It may not be in the valley quite yet, but it’s still the hottest ticket at the box-office of ASU Gammage in Tempe. Pippin, the Broadway musical first burst onto the scene at the Imperial Theater in New York on October 23, 1972, eventually closing on June 12, 1977. It ran for 1,944 performances. Now, more than forty years later, the show has returned in a glittering, colorful, eye-popping, re-imagined production with a brand new setting and a brand new cast… all except for one member.
John Rubenstein both originated and helped develop the lead role of Pippin in ’72 and now returns to the show forty years later, though not as a young man eagerly looking for his corner of the sky, but as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne who might not be the one to reveal what Pippin is looking for, but at least he can point him in the right direction, in a roundabout way.
Recently I had the chance to talk with John Rubenstein regarding the show, the original production and how it was he became involved with the new production. I began by asking whether he approached the show or if the show approached him.
“I happened to be in New York to speak at my 50th high school anniversary,” John explained. “I spent the weekend there, and on Friday late, my agent called me and said, ‘Hey John, they want to see you Monday morning to audition for taking over King Carlemagne on Broadway for Pippin,’ and I said. “Wow, how fun.’ So he sent me fifteen pages of the song that I sing plus all the scenes that I have in the show, and I went in on Monday morning and I sang them the song, read all the scenes, and then they made me do it all over again, and then some weeks later I was opening on Broadway.”
Considering that the writer/director/musician and actor not only starred as the original Pippin but helped develop the character, was there a moment of adjustment while getting used to a new approach on something he already knew?
“Obviously I knew the play very well,” he agreed, “So it was sort of like coming home, but to a house that’s been entirely redecorated in which a completely new family is living. So, I didn’t really have to adjust, I had to learn my part, I was rehearsed mostly by the assistant stage manager at the time and the dance captain and the lady who was the swing who is now playing my wife Fastrada in this touring production, and she was the swing and understudy to many shows on Broadway, but it was those three people mostly that I was working with, and then I was on.”
Did John ever find himself biting his tongue when he witnessed scenes in rehearsal for the new production that he considered might not be working as well as he remembered them in the ’72 original?
“Well, yes, I guess so,” he replied after a moment’s pause. “But not really biting my tongue; I’m pretty outspoken. I had a lovely talk with the director, Diane Paulus, and I was mostly asking her questions, because by that time I had rehearsed for about a week and a half and there were things that I was supposed to be doing that I didn’t quite understand. So we had a long talk about it and I think it was very fruitful, you know, she listened to me and I definitely listened to her and some little adjustments were made, and that was very helpful, but, yeah, every now and then I get a little wave of wishing that the audience could experience this little moment or that little song or dance the way it was forty years ago, but that’s just an old man’s nostalgia, that’s nothing to do with live theatre.”
John had to learn a new talent for the role of the king and that was knife-throwing. Was learning this most traditional of circus tricks difficult for him?
“Well, it is difficult,” he agreed, laughing. “Every night it’s a new challenge. It’s nowhere near as difficult as some of the things the other people are doing – jumping off of high places and catching each other an inch before they hit the ground, you know, and doing incredible works of acrobatics and juggling and amazing muscle work and trapeze work – but I don’t do anything like that. But the throwing of the knives was challenging and, yeah, every night I hope to get it right.”
The original production was an opportunity for director/choreographer Bob Fosse to showcase his particular style. As this re-imagined production has fresh choreography, how much of Fosse’s original work is retained, if any?
John paused for thought. “Hmm,” he began, and then paused again. After another second or two he said, as if thinking out loud, “I would say – and I don’t know if I’m exactly correct – but there’s about thirty-five to forty percent of the choreography is really very close if not exactly Fosse’s choreography. The flavor’s definitely there. Chet Walker the choreographer joined the (original) cast of Pippin after I had left so I don’t know exactly when he joined it or how long he was in it, but he worked with Fosse then and subsequently, so he was very familiar with Fosse’s body language and motivational approach, so in working with these dancers he definitely did his own choreography throughout the show, but at key moments he went back to the original Pippin choreography.”
Those who saw the original show may remember how it ended, but newer productions have altered things, giving the meaning behind the musical and what happens to Pippin, his leading lady Catherine and her son Theo a different twist. How did John react when seeing the new ending for the first time?
“To be very honest, I didn’t like it at all,” he said without hesitation. “It didn’t originate with this production; it originated at least twelve or so years ago. I saw a production of Pippin up in Seattle that a friend of mine was in, and it was a sort of usual Pippin and then suddenly at the end young Theo remained on stage and the Players came sneaking back up on and enveloped him in their sinister arms and took him away, and I thought that was terrible. I think that the Pippin story that involves Pippin fighting whatever it is he’s fighting in the form of that Leading Player can be interpreted in a number of different ways. But it’s definitely a fight, whether it’s everyman versus the devil or a Faustian thing, or else it’s a Macbethian kind of thing where the Leading Player is Pippin’s witches, his inner darkness that’s talking to him all the time, leading him into bad behavior, but the old Pippin used to vanquish that force and approach his life, sort of, like the end of The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman tears into the wedding and rips the bride out of her fiancee’ s hands and they run out and then they sit in that bus in the last shot of the movie, and one of the things that makes the movie so great is that they sit there, side by side, and look rather forlorn and say, uh-oh, you know, now what? And Pippin used to have that ending.”
So, with that in mind, has he become used to the new conclusion?
“Now I’m a company man,” he said, “So I love the new ending. And it’s not political, it’s what it is, you know, you get into a play and you have to believe what you’re doing on the stage or else you should be, you know, selling shoes somewhere.”
How about the way the opening number begins? Magic to Do had a distinctive look and style in the original and now it changes the whole tone of the show. What was John’s first reaction when seeing the difference?
“The change is throughout,” he explained, “It’s not just Magic to Do. Obviously Magic to Do is the first thing you see, so you notice it there if you know the old production and that’s your first exposure to it. But basically it’s a re-imagining of the background, the format, the frame of the show. Fosse had it sinister, dark and ballet dancing. Diane has it very explosive, colorful and circus. So, I accept that. I think it’s actually a brilliant idea that she’s had. And the story still gets told very eloquently and beautifully. So I think one of reasons the show hasn’t been revived in decades on Broadway is because of that, because of asking, ‘So how do we do it without just copying what Fosse did, how do we do it differently?’ Nobody could come up with anything until Diane got with Gypsy Snider and they said, ‘Hey, let’s make it be circus.’ So, my reaction from the beginning was very positive. I liked it.”
And finally, how about audience reaction? I pointed out to John that he had played this new production on Broadway before beginning the national tour. Does he feel something different between New York and the rest of the country and how audiences respond to the show?
“I would have to say, not really,” he replied. “The thing that makes it different more than the geographical location of the audience is the shape and size and acoustics of the theatre. On Broadway at the Music Box, which happens to be one of the smaller, more intimate Broadway houses, when we stand at the footlights the front row is literally three feet away from us and the rest of the house is quite shallow, it doesn’t go back very far, nor does it go very far to the side, nor does it go very high up to the Balcony, so we feel our audience right there with us. Every laugh, every reaction, we hear every bit of it, so it’s a much closer relationship in that particular house. The next place I played was in Denver, the Buell theatre in Denver. Beautiful place; huge theatre. The Orchestra goes way back, quite steeply up and you can barely see the back row. Therefore, doing the same show, when you’re standing at the footlights, the audience is like in a vast football stadium in front of you. They laugh and they react the same way but you just don’t hear it as clearly and it doesn’t come back to us so quickly. And so, during the course of the show, it doesn’t feel as if the reaction is as big or as immediate. But it is.”
Pippin arrives in the valley at ASU Gammage on Tuesday, December 2 and continues until Sunday, December 7. For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage website.