You’d think Assassins would hold the distinction of being the first Broadway tuner with a number inspired by Charles Manson. That honor goes to the epic 1972 pop musical Pippin, whose first Broadway revival, now in previews, opens April 25. Its lavish ode to war, “Glory,” climaxes with a gruesome battle tableau, accompanied by a sinuous, wordless soft-shoe by the show’s hat-and-cane-wielding MC, the Leading Player, and two chorines in boaters and breastplates. For reasons that may have been clearer to audiences at the time, this unmistakable bit of Fossean irony has always been called “the Manson Trio.” (Bob Fosse was the show’s original director and, in many ways, a coauthor with songwriter Stephen Schwartz and playwright Roger O. Hirson.)
Maybe it wasn’t so clear to 1970s theatergoers, actually. Although she saw the original production three times as a kid, Pippin director Diane Paulus (Hair, Porgy and Bess) admits that she never got the Manson reference. She finally asked Chet Walker, an original cast member now serving as the revival’s choreographer, about the curious name of the iconic jazz-hands interlude.
“I asked him, ‘Why’s it called the Manson Trio?’ ” Paulus recalls. “He said, ‘Because Bob was very interested in Charles Manson.’ It was the idea of the Leading Player as a kind of charismatic leader, kind of a cult leader. That’s a particularly dark way to see it, but it was really illuminating to understand that reference had significance for Fosse: the juxtaposition of song-and-dance and people being killed.”
If the ghost of the late director-choreographer hovers, Cheshire cat–like, over Pippin, Paulus was determined to face it head-on. “When I talked to Stephen Schwartz, I told him that I wanted to deal with ‘the Fosse,’ because his influence is inextricably linked to the memory of this show,” says Paulus, who originated the current revival at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is artistic director. “I knew it was not my strength to re-create a museum replica of a production, so my interest was: How do I make this production feel necessary? Why bring it back?”
In addition to enlisting Walker to preserve some of the Fosse moves, Paulus brought on Gypsy Snider, a founding member of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, the Canadian circus company behind Traces, to give the show a new layer of movement-and danger.
“I was totally turned on by 7 Doigts; it’s acrobatics, but actor-driven, human-scaled, very emotion-based acrobatics,” Paulus raves with the signature enthusiasm that surely helped land her a gig directing a tent show for Cirque du Soleil (Amaluna, now in Seattle and slated for Randalls Island in 2014). She’d been looking for an excuse to work with 7 Doigts when Walker happened to mention another Fosse obsession. “He said, ‘You know, Bob was fascinated with circus,’ ” says Paulus. “ ‘He loved Fellini, and taking this show to a world of circus feels very natural.’ Circus is almost in Pippin’s DNA.”
The musical may not have three rings, exactly, but its main story—about the peripatetic coming-of-age of the title character, the son and heir of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne—is framed as a show-within-a-show, performed by a troupe of traveling players. Adding acrobats to the mix was easy enough, but they bring more than cheap thrills.
“What I love about circus is that it’s all a metaphor: Walking a tightwire is a physical metaphor,” says Paulus. The physical part is the key, she adds: “In theater, I always say you live in the moments where things don’t go according to plan, because then all of a sudden everybody wakes up and says, ‘Wait a minute, this is live theater!’ In the circus, that’s always happening. When we execute some of the moves in this show, it is real, real, real. And the audience is there, living and breathing with them.”
Though she doesn’t plan to literally invite the audience onstage, as she did in her 2009 revival of Hair, Paulus says that in Pippin, “your presence is highlighted: We’ve made an effort to show that you’re in the world of the show.” Summing up what could be both her ethic and her aesthetic, Paulus adds, “I guess I’m a junkie for visceral theatrical experiences, you know?”
Pippin is in previews at the Music Box Theatre. Click here for tickets.