Seeing a bad production of “Pippin” can make people swear off musicals forever. The amateur productions of this Stephen Schwartz musical (which first opened on Broadway in 1972) can be unbearably cheesy, with mediocre actors belting out the pseudo-pop score while looking like rejects from the Orange County Renaissance Faire. Several of the numbers have become musical theatre classics and have been covered by one too many artists. Songs like “Magic to Do,” “Corner of the Sky,” and “No Time at All” are staples in amateur musical revues and immediately familiar to musical aficionados the world over. The Supremes recorded a few of the iconic songs in the 70s and incorporated them into their glitzy shows. So did the Jackson 5.
I saw the Bob Fosse original, the show that made a huge star out of Ben Vereen. I can’t remember if I saw it on Broadway (where it played for five years) or one of the touring companies. The Broadway cast featured many of Fosse’s stock company of players such as Ann Reinking and Leland Palmer. The leads were played by a very young John Rubinstein and Jill Clayburgh along with the wonderful Irene Ryan who was famous as Granny Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Unlike the two-bit amateur productions that followed, the original was a groundbreaking look at war, power, ego, and personal fulfillment. Fosse put his unique stamp on the production with his sexy choreography and stellar direction. But this was the kind of show that could easily collapse in lesser hands. Perhaps that’s why it’s never been revived on Broadway and why so many of the subsequent regional productions are so cringe-worthy. Until now.
Last night Kendall, Leah, and I went to see the new version of “Pippin” at the Mark Taper Forum. This “Pippin” is a production of the amazing Deaf West Theatre, a group based here that performs plays in American Sign Language for both deaf and hearing audiences. We saw their production of “Big River” at the Mark Taper in 2003 and were blown away by the seamless intermingling of deaf and hearing actors that never seemed gimmicky or unnatural. The show went to Broadway and was nominated for a slew of Tony Awards.
The deaf actor who starred as Huck Finn in that play, Ty Giordano, is playing the title character of Pippin in the new show along with his hearing/singing counterpart Michael Arden (who played Tom Sawyer in “Big River”). Having two actors play the same role is not confusing at all in this production and helps the story since it is so much about dualities to begin with. The rest of the parts are played by hearing actors who sign or by deaf actors who are voiced by others. The sign language adds to the story, which takes place in the 9th century Europe and is about the oldest son of Charlemagne (or Charles the Great).
Charles is played by deaf actor Troy Kotsur who was also in “Big River.” He plays Charlemagne as a bravado-filled sex addict. At one point in the play he came down to the audience and plopped into the empty seat next to Kendall. Forcibly pushing me away, he put his arms around Kendall and carried on with her for the duration of the song. She was thrilled! (Should I be concerned that my wife is having an affair with the King of France?) Ty Taylor does a great job as the Leading Player without parodying Ben Vereen (which would've been so easy to do). Harriet Harris plays the grandmother part that Irene Ryan made famous but shows that “Granny” is far from being put out to pasture. Her show-stopping number, “No Time at All,” is performed with a bevy of half-naked hunks who seem quite pleased to be under her experienced tutelage. And Fastrada, Charlemagne’s evil second wife, is played to perfection by Sara Gettelfinger who was Little Edie in the original “Grey Gardens.”
I know, I know. I’m a freak. So is Leah. Is that my fault? Did I sing one too many showtunes to her when she was a baby? Is it weird that Leah is only 14 and has already performed in 28 musicals? And that she knew the complete score to most of them before the first rehearsal? We got home really late but when I woke up this morning I saw that Leah had already changed her Facebook status to:
Leah Miller is PIPPIN = AMAZING = inspiring = I wanna learn ASL!
I know I’m not the only straight guy who loves musicals. Our numbers may be low, but I’ve met several guys who make me look like a novice. Just to see what would come up, I googled “straight guys musicals” just now and got a bunch of hits including the following Q&A from Yahoo! with some truly crazy answers. Who writes these things?
Q: Do straight guys like musicals?
A: I think they truly do. My stepdad, who is all man, and my dad, who is less than a man, both like them. And my guy likes them. And without giving anything away, let’s just say I know he is straight.
A: Speaking as a straight guy I myself do enjoy musicals, but I might be considered “old fashioned” or “antiquated.”
A: I’m gay and I detest musicals for the most part. My brother is straight and loves musicals. Go figure.
A: My ex-husband loved musicals and I did not like them. So that was the reason we got divorced.
A: I liked “Sweeney Todd.” But that was about a murderous barber. I would say that if you liked “Cats,” that would make you gay.
A: Why are you doubting that straight men can like musical theatre? I bet some kids at your school or something have been teasing you. Just ignore them...they’re jerks!
Too funny (but I have to agree with the “Cats” comment). Last night was the twins’ very first musical, albeit in utero. What if they grow up despising musicals? I promise to love them despite that betrayal, but they may find living in our house rather intolerable.
As much as I love musicals, I’m a fairly discerning viewer. I have loathed certain productions and walked out of others. The only Broadway musical that I ever ran screaming out of at Intermission was the misguided Thin Man musical “Nick and Nora.” I wasn’t alone. It closed after nine performances. But I’ve also been moved to tears by many musicals. I’ve been challenged, shaken up, and forever changed by some of the shows I’ve seen. I won’t soon be forgetting this version of “Pippin” which I encourage you to see before it closes on March 15. I found it way more powerful than the original although I admit the 35 years that have passed since I saw the first one may have changed my perspective a bit. I understand how some people can't stand musicals, especially ones that pull out all of the stops, like “Pippin.” But I can't help but be moved by the emotions of this play, especially in this innovative new take on the story. I so relate to the title character's quest for fulfillment and his realization that his “corner of the sky” isn't at all where he thought it would be.