The cast of Pippin rehearses for their daring new production.
Diane Paulus constantly listened to two Broadway albums as a girl. The first, Hair, she turned into a smash revival. The second, Pippin, could be poised for the same. Not long after directing The Gershwins’Porgy and Bess, which earned a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical earlier this year, Paulus is turning to Pippin, which premieres at the American Repertory Theater in December. Though Paulus, artistic director of the ART, remembers seeing the original several times on Broadway in the 1970s, it’s the cast recording that had the biggest impact on her. “It became part of my life—singing all the songs through school and in reunions with friends from high school,” she recalls. “It became the soundtrack to my life.”
Pippin is a tale told through the metaphor of theater. A show within a show, it revolves around a group of players who arrive in a small town to tell the story of Pippin, a prince from the Middle Ages who embarks on a quest to be “extraordinary.” “Pippin functions as a young person just starting out in his life and [represents] the pressures we take on as young people,” Paulus says. “How will we take on the dreams we have for ourselves?” Pippin tests these dreams in war, love, and family.
Just as she did with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Paulus has crafted a fresh interpretation of the original musical. But unlike Porgy and Bess, here she’s collaborating directly with the show’s creators, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell), who wrote the music and lyrics, and Roger O. Hirson, who wrote the book. Paulus says the pair has been very open to revising elements of the show and collaborating with her on ideas. “It’s thrilling,” she says. “The goal has been to strengthen the audience’s identification of the central character of Pippin and the choices he makes.” The most radical difference may be in the portrayal of the theater troupe. Here they are cast as a circus troupe rather than the “players” that appeared in the original.
To choreograph the circus elements, Paulus tapped Gypsy Snider, cofounder of renowned Montreal-based circus group Les 7 Doigts de la Main, whose productions PSY and Sequence 8 have played to rave reviews in Boston. “I read through [Pippin] and thought, Ah, this is supposed to be circus people,” Snider says. “[The troupe] is seducing the audience and seducing Pippin by luring him into this fantasy world of magic. That’s what circus does—it’s this magical thing that comes to your town, and you go into the tent, then you want to run away with the circus.” As someone who essentially did just that, Snider also identified with Pippin’s dream of being extraordinary. “Tempting death is the ultimate form of life,” she explains, keeping in mind that the circus players will be performing acrobatic acts without safety nets. “These artists are defying gravity, defying death, and risking their lives every day.”
Risk also seems to be Paulus’s rule for reward. After her triumphs with Hair and Porgy and Bess, she concedes she risks being labeled the “Revival Queen.” “It’s a fair question,” she says with a laugh. “It’s funny, when directors do Hamlet they’re not pegged as doing revivals. With Porgy and Bess as an example, these are great works of the American cultural canon and they happen to be musicals.” Success only fuels Paulus’s passion. “What it does is encourage me to continue my work at the ART,” she says. And with her track record, Paulus could be delivering Pippin back to Broadway where she left him nearly 40 years ago. Pippin runs December 5 to January 20 at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617- 547-8300