Pippin is the son of fabled Emperor Charlemagne. As the play begins, we see an acting troupe, with the Leading Player inviting the audience to watch their magic as they help in telling his story. We are then introduced to Pippin, who tells us through song that he is searching for the real meaning and purpose of his life, his “Corner of the Sky.”
Pippin tells his father that he wants to be a soldier and go to war with him. Eventually, he learns that being a war hero is not the answer to his quest. So, he goes to his grandmother and seeks wisdom from her. She tells him to enjoy his youth and live life to the fullest. The first act ends with Pippin deciding to lead a revolution against his father.
As Act Two begins, we meet Pippin's devious but charming stepmother, Fastrada. Learning of Pippin's plot against his father, she sees a way to eliminate both king and prince, leaving the way clear for her son, Lewis. She informs Pippin that the king will be alone and unguarded at his yearly prayers at Arles. Pippin goes there, confronts his father about his many civil crimes, and stabs him.
Pippin becomes king and decides that the answer to all problems is to eliminate taxes, give land to his peasants, give money to the poor, and abolish the army. Soon, Pippin is forced to revoke all his promises, and goes back to the body of his dead father. It seems reasonable to ask his father if he might have his knife back, and Charlemagne obliges. The king then takes back the crown, and Pippin is once again alone.
Pippin has abandoned all hope as he lies in the middle of the road. Catherine, a widow with a small son and a large estate, finds him there, cleans him up, and tries to interest him in something.
Feeling that no one can resist a small boy, she sends her son Theo to talk with Pippin, all to no avail. Finally, she convinces him to help her in running her estate, and, for while, he gets into the spirit of everyday life.
Eventually, Pippin feels that the menial chores of running a household are beneath his dignity and he tells Catherine he is leaving. To complicate matters, Theo's duck, Otto, gets sick and the young boy brings him to Pippin for help. Pippin, for the first time, finds himself trying to lighten the burden of someone else, as he does his best to cheer up the disconsolate boy.
As time goes on, Pippin finds himself falling in love with Catherine, as she is with him. Pippin realizes that they are becoming a regular family, and the thought terrifies him. Again, he must leave, feeling that there is more to life to be found.
What is left but the finale! A trick fire-box is rolled onto the stage with a banner that reads “Pippin's Grand Finale.” A player sets fire to a dummy inside the box, and the troupe applauds.
Pippin is not impressed, and the Leading Player assures him that when he, Pippin, does it, it will be for real. He has always wanted to do something extraordinary. What could be more extraordinary than this? Pippin walks into the box, but stops just before the flames approach. Catherine and Theo appear, and Pippin goes to them.
The Leading Player apologizes to the audience for the failure of the promised “Grand Finale” and all the players leave the stage. Pippin, Catherine, and Theo are totally alone on the stage.
Catherine asks Pippin if he feels like a coward. No, he responds. He feels “trapped, but happy.” Thus ends this musical comedy, with Pippin finding common happiness in the world around him.