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PIPPIN'S SCORE HAD MAGIC TO DO

By Shawn McCarthy

Fall 2003 - 30 Year Anniversary of Pippin

Imagine, for a moment, you are sitting in the Imperial Theatre on Broadway circa 1972, October 23rd. As the house lights dim, you hear the faint distant sound of a single note (an 'A', to be specific) being played on an organ. It swells to a crescendo and the darkened stage suddenly becomes illuminated with a large wall of glowing, seemingly disembodied hands while a piano begins to play an infectious R & B-style 'vamp'. As the hands begin to move in a slow circular motion, the face of an actor (Ben Vereen) becomes visible amid the glowing mass as he begins to sing the opening song "Magic To Do."

This was how the musical, PIPPIN, with a score by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson and direction and choreography by Bob Fosse, began and continued for the next 2 1/2 hours; casting its magic - both figuratively and literally - over an enraptured crowd.

Soon after, the reviews came out, the majority of which were positive - a few enthusiastically so - giving high marks for the direction and choreography with many affirmative comments concerning the score which was often described as "charming," "fresh," and "show-stopping."

PIPPIN enjoyed a hugely successful run on Broadway, and continued to keep audiences spellbound until its closing on June 12, 1977.

Coming straight off the heels of his off-Broadway smash GODSPELL, 24 year old Stephen Schwartz began work on PIPPIN and conjured up a score that was at once melodic, contemporary but also served the story and characters exceptionally well. (He had written a version of the show while in college called PIPPIN, PIPPIN, however this 1972 version was completely new.)

The musical style of the show was not easily categorized and displayed a varied range of styles including rock, calypso, folk, R & B, pop as well as traditional show tunes and were masterfully orchestrated by the late Ralph Burns.

Soon after the show opened, the cast assembled, along with Stephen and famed record producer Phil Ramone, to record the original cast album, which was released in December of 1972. The album sold well and though the estimated number of LP sales is not available, Brian Drutman, - head of the Decca Broadway label - reports that since its release in 1991, the CD (both the original and the recently remastered version) have sold over 150,000 copies in total.

Such songs as the aforementioned opening number "Magic To Do," "No Time At All," "Love Song," "Morning Glow," and, of course, "Corner of the Sky" - to name several - were not only effective in the context of the show but proved popular outside of it and have frequently been performed and recorded by vocal artists around the world. In 1973, for example, "Corner of the Sky" became a Top 40 hit single for The Jackson Five and was included on their SKYWRITER album. The following year, Michael Jackson recorded a single version of "Morning Glow" which was also heard on his LP MUSIC AND ME. "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" too found its way onto vinyl in a 1972 self-titled album by The Supremes.

The pop music community clearly embraced several of the songs but did the score resonate with the musical theatre community? Peter Filichia, a respected musical theatre historian, and columnist for Theatremania.com comments; "His (Schwartz') score was one of the most influential to those who were young actors, young composer-lyricists, and young theatergoers in the '70s. First, young actors grabbed the chance to sing "Corner of the Sky" as their audition song; it remained THE audition song for nearly a decade. Second, soon many young composer-lyricists could be heard playing vamps to their songs that startlingly resembled the vamps of such songs as "Corner of the Sky" and "Magic to Do."

Talented writer Craig Carnelia, who himself was a young up-and-coming composer/lyricist during PIPPIN's run and went on to contribute songs to such Broadway musicals as WORKING and lyrics to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, talks about how the score of PIPPIN impacted the musical theatre scene, "I think what makes PIPPIN a special score is that it was the first time where a Broadway show had a rock/pop sound combined with a theatrical sensibility. There were other rock/pop sounds heard in other shows before PIPPIN such as HAIR but they didn't have the same kind of theatrical sensibility. The first two songs in the show really illustrate what I'm talking about; "Magic To Do" brilliantly draws the audience into the show and tells them what's in store and "Corner of the Sky" is a great introduction to the hero of the piece."

A current musical theatre composer-lyricist who fell under PIPPIN's spell is the gifted Andrew Lippa (off-Broadway's THE WILD PARTY and the upcoming Broadway production of LITTLE PRINCESS) who explains why "Morning Glow" is one of his all time favorite Schwartz compositions, "I saw the production at the Paper Mill Playhouse a couple summers ago and, since I'd never seen PIPPIN on stage (I only knew the songs), that song was a revelation. It amazed me that a song with such sweep and such a beautiful melodic gesture could also function to move the story and the character along. I'd always liked the song but, once I'd seen it in context, I truly admired it." Lippa continues, "It got me to thinking how Stephen so artfully does that in his work; his songs stand alone but they are always acutely connected to the play, the story, and the characters."

That acute connection certainly caught the attention of brilliant newcomer, lyricist Glenn Slater. Slater, a recent alumnus of the ASCAP musical theatre workshops who is currently working on the stage version of THE LITTLE MERMAID with Alan Menken, was completely smitten by the score after his parents took him to see the show when he was six or seven. He even entered a talent contest at a summer camp where he sang "Simple Joys." Slater offers his perspective from a lyricist's point of view, "On the Right Track, for example, works as a straightforward song of encouragement, with the Leading Player telling a despairing Pippin that he's heading in the right direction. On a second level, we realize that the Leading Player has a more sinister intent, and is actually misleading Pippin, manipulating him for his own purposes. On a third level, the audience itself is being manipulated, led into believing that Pippin is, in fact, on an upward trajectory towards the traditional Broadway happy ending."

It's been 30 years since PIPPIN opened on Broadway and during these three decades its impact hasn't diminished. The score and the entire show address unchanging universal themes of self-discovery and how we find our place in the world. It's an important score because it's about how we become ourselves," says Slater. "And when you hear it, especially when you are at the right age, in your teens or twenties, the songs feel honest and true and eternally contemporary."

Like all musicals of enduring quality, no single contribution is more important than another. PIPPIN perhaps exemplifies a musical where the 'whole is greater, than the sum of the parts it's made of," but in the end, for many people, the music and lyrics are what linger. As Filichia says, "There is no question that Bob Fosse's contributions to PIPPIN were invaluable, but more to the point, if he had not had these songs to work with, he wouldn't have had any magic to do."

Memories of Pippin

by John V.J. Gillespie

John V.J. Gillespie is the founder of Talkin'Broadway.com
http://www.talkinbroadway.com

When I hear someone say that without Bob Fosse's staging for Pippin, the musical would have never been a success, that may be partially true but a musical is the sum of its parts. And I've always felt the score was equally responsible for making Pippin the hit it was. I probably went through five LP's of the score; in 1972 theatre fans were Pippin crazy!

The 1972-73 season on Broadway was a wild one and flop aficionados were in their glory. There was so much turkey opening that season that if you didn't see a musical in its first weeks, then you didn't get to see it, period!

  • Tricks (8 performances),
  • Via Galactica (8 p),
  • Ambassador (9 p),
  • Mother Earth (12 p),
  • Dude (16 p),
  • Nash at Nine (21 p),
  • Shelter (31 p),
  • and Cyrano (49 p).

Early on in the season, though, a little miracle of a musical opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 23, 1972. This was just weeks after Dude opened so we didn't know what to expect. When that curtain went up on "Magic To Do" we knew we were in for a great evening. To this day that opening number is still in the top five ever in my book.

Of course, Fosse gets the credit for the staging, but the song was equally magical. Who cared if the book ran out of steam half way through the show? I mean, we're talking Charlemagne's son here in an 8th century musical.

Who cared what Clive Barnes had to say about the score in his New York Times review? Theatre-goers were mad about the score. It was the staging and number after number of rich songs that kept Pippin running for five years (1,944 performances). And it was one of those musicals that you kept returning to see over and over again.

I didn't know a soul back then who did not own the Original Cast Recording, or couldn't sing every word to the score. Pippin was indeed so infectious that when our drama coach asked us to do a musical number for the yearly review, there was only one number brought to the table, and that was "Magic To Do."

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