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Pippin: Historically Speaking

By Lawrence Henley

Pippin is a festively staged musical exploration of life’s endless search for human fulfillment. The show, conceived and created by some of the most innovative creators of musical theatre in any era, was destined for success. Opening on Broadway on October 23, 1972 at the Imperial Theatre, it ran for a cool 1,944 performances, closing on June 12, 1977. Producer Stuart Ostrow also gave life to 1776, The Apple Tree, and M Butterfly. Pippin‘s original New York set and lighting designers were both of Hall of Fame caliber: Tony Walton and Jules Fisher. Standing above all else, the contributions of two of the brightest stars in American musical theatre guaranteed the show’s staying power.

Pippin was altered considerably from its original state of pure pastel fantasy into something much darker by legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse. The show became what was, in its time, one of the most innovatively staged performances Broadway had yet seen. In fact, from the mid-fifties until the eighties just about anything this genius laid his hands on turned to gold. A legendary figure in New York, Fosse was the king of razzle-dazzle; the prime mover behind masterpieces like Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees, ChicagoBells Are Ringing, the self-titled Fosse, and his classic 1981 film, the autobiographical All That Jazz, which featured Roy Scheider as a vice-riddled, hedonistic, and obsessive showbiz workaholic.

Together with book writer Roger Hirson, composer and lyricist Schwartz created a charming, intimate musical, borrowing (loosely) from the story of Pippin, son of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne’s stature during the latter-eighth century was exceeded only by the Pope’s (if even that!). Initially,Pippin was designed to be a medieval-style pageant presented by a troupe of wandering players; the leader of which was to be an elderly man. When Fosse was hired to direct, a much younger man-a dancer-from the film version of Sweet Charity was contacted for the audition. He was given the part, and following the audition the “lead actor” concept metamorphosed into the “Leading Player.” Thereafter, Ben Vereen would become a household name.

Today’s audiences may be inclined to view Pippin as a period piece. In the day of its creation, the music and lyrics typified the “tres hip” genre known as the rock musical. Certainly, Pippin bears much musical resemblance to other hits of the era:Hair, Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, the soundtrack was so completely in tune with the times that the famed Motown label did the pressing, loaning a trio of the show’s hits to its own artists: The Jackson Five/Michael Jackson (“Corner of the Sky,” “Morning Glow”) and The Supremes (“Guess I’ll Miss the Man”).

While*Pippin’*s characters were based primarily on the legends of historical figures from medieval Western Europe, they became caricatures, not likenesses, of their namesakes. The youthful lead (first played by John Rubinstein) only vaguely resembled a prince of the Frankish Empire (actually named Pepin). The rudimentary explanation of the character’s origins is that in life he was the son of King Charlemagne, generally acknowledged to be the greatest of all medieval kings. Pippin’s grandmother, Bertrada (“Berthe Greatfoot”), is also portrayed in the show. We know that the ruler divided his Empire in 806 A.D. among three sons: Pepin (Carloman), Charles, and Louis. Both Pepin (king of Italy) and younger brother Charles (king of Neustria) died prematurely (respectively in 810 and 811 A.D.). Only Louis “the Pious” remained alive to sit on the throne, and, as a ruler, Louis was so absorbed in sanctimony that he was only semi-competent to govern in such a ruthless era. Pippin instead portrays “Lewis” as a narcissist.

In reality, of course, things were more complicated: Charlemagne actually had two sons named Pepin! Pippin‘s lead character seems to draw traits from both of their profiles, merging them into a single prince. The first son, known as “Pepin the Hunchback,” was sired in Charlemagne’s earliest union with Himiltrude, thirteen-year-old daughter of the Lombard king. The marriage was arranged by Bertrada, contrary to the young ruler’s wishes. Charlemagne acquiesced, but after usurping his father-in-law’s kingdom the marriage was annulled, rendering his first son illegitimate. Contrary to the play, while attractive, his good looks were marred by a spinal deformity (hence the nickname). Despite the divorce, Pepin probably had faint ideas of succeeding his royal father, but was never a contender to inherit the throne. Nonetheless, the bastard became a popular figure in the Carolignian court.

In Pippin, the prince is convinced by others to murder his father, an act founded in historical fact. Permitted to remain at court, the hunchback became a target for those who tried to hold sway with him in order to curry favor with, or, conversely, overthrow the king. In 792 A.D., several out-of-favor courtiers capitalized on Pepin’s envy of his stepbrothers, persuading him to play a featured role in a botched coup d’etat. Useful in carrying out the murders of the king, his wife, and their three legitimate sons, Pepin was to be crowned as a “puppet” king. The scheme could have worked, but a priest caught wind and the plot was exposed. Charlemagne arrested, tried, and executed all other conspirators. Unsurprisingly, the hunchback’s sentence was commuted in short order, and he was sent to a monastery to live as a monk, dying there after two decades in seclusion.

The second Pepin was originally dubbed “Carloman,” a name borrowed from Charlemagne’s deceased brother and uncle. The rechristening was likely a protective move to see that the hunchback was removed entirely from the line of succession, initiated by his stepmother Hildegarde (Pippin’s Fastrada), third wife to Charlemagne and daughter of the Prussian ruler. Pepin was eldest of the king’s legitimate sons, destined to become ruler of Italy and eventually heir to the Holy Roman Empire. The education of his children in the liberal arts was most important to Charlemagne. In the Frankish tradition it was also dictated that male heirs would learn horsemanship, as well as practice the skills of war and the art of the hunt. In life, Pepin sired a son, Bernard, and five daughters.

To the point: we see any number of these elements introduced into Pippin. The young prince returns from the University in Padua. His wicked stepmother Fastrada does her best to see her stepson disinherited in favor of her own son, “Lewis.” Pippin learns that “War is a Science.” Prompted by the Leading Player’s accusations of malfeasance and oppression of the people, Pippin vanquishes his father and becomes king.

At the end of the play, we see him with a family of his own. What the play adds to the true story of Pippin is the theme of fulfillment: most things he encounters in the life of play fulfill him only temporarily. He carries on the search for happiness throughout three-fourths of the show, concluding it once he learns that life’s true joy is only experienced through a deeper sense of love.

Integrating biographical facets and emotional themes with a musical theatre style that runs from commedia to vaudeville and burlesque, Pippinsymbolizes the search for satisfaction of a youth born into a life of privilege. While he may be heir to his father’s throne, he seeks his own place in life: a “Corner of the Sky” that’s his alone. This central theme of the play was very much in tune with the post-hippie period in which the show was first produced: wealth, knowledge, and power can’t buy love, peace, family, or the sense of individualism-all buzzwords from that era. The play demonstrates that these are the only things in life that ultimately can fill Pippin’s inner void.

Pippin is led through a series of experiences throughout the journey of the play reminiscent of the late-medieval morality drama Everyman. Sent on a visit with manifestations representing all of mortal life’s weaknesses, Everyman learns through his humbling adventure that Pride, Strength, Knowledge, Fellowship, the Four Wits, and other manifest human qualities are at best fleeting, and they will not take him where he ultimately wants to be (in heaven). Mortals can only be turned asunder when they misplace their faith and trust in these things. In turn, Pippin is tempted by and dabbles in greed, lust, gluttony, control, and many of life’s other excesses and temptations; all of this leads him to the realization that, ultimately, investing heavily in any of them will not bring him happiness.

The play also has a commonality with Marlowe’s tour of the supernatural, Doctor Faustus. Faustus finds that becoming all-powerful through the practice of black magic will ultimately contribute to his undoing. Given that his privileges, fair-haired looks, and carte blanche status in the world could be likened to that of a rock star or an elite politician, Pippin has the power to experience all of the temporary “highs” that life offers: triumph in battle and politics; scores of beautiful women who can’t keep their hands off of him, and the like. Yet in none of this extreme fortune and success can he find anything but the most tentative fulfillment. Until he can learn that the key to happiness is the process of throwing off all avarice and lust, there will be no satisfaction in Pippin’s life.

In the end, Pippin grows up. As the curtain falls, he understands that the rewards which can be claimed by those who shun darkness might well be life’s best.

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