Pippin’s flesh and flash
Broadway Sacramento brings in Pippin—a 1972 musical (with choreography by Bob Fosse) that picked up multiple Tony Awards at the time—for a brief run December 29 through January 3 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. Pippin created a stir during its initial staging, and the show predicted a number of trends in musical theater and entertainment generally—but it has rarely been performed in Sacramento.
It was featured as part of the Music Circus’ 1979 season. This was back when the present-day California Musical Theatre organization, which now produces the Music Circus series and hosts touring shows as Broadway Sacramento, was known as the Sacramento Light Opera Association. There was no Broadway Sacramento season in the 1970s—Broadway Sacramento commenced in 1989.
The original Pippin featured a never-really-defined touring troupe with clown-like performers staging a show (a play within a play) based on a tale from the Middle Ages, involving King Charlemagne and his wayward son Pippin, who sets out on journey to find meaning and significance in life.
Along the way, Pippin is exposed to war (which he doesn’t like), experiments with love (indeed, he sleeps around) and dabbles in art and religion; he also plans a palace revolution, but isn’t happy with the results once he’s in charge (so he gets the situation magically reversed).
Keep in mind that when Pippin hit Broadway in the early ’70s, tales involving a sensitive young man searching for meaning in life were all the rage. It was also a time when public opinion had largely turned against the Vietnam War, which President Richard Nixon was winding down under the slogan “peace with honor.” It was also a time when Broadway (and the movies) started depicting scenes involving frank sexuality and language that had been formerly off-limits. At the time, the New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes described the Broadway premiere of Pippin as “racy,” but praised director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s “pell-mell dazzle,” observing that “his dances have art and imagination. They swing with life.”
Pippin also premiered at a time when Motown Records was still a potent power in pop culture—in fact, Motown helped finance Pippin’s premiere, and the Jackson Five recorded the show’s best known song (“Corner of the Sky”) in 1972. The original production of Pippin also turned young dancer-singer Ben Vereen into a Tony winner and a celebrity.
Looking back from the perspective of 2015, you can see that Bob Fosse’s flesh-and-flash direction and choreography paved the way for his provocative choreography in 1975’s Chicago— a better-known show that’s been on the Broadway Sacramento series multiple times, and staged at the Music Circus as well. You could even argue that Pippin—with its revisionist (and fanciful) take on royalty, chivalry and romance—anticipated the arrival of Stephen Sondheim’s dark, fairytale-based fantasy Into the Woods, which reached Broadway in 1987.
Pippin was revived on Broadway in 2013 with director Diane Paulus mixing in a lot of circus-style acrobatics (juggling, tumbling, rings), winning multiple Tony Awards (including Best Revival of a Musical) and sparking a national tour. Sacramento is one of the latter tour stops, finally.