We've got magic to do…
Pippin is one of the more mainstream musicals to which I have had very little exposure. Written by Roger O. Hirson (Ninotchka) with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell), the play centers on the life quest of Pippin, eldest son of Charlemagne, eighth century ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Not exactly inspiring source material for musical comedy. However, in the hands of legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), the show was a smash hit, enjoying a run of 1,944 performances on Broadway from 1972 through 1977. In 1981, director David Sheehan restaged the musical for video, under the supervision of Bob Fosse himself, with Ben Vereen reprising his Tony Award winning role.
Facts of the Case
Pippin (William Katt, Greatest American Hero), heir to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, is in search of truth and meaning in his life. Under the often unwelcome guidance of The Leading Player (Ben Vereen, Roots) and his band of merry minstrels, Pippin explores the ups and downs of knowledge, war, sex, drugs, revolution, patricide, and politics in an attempt to find his true place in the world.
Pippin is not one of the more beloved shows in the annals of musical theatre history. Many feel its half-baked plot, exaggerated characterizations, and less than memorable songs make it nothing more than an also-ran. While some of these accusations may hold true, we should put things in a proper perspective. At the time of its creation, the show was nothing more than a college rock-opera by a twenty-something composer. Brought to life on Broadway during one of its most bleak periods, Pippin's messages and themes continue to withstand the test of time. A young man's search for purpose and meaning. The futility of subjective guidance from those who claim to have his best interests at heart. The frustration and disappointment life uses to package golden moments of true happiness and fulfillment. The knowledge and experience one must accumulate in order to see the magic that exists all around and deep within us. All concepts that are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago.
Context and subtext aside, Pippin is a visual feast, whose blatant vaudevillian performances often overshadow Schwartz' poignant lyrics and beautiful melodies. Ben Vereen is nothing short of masterful, a dynamo of energy and enthusiasm that carries the show from beginning to end. William Katt does an exceptional job of capturing the naïveté and innocence of the sheltered young prince, evolving with each new experience. (Unfortunately, his vocal strength is not always up to the challenge.) Benjamin Rayson is magnificent as the pompous, war mongering Charlemagne. Chita Rivera is wickedly funny as Pippin's evil stepmother, Fastrada, and Martha Raye is equally rambunctious as his young-at-heart grandmother. While the leads will draw most of the attention, it's the ensemble that truly powers the show—a group of highly talented dancers who paint and electrify the stage with Bob Fosse's brilliant choreography. Pay particular attention to "sex presented pastorally" during "With You." An example of Fosse at his finest and a musical ripe for modernized revival.
From a technical perspective, the 1.33:1 transfer was shot on video and there is no mistaking it. From the opening title sequence, done in less-than-spectacular home video fashion, to some of the more jarring edits, it's not hard to see that this medium had a great deal of room for improvement. The more critical eye will notice the blurred halos and somewhat muted details of actors and sets created by the cameras' battle with the stage lighting. Despite these various missteps, 95% of the performance is captured clearly and effectively. The Dolby 2.0 audio track is serviceable but there are times when the stage mics are unable to pick up all that is being said. The menus are uninspired and only serve to emphasize the home video feel. Not much in the way of bonus features. A brief six-minute interview with the reclusive Bob Fosse (captured during All That Jazz's screening at Cannes) is definitely worth watching. However, skip the cast and crew bios, as you can get more pertinent information from imdb.com.
There is something very unique about theatre—a fleeting yet powerful human communal experience that cannot be duplicated by the slick production values of television and film. Unfortunately, given today's high cost of blue chip theatre tickets, only a limited segment of the population is able to experience it. Discs like this bring theatre into the living room for entire families to reflect on and enjoy. Producers and studios should take a cue from this 20 year old performance to see how important it is to capture such productions as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers, Brian Dennehy in Death of a Salesman, and Audra MacDonald in Ragtime for posterity. Aspiring filmmakers study the work of the masters like Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Fellini—why shouldn't we afford aspiring playwrights, stage directors, and actors the same opportunity?
Amid current world events, Pippin proves to be uncannily relevant. Hirson and Schwartz' commentaries on war, politics, and the search for self-actualization will strike a surprising chord with a 21st century audiences. Do yourself a favor and find a copy to experience "the magic" for yourself.
While far from technically flawless, this court applauds VCI Home Video and director David Sheehan for preserving Pippin for generations to come. Bravo! This court now stands in recess.
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