Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pippin: Fixing a Musical

I was enthralled by the Broadway revival of Pippin I saw a few weeks ago. The chorus of Players formed an acrobatic miniaturized Cirque du Soleil.

But why pay $150 bucks to see Cirque du Soleil, Jr. on Broadway when you could just go to see the real thing? The answer, of course, is that you shouldn't.

It's not really the performance the impressed me about Pippin, but the imaginativeness of the reinterpretation. Pippin is one of my favorite musicals; it's the one musical in which Stephen Swartz's lyrics live up to the promise of his music, and it features my favorite kind of character- the narrator who can talk to the audience while interacting with other characters onstage. Pippin is the sort of meta-musical that keeps me interested in theatre. It winks at the form's shortcomings and makes full use of the strengths.

The one flaw the show could not wink away is the cast. As a soundtrack, Pippin is a sequence of solos and duets, punctuated by three choral numbers. But the show needs a big cast; even double casting the leads into chorus parts when they're not "on stage" leaves you with a cast of nine or ten, and I've never seen a production with the ensemble that small.

So what to do with a chorus that doesn't really need to speak or sing? Acrobatics. And the thing I love most about it is that it makes this Broadway experience an exclusively Broadway experience. No community theatre or college drama department can put on a show comparable to this revival. I hope this revival of Pippin galvanizes the industry the way that Phantom of the Opera revolutionized Broadway costuming and stage craft.

Is it a hokey solution ripe for ridicule? Sure. And if you hate musicals, Pippin offers nothing that will change your mind. But it's a solution, and director Diane Paulus deserves credit for putting it in place.

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