the process. Fosse did this often in life, and while not making a moral claim on decadence, he managed to try in real life much of what Pippin tried for those two hours on stage.
The climax of Pippin involves a choice. Pippin has run out of ideas to prove his value. (This may be very different than Fosse. I think everything he did had value”) and the Leading Player who has organized the spectacle of his life and the show presents him with a solution. That is to shine like the glory of the sun. He and the other players are enticing him to commit a grand suicide of torching himself publicly, where such an event would be remembered. The Leader Player sings of the sun: “how she lights the world up, well now it’s your chance.” Pippin rejects going down in “one perfect flame”, but allows the players who have entertained his life, and provided him with purpose and hope for meaning to leave the stage, taking the costumes and lights with them. He then, if it were not for Fosses off the cuff dismissal of the entire message, goes off to live happily ever after. Or as in the new version, goes off to live happily ever after, and the child re-enters singing Pippins theme, in a pedantic show of generational repetition. Fosse and most of us can see that life is much more interesting, and much more miserable if we do live in a dangerous way, with too much pressure to create something unique, too many lovers to be in love, too many magic shows that come to an end. Still we do these things over again, because the drive to do them is too great, and regardless, it makes for a more interesting musical comedy, and for Bob Fosse the two were never completely untethered.
I took Juliette to one of the first previews of Pippin with great excitement. I had even been given an opportunity to be one of the many investors in Pippin, which I did not do, as this would have violated two rules I have for producing, which are: 1. don’t produce revivals, unless you think they can be done better, and 2. Don’t produce anything unless you feel it so important to have it done that without you it won’t be done. I haven’t always followed these rule, and this is one of many reasons I think I have lost so much money and my soul in the theater that I often imagine myself in that body bag with Merman singing. Still in this particular case I almost did get involved because of Juliette. I had shown her many musicals, and other than West Side Story, Pippin seemed to stick with her the most. She can dance like a Fosse girl (which my wife reminds her is not appropriate outside of home) and will call me from downstairs in the morning to say “Daddy I am wearing Fosse pants today!” Still, despite her and my love of the show, I did not get involved as a Producer. I did however go see it with her right away. It is a spectacle that I don’t think Fosse would have disliked entirely. The choreography was a lot of Fosse, reimagined through Chet Walker. And for a large part of it I liked it. Then as it continued I became aware that this was the production that if Fosse were alive he would have locked Schwartz out to avoid. The decadence was removed, the fear was removed, some of the true wit was removed, and maybe most importantly that last disclaimer was removed. It was, after all of this, just another happy ending that somehow seemed completely false.
When Juliette asked me that question over breakfast, was this what she meant? It couldn’t be I thought. And if it was, maybe that was sad. It should not only take a lifetime to have the cynicism of Fosse, but maybe not even everyone’s life. She is just a 7 year old girl. I said “I know. I think it wasn’t as good either.” She continued “but why? Maybe the Pippin wasn’t as good.” I thought of how forthcoming I should be about this to her, but couldn’t be dishonest, so I said “no, I don’t think it was that sweaty. I think it was the end.” She paused for a moment, and like a director said “I would have never cast that Katherine. Pippin would never give up the Finale for her.” I loved this answer, even though I wasn’t sure she was suggesting that the actress playing Katherine was so bad that suicide would be a better solution than living with her. What she was doing though was staritng to see Pippin the way Fosse did. It was a musical comedy, like life, where the play never ends, until it does.