show: Pippin

From the first I’ve maintained that the ending is tragic, and my friends all disagreed, saying it was a happy ending, after all, it’s a comedy, and he ends up with a happy marriage and escapes what would amount to murder. The ending is devastating. When I first saw this I cried, and when I got my hands on the soundtrack, I cried, and finally I couldn’t listen to the last track anymore, and watching it now, five years later, I still cry. Perhaps it’s devastating to a certain sort of person, a person who is still idealistic, and whose idea of the future is only one of brightness and glory, though of nothing definite. And there are all the walls, and the practical side of life and all those people who abide by it, who make utopias impossible, who make dreams remain dreams. This is about the only answer we grow to have, that is suicide, and ultimately Pippin refuses to kill himself, not, as my friends believe, out of recognition of true love or of the joy in a simple life, but out of fear and cowardice, taking that chorus he sings throughout the play “rivers belong where they can ramble, eagles belong where they can fly,” and instead changes to “i’m not a river, or a giant bird that soars to the sea.” He gives up his dreams and settles for what he sees as the only alternative to death.

The play is self-aware from start to finish, and we are never allowed to forget that we are watching a performance, with makeup and actors and lines and so forth. And even time itself is flexible when we find that characters can easily be brought back to life, with little consequence. But what throws everything off is when characters begin transcending the play, when they take on lives of their own, and if Catherine is falling in love with Pippin after the death of her husband and the difficult raising of their child, well, at what point did the play begin? And when the script is entirely disregarded, and characters begin making their own decisions, we aren’t sure if they are characters, or real people, or where the stage begins and ends, or what is true.

I expected the performance, which has the same actors as the soundtrack, to follow the soundtrack note for note. Wrong. The first words sung, “join us,” and the rest of the song, is mostly sung in the pocket, deeply. When Ben Vareen does it, it’s artistic interpretation–which seems a bit incorrect in a musical–but when everyone does it, then I grow to wonder how exactly the soundtrack was recorded, all its differences. The soundtrack, released on Motown, sounds like 1972, that is, it fits alongside the sound of James Taylor’s home studio, the brief earthiness of Chicago, and all the other organic sounds of that short era, after the Beatles led recording out of the dark ages but before over-production became the standard. It’s a compressed sound, but it feels familiar. Generally, the vocal performance on the soundtrack is far better than it is live–and there’s no reason it should be this way, given the examples I’m thinking of don’t involve heavy dancing. Catherine’s has a seductive innocence on the album, but much more self-assurance (and vibrato) in the live performance. This also goes for Pippin–whose soundtrack voice contains multitudes, whose performance voice needs the dancing alongside it. Of course, the choreography is stunning, especially Ben Vareen, I could watch it endlessly, and it’s perhaps Fosse’s influence that gives the play its morbid quality, as opposed to the optimistic Godspell feel of Schwartz’s first musical and subsequent work.

This is a play for young people, for people who still believe in the impossible; when I first saw it, it was all I thought about  for many, many months, working at the dry cleaners, thinking about Pippin, and it has not failed me yet–though I wonder if the day will come when I have grown mature enough that I will criticize the play for all the things I once adored.

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