PIPPIN: An Analysis

by Scott Miller

             Pippin is a largely under-appreciated musical with a great deal more substance to it than many people realize. Because it rejects a Happily-Ever-After in favor of a real world ending of compromise and doubt, and because it is happening in real time and on a stage, it may also be one of the most realistic musicals ever produced (Fosse also toyed with realism in a musical with the film version of Cabaret). Though it is set in Charlemagne's France, it is about the here and now; sprinkled with anachronisms in the costumes and dialogue, it makes no pretense at actually being a period piece, despite its characters' names. It is about America as much as The Music Man or Oklahoma!  The show deals with the coming of age, the rites of passage, the lack of role models and guidelines for the young adults of today's society, and the hopelessness that has become more and more prevalent among young people. Because of its 1970's pop style score and a somewhat emasculated licensed version which is very different from the original Broadway production, the show has a reputation for being merely cute and harmlessly naughty; but if done the way director Bob Fosse envisioned it, the show is surreal and disturbing. Even people who've done the show often don't realize the depth of meaning and subtext in Pippin.

            When Leading Player says to the audience during the final sequence, “Why we're right inside your heads,” the implication can only be that the Players are all in Pippin's imagination (and/or our collective imagination). If you read the script carefully, it's hard to imagine that this interpretation was not intentional; so much of the show's surrealistic moments make more sense if the whole thing is happening in Pippin's head. Of course if we accept that premise, then Pippin is making himself fail at everything; and Pippin is convincing himself to commit suicide by self-immolation. Many of Fosse's friends say Fosse himself had considered suicide on several occasions. Like Pippin, the audience gets caught up in the literal images we see and we forget the metaphorical and symbolic significance of the characters and events in the show.

            The show may actually have even more resonance today than it did when it ran on Broadway in the 1970's. As we approach the end of the twentieth century in America, the teens and young adults of our culture find themselves without a road map, without any discernible guidelines for growing up and making their way in the world. The American Dream doesn't exist today in the same way it did in the earlier days of this century, yet young people are still sold on the Protestant work ethic that promises rewards for those who work hard. Graduating from college, hip deep in student loans, the majority of people reaching adulthood now are finding it impossible to achieve what their parents did; so they “drop out” of society and stop trying. They work at McDonald's and stay up late watching television sitcoms from their childhood on Nick at Night. The media have dubbed them “Generation X.”

            Pippin is a young man just out of college, with plenty of energy but no idea where to direct it. He wants complete fulfillment, the too-hyped “American Dream,” and has been told that he can have it all if he just works hard enough. When Pippin is confronted with the mundane realities of life and finds that he can't have his ideal life, he is angry and bitter. His contemplation of suicide is tremendously potent to contemporary audiences as the murder and suicide rate among teens and young adults soars. Our increasingly secular society has lost touch with the myths and lessons that guided earlier generations and that still guide people in other cultures. Pippin is lost. All he needs is a guide to point him in the right direction, but how will Pippin know when the right guide has come along?

The Birth of Pippin

            After Godspell had opened, its composer, Stephen Schwartz, returned to looking for a producer for a show he had written called Pippin, Pippin. Stuart Ostrow agreed to produce it, but wanted a new script. By the time the new book was written by Roger Hirson, now called The Adventures of Pippin, an entirely new score had to be written as well. The show now told the story of a young man named Pippin going on a quest for fulfillment and self-awareness, and the traveling troupe of Commedia dell'Arte players who play out his life for him, so that he can experiment in relative safety.

            To direct the show, Ostrow hired the respected director/choreographer Bob Fosse. But Fosse didn't like the show. It was cute and very sentimental and Fosse had developed a reputation for dark, often disturbing musical theatre. He wanted to make Pippin more into his kind of show. He created the character of Leading Player, a narrator and Best Buddy, who accompanies Pippin on his quest, and who also controls the events as they are played out. In Fosse's version, Leading Player and his troupe want Pippin to do their Grand Finale—setting himself on fire—and they make sure that Pippin fails at everything he tries, so that the finale will be his only remaining option. The show became dark and cynical.

            Originally opening with the troupe of players arriving in a field with their wagon of props, Fosse's opening set them on the stage the audience was watching—complete realism. The original happy ending became a compromise instead of a victory; instead of finding true happiness, Pippin finds he must settle for less than he really wants. Fosse turned the love song “With You” into an orgy. He remade the entire show as a parade of frightening, disturbing incidents in which Pippin finds less and less satisfaction. Historians and people involved with the show say Fosse greatly re-wrote Hirson's script, but he asked for no official credit. Hirson strongly denies that Fosse wrote any part of the show.

Intrigue, Plots to Bring Disaster

            Neither Stephen Schwartz, Roger Hirson, nor John Rubenstein, who played Pippin, liked the re-writes or the style of the show as it was finally set. But it opened in October of 1972 and was generally regarded as something genuinely innovative and exciting. The reviews were positive, admitting that though the score was mediocre, Fosse's unusual conception and direction had made the show into an incredible piece of theatre.  Pippin won five Tony Awards that year, including Best Director and Best Choreographer for Fosse, and Best Actor in a Musical for Ben Vereen. Neither the show's script nor its score won Tonys. After the Broadway run, Schwartz had much of Fosse's material taken back out of the script and his and Hirson's work restored. It is this tamer, watered-down version which is now available for amateur productions. Though the 1981 videotaped production of the show that was released commercially does include many of Fosse's re-writes, remember that you can't change the licensed version without permission.

            If you follow Fosse's darker vision of Pippin, the show must be unsettling, decadent, outrageous. For community or school groups, directors may be hesitant to stage a genuinely perverse orgy or to allow the actress playing Fastrada to be too sexually explicit in her incestuous relationship with her son Lewis. But there are ways to communicate the extreme and frightening nature of Pippin's adventures without offending your audience. For instance, in the orgy, the performers don't have to be half-naked; you can dress them all as common sexual fantasy figures, a cop, a construction worker, a Catholic school girl, a hooker, a dominatrix, a sailor. Instead of Fastrada actually kissing or rubbing up against Lewis, their dialogue can be merely infused with sexual undercurrents. It's important for Pippin to be unnerved, even repulsed, by much of what he experiences, but you can let the audience's imagination fill in some of the gory details without compromising the intent of the material.

Breaking the Rules

            Fosse dealt with the score he considered weak and often treacly by creating a show that ridiculed itself. Fosse had a kind of self-loathing for his kind of razzle dazzle show business, and like Chicago several year later, Pippin became a show that made fun of its own artifice. In Fosse's version, we're not supposed to hear “Corner of the Sky” as Stephen Schwartz' song for the Broadway musical Pippin; we're supposed to hear it as a ridiculous statement by an immature young man in the troupe's musical, Pippin, His Life and Times. In that context Fosse could actually let characters make fun of the songs. Before the overly sentimental “Love Song,” Fosse added a speech which ends by telling us that Pippin and Catherine are “struck” by a love song, showing again Fosse's distaste for traditional happily-ever-after musicals (of course, this line was removed from the licensed version). Thus, Fosse dulled the cliches of “Love Song” by letting us laugh at it, and therefore, at Pippin, too.

            Because of this self-awareness, we—as audience—become a part of the event, a part of the action, more so than with any other musical. Not only do characters interact with us throughout the show, but we also become a reason for Pippin to kill himself in the finale, as Leading Player tells him he's going to disappoint the audience if he doesn't set himself on fire. We witness Leading Player losing control of the show, so that the show both admits its artifice and pretends to reality simultaneously. Catherine rebels by taking control of her scene and singing a song that Leading Player doesn't know she's going to sing (the song is traditionally not listed in the program for this reason). Then Pippin rebels, by refusing to do the finale. Finally, Leading Player loses all composure and has a temper tantrum, signalling a total loss of control. Leading Player then involves us again by inviting one of us to take Pippin's place. We become the show's only hope of going on as planned. Our decision affects how the show will end (although what would happen if one of us volunteered?).

            Leading Player is doing something you usually only see in straight plays by writers like Edward Albee or Eugene O'Neill. Leading Player lies, and not just to Pippin, but to us as well. We can't trust him as we would a normal narrator, and unlike a normal narrator, he manipulates events for his own purposes.

Some Days He'd Scowl and Curse

            One of the problems with having movie or video versions of shows available is that people tend to imitate performances without understanding why choices were made in the first place. The role of Pippin demands re-examination, bearing in mind the framing device already discussed. If this is all in his mind, he's not a real stable guy, and with very little self-knowledge. He must be intelligent or he wouldn't be asking these existential questions to begin with, but he's also demanding, childish, selfish, moody, and most significantly, suicidal. Many people in the audience will ask why they should feel sorry for him; he's a rich, educated, white male. What's he got to complain about?  It's an important question to consider.

            He's also very passive; throughout most of the show, things happen to him rather than because of active decisions on his part. This is part of what makes the show so interesting. Instead of watching the standard happy, sincere lovers, we're watching someone who has all our faults and more, someone who is profoundly real and ordinary. We see ourselves in Pippin, and so though we don't pity him—after all, he brings everything on himself—we do identify with him. We see in him our own desire to find perfection in our lives.

            Pippin is in many ways the generic adolescent. He wants complete fulfillment and he wants it now. He thinks no one else is at all like him, and that no one can understand him. He tells Catherine that what's wrong with him is nothing she could possibly understand.

            It's important not to sugar coat the characterization of Pippin. Make him too good-natured, too innocent, too wronged, and you lose the impact of his journey. By the end of the show, he has begun to grow up. He is a child when the show opens and he is an adult—or at least on his way to adulthood—when the show ends. Don't romanticize his childishness or you'll lose the value of what's he learned (or is about to learn) by the end. Don't be afraid to let Pippin be a selfish jerk sometimes. He is, because he's real; and what's more important, so are we all from time to time.

Why, We're Right Inside Your Heads.

            At the end of the show, after Pippin has refused to do the Grand Finale, Leading Player turns to the audience for a volunteer to do the finale in Pippin's place. He knows that there are people in the audience who feel like Pippin, like they deserve better than they've gotten from life. And he tells us that if any of us wants to do the finale, that the Players will be waiting for us, that in fact they are inside our heads. We can only assume from this last thought that the Players are all in Pippin's head—his imagination—too. If we accept this premise, so many of the characters and events in the show make more sense.

            Pippin's family is made up entirely of stereotypes. Pippin's father Charles is the ultimate authority figure—the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire—whom Pippin describes as the most powerful man in the world in Scene 2. Charles is the father figure to whom Pippin can never measure up. By having Charlemagne for his father, Pippin has guaranteed that he can never be as smart, as powerful, as successful as his father. Fastrada is a typically evil step-mother who loves her own son (Lewis) more than her step-son. Lewis is the half-brother who is obviously (from Pippin's perspective) not half the man Pippin is, yet has a much easier life. Fastrada and Lewis represent a frightening and too explicit sexuality, something else of which Pippin is clearly afraid. As players in the troupe, Pippin's entire family is part of the plot to sabotage his quest and to encourage him to kill himself. Why has he created such a monstrous family in this hallucination of his?  Perhaps it's a way for him to not accept blame for his failures. Perhaps they are obstacles he believes he could overcome if only he were truly extraordinary.

            Lewis is Pippin's opposite. He is animal, physical; while Pippin is cerebral, spiritual. Yet Pippin envies Lewis' prowess in battle, his strength, his confidence. Lewis is the kind of man Pippin thinks Charles wants him to be—brave, proud, never questioning. The part of Lewis is often played as a homosexual because of one line in the second scene. Pippin tells Lewis he's shocked he's interested in women. However, Pippin isn't shocked that Lewis is interested in women instead of men; he's shocked Lewis is interested in women instead of war and killing. If Lewis were gay, it would undermine the impact of the incestuous relationship clearly indicated between Fastrada and Lewis. It would also subvert Lewis' position as the masculine soldier Pippin aspires to be, yet never will be.

            Because everyone is in Pippin's imagination, you can play fast and loose with period. In the original Broadway production, costume designer Patricia Zipprodt intentionally dressed Charles in period garb and Fastrada in a modern cocktail dress. Some productions go even farther, putting Lewis in the military uniform of yet another time period. As Zipprodt tells the story, Bob Fosse's directive to her was to do something magical, anachronistic, something like Jesus Christ in tennis shorts. Along with the costumes, props and set pieces can also be from various time periods. Charles can carry golf clubs or a newspaper (like Le Monde, since they're French); Fastrada can have a martini. Essentially, anything goes.

            Pippin chooses for his only confidante the Leading Player, who betrays him at every turn. In several recent productions, Leading Player has been cast as a woman to add a sexual element to Pippin's seduction; this casting also gives the show a much more contemporary feel, to have a woman in the position of authority. Leading Player is the person Pippin should trust least, yet is the one he trusts most—until he meets Catherine. But Pippin is afraid to trust her because everyone else has betrayed him. He must learn to have faith in her as he learns to have faith in himself.

The Players

            False appearances and artificiality play a big part in Pippin. His whole life is just a play, populated by stage sets, props, and actors; nothing is real. He is surrounded by a family who isn't really his family; they're just portraying his family. Fastrada is never what she seems to be; she pretends to love Charles, yet helps Pippin plan his assassination, and she continually calls herself an ordinary housewife and mother, which she clearly is not. In the production I directed for New Line Theatre, we cast the same actor as both Charles and his mother Berthe to remind the audience that these people are only actors, and not Pippin's real family.

            But nobody pretends more than Pippin himself. He pretends to be a soldier, yet with Vietnam still fresh in the original Broadway audiences' minds, Pippin finds he has neither the stomach or enthusiasm for it. In fact, the show's anti-war statements are particularly disturbing considering the time frame, most notably in “Glory” and its softshoe dance break through a battlefield of dismembered limbs—as with most of Fosse's work, it's both funny and macabre. Pippin pretends to be a politician yet has absolutely no understanding of being a leader. Despite Charles' attempt to teach Pippin a last lesson in being king before Pippin kills him, Pippin still believes being king will be easy. Yet when he has to make life and death decisions, when the full responsibility of leading an empire bear down upon him, he crumbles under the weight. Like many people, he wants the power and privilege, but not the accountability.

            Pippin's biggest masquerade is as a monk in the chapel at Arles. Pippin enters dressed in monk's robes in order to get close enough to Charles to kill him. Compounding the charade is the fact that it isn't really Charles—it's a player playing Charles. Charles pretends not to know it's Pippin, although he must know; why else would he offer Pippin this last lesson in being king?  Pippin's monk disguise also reverses the roles of father and son; Charles calls Pippin “Father” as he would a monk or priest, and Pippin calls Charles “my son.” The icing on the cake is that Charles' death isn't even real—Pippin later asks for his dagger back and Charles stands up and gives it back to him. The entire scene is filled with deception, contradiction, and falsehood—except for the truth that Charles tries to pass on to Pippin in his monologue about the price that must be paid for order. Like all leaders, Charles knows there are always sacrifices necessary to achieve progress, but Pippin doesn't understand that, and his inability to see both sides of issues will bring about his failure as king.

Think About the Sun

            There are several important images running through Pippin, the most noteworthy of which are the metaphorical references to the sun (and “son”). As the first-born son of Charlemagne, Pippin is connected repeatedly to sunrise, while Charles is sunset. The use of sunrise and sunset is symbolic of beginning and ending, life and death, an image used in many cultures throughout history, and this image ties the whole show together. If everything goes as Leading Players plans, Pippin the musical will encompass Pippin's entire life, from his birth to his death in a fiery suicide in the finale.

            At first, the sun references are made by other players, but later Pippin begins associating himself with the sun as well. Perhaps the connection comes from Pippin's desire in his first song to find his “Corner of the Sky.” Leading Player knows from the first moment of the show that Pippin is primed to be led into the flame of the Grand Finale. He knows that Pippin is considering suicide and needs little help to take the final step. The first reference to the sun comes in Pippin and Charles' first conversation. Charles tells him that though sunrise and sunset are similar, they are not identical. Of course, what he means is that Pippin (sunrise) is like Charles (sunset) is many ways, but would be a very different kind of king, as we'll see in scene 5.

            Fastrada continues the sun metaphor with her song, “Spread a Little Sunshine.” She sings in one verse about lighting a fire, presumably with an eye toward the impending finale. She reinforces the sun metaphor and even gives us a hint of the nature of the finale by connecting sunshine and lighting a fire with fulfillment.

            Charles' comment about sunrise and sunset in Scene 2 apparently makes quite an impact on Pippin. When Pippin comes disguised as a monk to kill Charles in his chapel at Arles, Pippin says he sees in Charles' eyes a sunset. This is a symbol both of Charles and the old regime. Pippin stabs Charles and becomes the new king. Pippin sees his ascendancy to the throne as a new beginning—a sunrise—as he sings “Morning Glow”. Charles, as sunset, is at the end of his reign. Pippin's discontent is also seen as the phantoms that will fade away in the light of the sun; but he thinks that sun is his reign as king. He will find later that it's really his suicide. Charles' death has spawned the birth of a new world under Pippin's reign, and has simultaneously presaged Pippin's own death. Not surprisingly, like everything else Pippin tries, he's a dismal failure at being king too, because he has such a superficial view of what it means to be a leader.

            In Scene 7, Catherine makes a surprisingly prescient comment about Pippin in her song, “I Guess I'll Miss the Man.” She sings that though some men can outshine the sun, Pippin is not one of them, despite what Leading Player will later suggest. Catherine, the only one in the show who genuinely understands Pippin, knows that he's not supposed to do the finale. She knows that he's not extraordinary and therefore, not a proper candidate for the finale. As the rest of the troupe tells Pippin he can be as brilliant as the sun itself, only Catherine knows that it's not true.

            Meanwhile, the company is preparing Pippin to do the Grand Finale. The sun and sunrise now also represent death and suicide. But by refusing to do the finale, he finally realizes that he is in fact not the sun, not extraordinary. For the first time, Pippin is actually taking action, making a decision. People who are suicidal feel out of control of their lives, but Pippin has finally regained some control over his life.

God

            Like Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd, and other musicals, Pippin has the themes of God and religion running through the show. As Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles is of necessity a religious man (though only to a degree). Pippin tells Charles early in the show that he thinks Charles in the most powerful man in the world, even more so than the Pope. Charles humbly agrees. In the same scene, Charles tells Pippin that he and the Pope have dedicated themselves to bringing Christianity to the world, even if that entails killing anyone who doesn't believe. Charles may believe in religion, but the basic tenets of Christianity have apparently escaped him.

            Before the battle with the Visigoths, Charles asks Pippin and Lewis to pray for victory with him. As kings (and presidents) have done throughout history, Charles believes that God will help them in their killing, raping, and pillaging. But as a university student, Pippin has learned to question everything; and it occurs to him that the opposing king must also be praying, also believing that God is on his side. Like the young adults of today's world, Pippin won't blindly accept everything he's told. He's more educated than his father, but with that education comes a built-in skepticism. Pippin asks Charles if the other king is also praying for God's favor in the upcoming battle. Charles says with a bit of admiration that in fact the Visigoth king is a real pro at praying for victory. Pippin's confidence is shaken. If God isn't on their side, will they be killed?  When Charles' father told him that God was on their side, Charles believed it; yet when Charles tells Pippin, Pippin looks at the statement objectively and realizes that surely God isn't on the side of both kings, in fact maybe God isn't on either side. But they win the battle anyway and in their victory song (“Glory”), they make references a number of religious images. Charles is seen as a minor deity himself, throwing wide the gates of heaven for his people. After the battle, Pippin has a discussion with a decapitated head about the hereafter. Pippin asks if the head will go to heaven and the head says that his king has promised him he will, though that is small consolation. Pippin begins to think dying for your king may not be all it's cracked up to be, heaven or not.

            Later, in the chapel scene, Pippin comes disguised as a monk to kill his father as he prays. As many authors have throughout the ages, the creators of Pippin found the mystery and secretiveness of the church a perfect place for a murder. Charles' belief that God is on his side is certainly called into question if his son can stab him to death while he prays. Then again, perhaps we're to believe that Charles might have been spared if he prayed more than once a year. Maybe God and religion aren't being called into question here as much as man's faith and dedication to God. Pippin has seen that which side wins in a battle probably isn't connected to praying (since both sides pray), and that maybe violence shouldn't be perpetrated in God's name, as Charles has done for so long. Yet the only way for Pippin to stop Charles from killing is to kill him—yet another moral gray area. Pippin kills Charles, believing that he can start a new era of peace, but it's not that simple; peace doesn't begin with an act of violence.

            Pippin's faith in religion is shaken. He realizes during “On the Right Track” that the church is not serving the people, but is instead stuffing its own pockets. When Theo's duck dies later in the show, Pippin tries prayer as a last resort (“Prayer for a Duck”), but his failure only reinforces his observation earlier that events don't change merely because you ask God. The Visigoth king prayed but was defeated; Pippin and Theo pray, but the duck dies.

            All these experiences form the basis of his conviction at the end of the show that the angels of the morning are not in fact calling him to dance, that death—his or anyone else's—is no solution. He begins to see that religion and God are not necessarily connected, that what other people tell him about his life and destiny may not be as true as what he knows himself. Of course, if we accept that the show is happening entirely in Pippin's mind, then what others tell him is actually coming from his own mind. Like his other dilemmas, this too is an internal conflict between what he has been taught (i.e., organized religion) and what he has learned from experience (a spirituality independent of man-made institutions).

The Trouble with Catherine

            The “Hearth” sequence, in which Pippin becomes involved with Catherine, is unlike the rest of the show and consequently, it is also problematic. It can easily be long and boring, and one remedy many directors have found is to eliminate Theo, Catherine's son (again, you have to have permission from the licensing agent to do that).

            There are several things that don't seem to make sense about Catherine. She's the only character who narrates her own segment. Is this a clue that she's going to rebel against Leading Player or is it just a poorly written sequence?  Catherine is a player just like everyone else in Pippin's “life”—she isn't really a widow any more than Fastrada is really Pippin's step-mother. Why, at the end, does Catherine end up on Pippin's side? 

            We can assume that, like all the other players, Catherine starts out the show working toward Pippin's failure. At some point though, she begins to have genuine feelings for him, and decides she won't work against him anymore. This interpretation makes sense if you leave in the interruptions by Leading Player that have been cut from the licensed version of the show. Catherine asks Pippin very sweetly if he will stay with her to run her very large estate. Suddenly, Leading Player appears out of the shadows (or from the out in the house) and reminds her that the line is to be read naggingly; they even argue briefly. Later, Catherine accidentally says a line incorrectly, and again Leading Player appears and corrects her. And—here's the significant part—Leading Player warns her that she'd better stick to the script from now on. He senses her reluctance to follow the plot as it's laid out, and he's not happy about it.

            After Pippin has left Catherine, the lights begin to go out on the scene but Catherine asks for the lights to be held for a moment, and she sings “I Guess I'll Miss the Man.” In the Broadway production and in most other productions, this song is not listed in the program because Catherine is not supposed to be singing it; Leading Player doesn't know she is going to sing it. It's not in Leading Player's script. In the New Line Theatre production, Leading Player and a few of the other Players began to come out on stage during the song to see what was going on. When Catherine finishes, she suddenly sees Leading Player is standing right next to her, glaring. Catherine quickly leaves the stage.

            Her actions show us that Catherine is straying from the plot and Leading Player worries that Catherine may be a threat to his control. It's a perfect set-up for Catherine's unexpected appearance during the final sequence, which makes Leading Player terribly angry. Catherine's appearance here needs to be set up earlier in order for it to make any sense. Her decision to stand by Pippin is a tremendous defiance of Leading Player, and the audience needs to be prepared for this turn of events. We need to see her growing fondness for Pippin over the course of several scenes and her reluctance to see him kill himself.

The Grand Finale

            The end of the show is genuinely bizarre and unlike the ending of any other musical. It is important to remember throughout Pippin that each event, each episode must be not only disturbing to Pippin, but to the audience as well. They have to feel the disgust and dismay Pippin feels. If the battlefield is not disturbing, if Fastrada and Lewis aren't intolerable, if the orgy isn't frightening, if Catherine's estate isn't claustrophobic, the audience won't accept that Pippin has come to the extreme position of considering suicide.

            Once he has failed to find fulfillment in anything he's tried, Leading Player leads Pippin gently toward the Grand Finale. When Pippin finds out the finale involves setting himself on fire, he resists. To convince him, the company sings the “Finale” and Pippin slowly gets sucked into their enthusiasm. When the players launch into a majestic four-part quotation of “Corner of the Sky,” we think Pippin may actually get into the fire. But suddenly he realizes the magnitude and finality of what he's considering and he stops.

            This sequence involves many subtextual implications. First of all, if this is all happening in Pippin's imagination, then he is actually trying to convince himself to commit this fiery suicide. The finale is symbolic of Pippin's interior struggle over whether or not to kill himself. It seems logical to assume from Leading Player's rage and surprise over Pippin's reticence that the players have done the show many times before (earlier, Catherine says in the original version that “they” don't usually touch her hand, indicating that other men have done this show in Pippin's place) but no one has ever refused to do the finale until now. If that's true, then they have never needed to sing this song before—it is, in fact, being made up on the spot. The song's structure is consistent with this interpretation—Leading Player sings the verse first alone, then Fastrada joins, then the rest of the company joins (it's helpful to keep this is mind while choreographing the finale). Fosse told the original cast that the Players wanted Pippin to kill himself in order to achieve a kind of group orgasm, a final realization  of their desires. In the original production, the Players all started masturbating themselves as they convinced Pippin to get in the fire box, rubbing themselves, sucking their fingers, literally miming masturbation in some cases. Like the bulk of the show, sex was a barely concealed subtext to everything that happened.

            But Pippin decides he doesn't want to set himself on fire. This is a great breakthrough for him, and once Catherine has joined him on stage, it appears that his decision is final. Leading Player still tries to bully and shame him into the fire. The entire company turns on him, calling him a coward and a compromiser. This is the moment toward which the whole show has been building, the true test of Pippin's resolve. He makes the bravest choice yet—he chooses to ignore the peer pressure, the allure of fame and admiration, the abuse of Leading Player, the players' ridicule of Catherine. He accepts that he is not extraordinary, and in that moment, he finally becomes an adult. He leaves the childish fantasy and dreams behind and faces the real world for the first time, a life with Catherine that is not part of the play. By admitting that he is ordinary and by facing up to the realities of his life, he is finally truly courageous. He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, genuinely extraordinary. His ordeal throughout the show has been his rite of passage.

How Do You Feel?

            The last line of the show has been a cause for debate since the show opened in 1972. After the Players all leave, Catherine asks Pippin how he feels. Pippin's original reply was “Trapped... but happy.” According to most sources, Bob Fosse thought the “but happy” was a cop out. After all, Pippin can't yet be sure his decision was the right one. He hopes that it will be, but surely he hasn't gone from having no idea what he wants to knowing exactly what he wants in only a few minutes. Pippin has made a choice, but he is still scared. He knows that he has given up some of his ideals and he must accept compromises for the first time.

            Fosse cut the “but happy.” Neither composer Stephen Schwartz nor John Rubenstein, who played Pippin, was happy about the change. They both already felt like Fosse was making the show too cynical. But Fosse was the director and was also very intimidating, so the line was changed. After the show's Broadway run, Schwartz had the two words put back in the last line. So the standard licensed version contains the original line. Because the word “happy” carries extra baggage in the world of musical comedy in which so many shows must end “happily ever after,” it is dangerous to use that word carelessly. So the debate rages on. Is Pippin really happy?  Can you feel trapped and happy at the same time?  Can he acquire that much wisdom and self-knowledge that quickly?  It's a decision you have to make.

 Other Resources

            Vocal selections for Pippin are available, but the script and full score are available only by renting them from the licensing agent for performances. The original Broadway cast recording is available on the Motown label, but with several of the shorter songs missing (i.e., “Welcome Home,” “There He Was,” “Prayer for a Duck”). A videotape is also available, but it's important to note that the video is not the original production—it's a production done in 1981 in Ontario, Canada, directed by Kathryn Doby, a dancer from the original Broadway cast, with several other members of the original cast. People who saw the Broadway production say there are some significant differences, including some added bits of schtick, and that the video version seems to lose sight of many of the show's important themes and subtext in favor of glitz and laughs. Martin Gottfried's book All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse and Kevin Royd Grubb's Razzle Dazzle are both extremely interesting books looking at Bob Fosse's work from very different angles, and they're both worth reading.

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Copyright 1995. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book, From Assassins to West Side Story. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.