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Working Magic With Pippin
by Scott Miller

Pippin is a largely under-appreciated musical with a great deal more substance to it than many people realize. Because it rejects a Happily-Ever-After in favor of a real world ending of compromise and doubt, and because it is happening in real time and on a stage, it may also be one of the most realistic musicals ever produced (Fosse also toyed with realism in a musical with the film version of Cabaret). Though it is set in Charlemagne's France, it is about the here and now; sprinkled with anachronisms in the costumes and dialogue, it makes no pretense at actually being a period piece, despite its characters' names. It is about America as much as The Music Man or Oklahoma! The show deals with the coming of age, the rites of passage, the lack of role models and guidelines for the young adults of today's society, and the hopelessness that has become more and more prevalent among young people. Because of its 1970's pop style score and a somewhat emasculated licensed version which is very different from the original Broadway production, the show has a reputation for being merely cute and harmlessly naughty; but if done the way director Bob Fosse envisioned it, the show is surreal and disturbing. Even people who've done the show often don't realize the depth of meaning and subtext in Pippin.

When Leading Player says to the audience during the final sequence, "Why we're right inside your heads," the implication can only be that the Players are all in Pippin's imagination (and/or our collective imagination). If you read the script carefully, it's hard to imagine that this interpretation was not intentional; so much of the show's surrealistic moments make more sense if the whole thing is happening in Pippin's head. Of course if we accept that premise, then Pippin is making himself fail at everything; and Pippin is convincing himself to commit suicide by self-immolation. Many of Fosse's friends say Fosse himself had considered suicide on several occasions. Like Pippin, the audience gets caught up in the literal images we see and we forget the metaphorical and symbolic significance of the characters and events in the show.

The show may actually have even more resonance today than it did when it ran on Broadway in the 1970's. As we approach the end of the twentieth century in America, the teens and young adults of our culture find themselves without a road map, without any discernible guidelines for growing up and making their way in the world. The American Dream doesn't exist today in the same way it did in the earlier days of this century, yet young people are still sold on the Protestant work ethic that promises rewards for those who work hard. Graduating from college, hip deep in student loans, the majority of people reaching adulthood now are finding it impossible to achieve what their parents did; so they "drop out" of society and stop trying. They work at McDonald's and stay up late watching television sitcoms from their childhood on Nick at Night. The media have dubbed them "Generation X."

Pippin is a young man just out of college, with plenty of energy but no idea where to direct it. He wants complete fulfillment, the too-hyped "American Dream," and has been told that he can have it all if he just works hard enough. When Pippin is confronted with the mundane realities of life and finds that he can't have his ideal life, he is angry and bitter. His contemplation of suicide is tremendously potent to contemporary audiences as the murder and suicide rate among teens and young adults soars. Our increasingly secular society has lost touch with the myths and lessons that guided earlier generations and that still guide people in other cultures. Pippin is lost. All he needs is a guide to point him in the right direction, but how will Pippin know when the right guide has come along?

The Birth of Pippin...

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