How the Guy Who Wrote WICKED ran off with the circus

Over the course of four decades,  Stephen Schwartz has written such blockbuster musicals as GODSPELL, PIPPIN and WICKED.
Over the course of four decades, Stephen Schwartz has written such blockbuster musicals as GODSPELL, PIPPIN and WICKED.

From now until showtime next Tuesday, we’ll be sharing interviews, video clips and other exclusive content about the Tony Award-winning musical PIPPIN, which makes its Bass Hall debut July 21-26. First up is an interview with Stephen Schwartz, conducted by John Moore from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

by John Moore
Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Stephen Schwartz likes to joke that somewhere, “Bob Fosse is surely looking up and laughing.”

He kids about the direction. But not the director. Fosse was Schwartz’s legendary collaborator on the musical Pippin, which in war-torn 1972 brought a surreal collision of violence, innocence and sexuality to the Broadway stage.

Fosse, known for his provocative choreography and fiery temper, died in 1987. Last year, a significantly reimagined Pippin won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, and its new national touring production visits Bass Performance Hall July 21-26.

“I think Bob would be thrilled with this,” said Schwartz, the composer who 40 years ago openly questioned the darkness and overindulgence that Fosse brought to Schwartz’s sweet story of a naïve boy searching for meaning in his life.

“There were specific choices Bob made that I honestly thought were heavy-handed and crude, and not in a good way,” Schwartz said. But now at age 66, Schwartz added, “I joke that I have ironically become the defender of Bob’s vision.”

Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson have been approached dozens of times over the years by artists wanting to revisit Pippin.

“Frankly, I think merely reproducing the original — if that were even possible — would have felt quite dated,” Schwartz said. “And none of the new approaches made much sense to us.”

Any revival would bring big challenges. “The Fosse choreography is so iconic, and the performance of Ben Vereen (seen in the YouTube clip below) was so indelible, even to people who didn’t actually see it,” Schwartz said. “So it really would need a concept that was going to overcome all that without obliterating the show. And that would be quite difficult to come by.”

Enter Diane Paulus, the groundbreaking director who brought the Vietnam musical Hair back to explosive life on Broadway in 2009. Her new idea? The original mysterious troupe would now be a circus family performing the story of Pippin. Now the young prince’s quest for meaning would be a death-defying one, set against live and often breathtaking acrobatics.
Schwartz and Hinson were apprehensive at first. “But I think I can speak for Roger when I say we have been totally won over,” Schwartz said. “Frankly, I think Diane is a better director of scenes and actors than Bob Fosse was. And consequently, I think the story is better told.”

Pippin began as a 17-year-old Schwartz’s spin-off of The Lion in Winter, a play about the foibles of King Henry II in 1183. Over the next seven years, the Pippin project came to reflect Schwartz’s own journey as a young man in his 20s.

Fosse, then 47, agreed to direct and choreograph Pippin on Broadway if allowed to make the story more dark and sophisticated. Fosse brought in Ben Vereen, fresh off his electric performance in Jesus Christ Superstar, to play the Leading Player, a narrator of sorts who leads Pippin down many dangerous roads.

Schwartz says it’s “absolutely accurate” to suggest that, essentially, he is Pippin, “particularly in talking about me at age 24,” he said. “I think more and more that the character of Pippin became a great deal like me at that time.”

Sam Lips plays the role of PIPPIN in the national tour.
Sam Lips plays the role of PIPPIN in the national tour.
Read more about this and more in this expansive interview with one of the leading figures in American theatre history. Schwartz, who has contributed to Wicked, Godspell, Children of Eden and many more, is a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame and president of the Dramatists Guild. He has three Academy Awards, four Grammy Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and, shockingly, no Tony Awards.

John Moore: I am sure you have been told over and over about how your music has changed the course of young peoples’ lives. But for my generation, it was Godspell and Pippin doing the life-changing, and now you have this whole new generation of theatre kids all geeked out because, hey: You’re the guy who wrote Wicked.

Stephen Schwartz: It is sort of strange, isn’t it? But obviously it’s nice that at my … advanced … age, if you will, that I have come up with something – along with my collaborators — that has spoken to people of all ages, but particularly to a young generation.

John Moore: So whose idea was it to revisit Pippin now?

Stephen Schwartz: It was really (Director) Diane Paulus, who had been wanting to do it for quite a while. I was an admirer of her work, particularly on (the Broadway revival of) Hair, which I thought was excellent. I felt Diane had managed to both honor the original but also make it fresh, and that is a quite tricky line to walk. After I really got to see her way of thinking, and her creativity, in a show called Blue Flower at her (American Repertory Theatre) in Boston, I became enthusiastic that she was someone who might be able to pull this off. And, of course, she has proven that in spades.

John Moore: So what did you think when Diane said, ‘I want to put this in a circus’?

Stephen Schwartz: I had actually heard the idea of a circus before. And it wasn’t something that I thought was a great idea, to be honest, because I was picturing a different kind of circus. But then Diane, who has done work with Cirque du Soleil, told me about this troupe from Montreal called Les 7 doigts de la main, or ‘The 7 Fingers of the Hand.’ I went to see a show of theirs that happened to be touring the States. We discussed it further and I began to have a glimmer of what Diane was talking about. But I have to say that until I saw it, I really didn’t truly understand what she meant, and what her vision was. I just didn’t. I think that’s one of the things about someone who is as gifted and as visionary as Diane. She had these ideas in her head that are difficult to express verbally — but then when you see them, you get them.

John Moore: And so now that you have lived in it, how do you articulate to people that this is the winning formula?

Stephen Schwartz: That is a good question. Other than by assertion, I’m not sure that I know how to do that. It’s important for you to understand that Diane did not just overlay circus performance on top of the show as some kind of gimmick. First of all, she integrated the idea of the circus performances into the storytelling. It’s not as if the show grinds to a halt and they do a circus trick, and then the story starts up again. Secondly, the way that she and Gypsy Snider did the circus part of the show, and the way Chet Walker did the choreography, is very special, I think. In some instances, the choreography is a very faithful re-creation of Bob Fosse’s work. And in other places, I think what Chet has done is a very creative interpretation of what Bob might have done under these new circumstances. So it really is a complete re-envisioning of Pippin. This is a revisal as well as a revival of the show — on all levels.

Bob Fosse (center) leads the cast during a rehearsal of his musical Big Deal on Broadway in 1986.
Bob Fosse (center) leads the cast during a rehearsal of his musical Big Deal on Broadway in 1986.
John Moore: How do you think Bob Fosse would have liked this new approach?

Stephen Schwartz: I think Bob would be thrilled with this. I think if we had been able to think of some of these changes together, he would have been extremely enthusiastic about them. Just the sheer sort of theatricality of the staging and this presentation, I think would have pleased him very much.

John Moore: You have said the inspiration for Pippin actually comes from James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter.

Stephen Schwartz: That’s true. It started as a sort of a medieval court intrigue musical melodrama. And then it gradually transmogrified into being semi-autobiographical. And then it turned into the story of my generation — as I saw it.

John Moore: I’ve noticed over the years that whenever you are interviewed, you are so disarmingly honest in your answers. One might even say Pippin-esque —

Stephen Schwartz: Yes, and that gets me into trouble a lot of the time.

John Moore: You may get a kick out of the headline of my essay after having seen the new revival on Broadway last October. It read: “Broadway wins over a Pippin pessimist.”

Stephen Schwartz: Well you know what? That could MY headline on this one, too.

John Moore: You’re kidding … Really?

Stephen Schwartz: Oh, yeah. Because Roger and I resisted for so long going forward. I don’t know if we were pessimistic, but we certainly had trepidation about it. And I think I can speak for Roger when I say we have been totally won over. I am just a huge fan of this production.

Sasha Allen plays the role of Leading Player, the role popularized by Ben Vereen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sasha Allen plays the role of Leading Player, the role popularized by Ben Vereen. Photo: Joan Marcus.

John Moore: You mentioned Ben Vereen. Obviously a huge change is having your Leading Player be played by a woman.

Stephen Schwartz: I knew one of the problems we would have to overcome in doing any big, commercial revival of Pippin would be memory of Ben Vereen everybody would bring into it. You’d start out with people wanting to see that. And, of course, that’s impossible. So we had to either somehow break that — or overcome that. So when Diane said, ‘Well, what if the character of the Leading Player is a woman?’ — that made us think, ‘Well … then you can’t be sitting there saying, ‘He’s no Ben Vereen!’ — which is what I think any male performer would have encountered. Oddly enough, I feel like, now that we have done this — If at some point in the future we wanted to go back to a male Leading Player, there are certain things about the way the show is written, and some of the new things that we have added — particularly between the Leading Player and Catherine — that I think would not go down as well if the Leading Player were male. It would seem a little brutal.

John Moore: And before we leave: How great is it that you have John Rubinstein coming on board to play Pippin’s father after having originated the role of Pippin in 1972?

Stephen Schwartz: Is that the best? I mean, is that the best ever? And this was not stunt casting. We walked into the auditions and John Rubinstein’s name was on the list. There were some other really good people, too. Of course, we were amazed and delighted that John was coming in to audition. But he was the best. Frankly, I don’t think we would have done it if we hadn’t felt that he was the best choice. But the idea of it was so irresistible. There was one moment in auditions, and it was only for Roger and me. John read the chapel scene and there is a line where Pippin says, ‘Time has passed you by, father.’ And Charlemagne’s line back is, ‘And your time has come, my son?’ I mean, hearing that from John? I can’t even talk about it. It was just so emotional to hear John Rubinstein say that line. I know it doesn’t have the same resonance for people who are just seeing the show for the first time. But for Roger and me? That was a pretty emotional moment.

PIPPIN runs July 21-26 at Bass Performance Hall. To purchase tickets, click here.

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