- By gentleguide
- On Thu 14 nov 2019
Something extraordinary is happening at Drake next week, as the wonderfully talented musical theatre department presents Pippin! Starting next Thursday, Pippin is a timeless musical exploring the journey towards a fulfilling life, and how that search sometimes leads to incredible places... but what are you really searching for?
It’s hard to believe that the original version of Pippin premiered on Broadway almost fifty years ago, from composer Stephen Schwartz and featuring the amazing choreography of the legendary Bob Fosse. A critically acclaimed and very different revival won four Tony awards when it brought a circus atmosphere theme to the musical in 2013, and every version of Pippin is new and unique. Ostensibly the story of young Pippin, the eldest son of King Charlemagne, the show is very much more an allegory about finding a purpose, and perhaps that one single shining moment we all desire.
Corner of the Sky
Sydney Crutcher is the Leading Player in the Drake production, and I asked her to describe the show. “Pippin is the story of a boy seeking fulfillment in life. It is presented as a show within a show framed by a group of ‘players’ who play different characters in Pippin's life. He tries a number of different things (ruling, war, sex, love), but he finds everything underwhelming. The players then present him with chance to be extraordinary and fulfilled for a fleeting moment.”
“I've loved the show for a while,” says director Erin Horst. “I've always loved the music. It's beautiful and brilliant. I chose it for many reasons. The biggest was probably for the Fosse choreography. It's such a specific style, and I wanted the cast to be familiar with it. We're trying to do as much of the original Broadway choreography as we can, with some of my own ‘Fosse-influenced’ choreography added here and there.”
“Though some of it may look easy, it's far from it. Everything is very specific right down to the isolated hips, to the turn-in knees, to the classic Fosse ‘jazz hands’. And the musical is basically one big movement piece. The ensemble dances just about every song, and if they're not dancing, they're onstage supporting the principal characters. It's a huge show for them, and they get to play many different characters. I also picked it because it's completely ambiguous. Anyone can be any role, and I loved the idea of that flexibility.”
Magic to Do
Dancing isn’t the only thing going on with this presentation of Pippin. Although the cast isn’t going with the kinds of circus acrobatics featured in the revival on Broadway, the students do get to add their own spin on the story. “Erin has told us that the idea is going to be vaudeville, which will be really fun,” says Connor Ripperger, who plays the titular character. “This show plays to my strengths in that I have a ton of random skills I’ve picked up over the years, so I’ll be doing juggling, playing guitar and the flute and other random stuff, so I’m excited to just pull random stuff as well as try some new stuff.”
“I saw the revival on Broadway and absolutely loved it,” remarks Horst. “I didn't want to go full-out circus, but knew I wanted to do something where I could use a ‘cast of characters’ so to speak. The result is a lot of fun! The cast has all kinds of tricks up their sleeve.”
“I have not learned any new skills, but I had to relearn an old one,” says Crutcher. “Apparently hula hooping is not as easily retained as riding a bike! As far as my strengths as an artist, this show really demands that I dance and sing all while furthering a character arc. I relate to the strong presence that the Leading Player has, that certainly has facilitated my stepping into this production.”
Crutcher’s Leading Player character is pivotal in the presentation of Pippin. Patina Miller won the Best Actress Tony playing the role in the revival, and Ben Vereen won the Best Actor Tony for the same part in the original production. As they guide Pippin on his journey towards fulfillment, the question becomes: Is the Leading Player friend or foe? Protagonist or antagonist? Throughout the story of Pippin, the Player and her troupe are showing Pippin the way... but towards what, exactly?
Crutcher elaborates, “The Leading Player is present to lead Pippin and the audience through a specific journey like a tour guide. I want the audience to see the Leading Player as a performer and ringmaster who is on Pippin’s side, and I want them to see the manipulation, but not realize until a little too late what the Leading Player has been planning. Erin has discussed that the Leading Player and Pippin are opposites in every way, which may indicate why she cast different genders. In my mind the Leading Player doesn’t really fall into a gender, I'm not even convinced they are human, just an entity with their goal and their show.”
For Pippin’s point of view, I asked Ripperger about the relationship. “The Leading Player is more an antagonist, but more important than that she is the foil to Pippin. She is everything he isn’t and everything he wants to be, because she is doing something incredible with this show and leading this story with such control, which is exactly how he wants to be in his own life. The relationship is pretty open, and we definitely lean into the idea that she is manipulating Pippin the entire time but it is almost always because it is exactly what he wants. Some might see it as her just giving him what he asked for, others might see it as her taking advantage of him.”
And this is exactly what director Horst was hoping for with this show. “The Leading Player was a topic of much discussion before and throughout the process,” she notes. “She's neither protagonist or antagonist in my opinion. She manipulates Pippin throughout the show, but ultimately she's just doing her job as an actor in the troupe. I had no pre-conceived notions about the role before I cast it, other than I wanted the Leading Player to be the exact opposite of Pippin.”
“I did lots of research and found an interview with Stephen Schwartz where he talks about the fact that Leading Player can be anyone. There's no race, gender, or specific identity attached to the role. The relationship and chemistry between Leading Player and Pippin is what's most important to drive the plot forward. When Sydney auditioned she blew me away with her mysterious, commanding, manipulative portrayal. I knew it was exactly what the show needed.”
Now all the show needs is an audience!! Join us for an hour or two of remarkable musical theatre. And you can expect a throughly thrilling finale, as promised by the Leading Player and her troupe of performers. Pippin runs for four performances, with evening shows from Thursday through Saturday November 21-23, and a matinee on Sunday November 24. This is on the mainstage at the Harmon Fine Arts Building on the Drake campus, and tickets are available at the Harmon Box Office or through the Drake online ticket webpage.