EXCLUSIVE: Circus Gypsy Takes PIPPIN to New Heights at A.R.T.
There's an interesting irony that's informing The American Repertory Theater's daring revival of PIPPIN currently in previews at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass. According to circus choreographer Gypsy Snider, the co-founder of Les 7 doigts de la main enlisted by A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus to incorporate circus acrobatics into her bold new staging of the iconic 1970s pop musical, it is the very "magic" that Pippin seeks in his quest to become extraordinary that Snider sometimes dreams of escaping.
"The choice Pippin has to make is whether or not to run away with the circus," she says. "For me, sometimes I would like to run away from the circus."
Born and raised in her parents' San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, Snider has been in the ring since the age of four. Her life has been one death-defying act after another. But it wasn't until a few years ago when she faced her greatest nemesis - stage 3.5 colon cancer - that she realized her happiness didn't depend upon the thrills and chills of her unusual career.
"Why do we all search for lives better than what we are?" she ponders. "Why do we have to climb Mt. Everest or jump out of an airplane for adventure? For me, why was 'ordinary' not enough? But cancer changed all that. I forgot the circus and just focused on healing and being with my family. In that stage of total illness I realized that 'extraordinary' is what's inside of us."
PIPPIN marks Snider's full-scale return to work since her recovery. As she creates high-flying circus feats to emphasize the young Pippin's harrowing journey in search of personal fulfillment, she draws upon her own unique life-and-death experiences to achieve the right balance between physical daring and emotional expression.
"The acrobatics are not incorporated as skills but as a way to seduce Pippin to a life less ordinary," Snider explains. "The pull is to 'join us,' to push Pippin further and further on his quest. But when he meets Catherine (a widow with a young son), and she asks, 'Can you help me?' he faces an existential crisis. Will he be enticed to go out in a literal blaze of glory or give up everything to care for others who need him? In the end maybe real life just isn't all that thrilling. And maybe that's okay."
PIPPIN, with a book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, opened on Broadway in 1972 and ran for five years, nearly 2000 performances. Directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse, it starred Ben Vereen in a Tony Award-winning turn as the Leading Player and sparked numerous pop artists, including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, to record covers of the score's more universal tunes "Morning Glow," "I Guess I'll Miss the Man," and "Corner of the Sky." Other memorable songs are "Magic to Do," "No Time at All," and "Spread a Little Sunshine."
Set in 780 A.D. during the Holy Roman Empire - but designed and performed anachronistically to give it a contemporary feel - PIPPIN tells the story of the young royal heir to King Charlemagne's throne as he pursues his dream to live an extraordinary life. On his way he encounters a troupe of players who show him an array of dazzling possibilities. He experiences war, murder, seduction and betrayal but remains unhappy and unfulfilled. The burning question is, "What will it ultimately take for him to achieve his glory?"
"PIPPIN is really Everyman's story," director Paulus says enthusiastically. "Who doesn't go through trials in life to find one's deepest meaning? PIPPIN takes that quest and structures it theatrically, like a morality play. The theater itself becomes a powerful metaphor for young Pippin's experience. He goes through a ritualized series of trials by fire, if you will. Taking that theatrical concept to the next level and performing in the style of the circus just seemed to be in the show's DNA."
According to Paulus, original director/choreographer Bob Fosse was fascinated with filmmaker Federico Fellini's view of life as circus. The show's original art work by Tony Walton sported a circus motif, and the traveling players who entice Pippin to join them do a wide array of magic tricks.
"The circus is in there," says Paulus, referring to the original concept and score. "Even the music has circus-inspired sounds. It may be a pop score, but it has a very lush orchestral profile - strings, winds, tympani, for example. Our new orchestrations by Larry Hochman give us a full immersion in that sound with added touches like calliope and accordion. It's very visceral, and while it still delivers on the original cast album that we all grew up with, it's not frozen in the 1970s. It's very here and now."
Unlike with the A.R.T.'s recent Tony Award-winning revival of "The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," PIPPIN's original composer and librettist are very much alive - and involved in reimagining this major new production. Both Schwartz (of Godspell and Wicked fame) and Hirson have been attending run-throughs and giving notes. They have also had a hand in helping with rewrites. Their passion for the project, according to Paulus, has been exhilarating and inspirational.
"Stephen and I have been talking about doing this revival ever since I did 'Hair' in Central Park in 2008," Paulus says. "We have been working intensely on it for the past year. Both Stephen and Roger were very eager for us to use the new 2006 ending, so that's what we've done. It's more open-ended and less gimmicky than the original. Last week an elderly man was just sobbing at the end, and a young college kid at a coffee shop said it made him think about his own life in a new light. It's exciting for all of us to be revisiting this beloved work 40 years later."
While PIPPIN is one of the most popular musicals performed by high schools and community theaters, it has never been revived on Broadway. This A.R.T. production may change all that. Rumored to have caught the interest of Tony Award-winning producers Barry and Fran Weissler (Chicago, Sweet Charity, Wonderful Town), the cast boasts a slew of Broadway luminaries who are flexing all of their musical theater muscles - and are absolutely ready for prime time.
Spider-Man alum Matthew James Thomas brings what Paulus calls a "sublime vocal expression" to the role of the soulful and sensitive young Pippin. Commanding stage veteran Terrence Mann (Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast) is his tyrannical father King Charles. Exquisite triple threat Charlotte d'Amboise (A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity) plays the scheming step-mother Fastrada, and comic tour de force Andrea Martin (Young Frankenstein, Fiddler on the Roof, Candide) struts her considerable stuff as the wise and wacky grandmother Berthe.
In an unconventional move, Paulus has cast a woman, Patina Miller (Sister Act, Hair), as the Leading Player, the role that will forever be associated with the inimitable song and dance man Vereen. A powerhouse vocalist, Miller also is said to possess the charisma, acting, dancing and fearlessness required for this production.
"Before casting I asked Stephen about the Leading Player," Paulus explains. "He said that the Leading Player can be anyone. He or she just needs to be very different from Pippin. So we looked at everyone. We saw any and all prospects. We had no specific intention to cast a woman, or an African American. We just knew we wanted a performer who could really dance. Every candidate went through pretty intense choreography during the audition, learning acrobatic moves as well as the Manson Trio. Patina emerged as a person with incredible physical skill to go along with her vocal chops and performance skills. She fulfills all of our criteria very powerfully.
"Patina has been training now for six months," Paulus continues. "The day she picked up a hula hoop and started singing while twirling, it was pretty amazing! She's also on the trapeze during the opening number. By having the actors actually doing these extraordinary feats, they are living the show's theme as they perform it. It's the challenge of musical theater times 100."
To fully integrate the circus maneuvers with the dance choreography, both actors and acrobats attended "boot camp" to learn each other's skills. Throughout rehearsals and previews, that integration has been reworked and refined. At times dancers twist and turn on ropes and silks while acrobats join the ensemble in song and dance. Everyone does everything. Acrobats even say lines in character.
"We're calling the staging 'acrofoche,'" says Chet Walker, the dance choreographer who has been entrusted by the Fosse estate with preserving the master's iconic work. "It's a combination of Gypsy's acrobatics, Fosse's original choreography, and some elements I've added in order to bring it all together. One thing Fosse taught me is that dance is based on an acting element. The storytelling is important. And that is what we are going for here. We are using and expanding upon his vocabulary to tell Pippin's story in a way we think he would choose to do it today. Fosse's world was grounded in acrobatics. So we have staged this production to allow acrobatics and dance to influence each other in a very dramatic way."
PIPPIN has its official press opening on January 3. If critics give it as positive a reception as the preview audiences have, will that rumored Broadway transfer happen this season?
"Up till now we've been focused on making it the deepest and most meaningful experience possible for Boston audiences," Paulus responds. "Of course, nothing would make us happier than to share this with a wider audience when the time is right. And I think the time is right now. There are lines in this show that really resonate for our times. We'll just have to wait and see."
PIPPIN continues at the A.R.T. through January 20. Tickets begin at $25 and can be purchased online at www.amrep.org/events/show/pippin or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300. The Loeb Drama Center is located 64 Brattle Street in Cambridge.
PHOTO BY KEVIN H. LIN: Philip Rosenberg and Viktoria Grimmy; PHOTOS BY MICHAEL J. LUTCH: Matthew James Thomas and company; Terrence Mann and company; Matthew James Thomas and company; Matthew James Thomas; Charlotte d'Amboise; Patina Miller and company; Andrea Martin, Matthew James Thomas and company