Friday Fave: Pippin (1972)

If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free.

Those words blew my mind in seventh grade. What a contradiction!

This wasn't my first encounter with Pippin. Not by a long shot. My parents fondly recollect that I watched the VHS of Pippin so much as a toddler that the tracking got permanently broken. (I alternated with Sweeney Todd when I needed a break, which I guess explains a lot about me.) At that age I didn't understand that those were severed limbs flying onstage during “Glory” or that “With You” is a literal orgy. I liked the glowing hands in “Magic to Do” and the fun marching in “War is a Science” and that awesome, awesome Stephen Schwartz music. There was something fun, cheeky, and just a little bit beyond my comprehension about the show and of course I loved the hell out of it.

Back to seventh grade. My piano teacher knew I had a burgeoning love of musical theatre, so in the summer she would assign me vocal selection books instead of etudes. I remember enjoying Phantom of the Opera another year, but Pippin was the standout of all the summertime lessons. Although I understood much more of it in seventh grade than as a toddler, I still didn't understand the orgy, which explains why I tried to convince my local children's theatre to put it on as their summer show. And they did! Somehow they edited out the naughty bits (we didn't have high school versions of shows then) and thin-as-a-toothpick 12-year-old Jonathon got cast as the muscle-bound idiot soldier, Lewis. Funny, right? I thought so at the time, too!

Pippin for me at that age may have been the first time I realized that there was a thing called 'existential crisis,’ though I'm not sure if I knew to describe it by those words. Pippin spends most of the show floundering, not knowing who he is or what he wants from life. Only at the very end does he choose, and it's a tough choice to make. His entire world comes crashing down as his narrator-guide literally tears down the set, rips off costumes, and stops the music. Pippin is naked on an empty stage with just his wife and child. Now, there was something smart, dangerous…and still just a little bit beyond my comprehension about the show. Of course I loved it all the more for it.

College. Studied Medieval drama and Commedia del Arte. Picked apart storytelling/playwriting structure. Admired Arnold Schoenberg and disparaged Claude-Michel Schonberg. Graduated with honors, tied myself to musical theatre, moved to New York. I finally got the tools to be critical of Pippin. Its structure is unwieldy. Its music is a bit too attached to the 1970s. And those existential, adult, serious themes I once ate up now make me groan. When I wasn't an adult, Pippin felt like everything adulthood was going to be, but now that I am an adult, my life doesn't really resemble anything Pippin went through.

And yet. Sometimes when I'm writing a song I think “Yeah, I can justify this music choice because Pippin did something similar.” Or when I'm coaching someone on a song I start imagining how Ben Vereen's Lead Player would perform it. Or when an actor hands me “Corner of the Sky” and I just get lost in the sixteenth notes again. Pippin may not be as relevant to my life anymore, but it's certainly made an impact. I'm the adult I am today because I discovered Pippin in my childhood.