Last night I watched the DVD of the 1981 production of Pippin that Netflix had delivered over the past week. While watching it I was struck again by a thought that had been generated a year or so (or maybe less) ago while listening to the (original Broadway) cast recording.
Warning. What follows will end up including theology, musically geekery and spoilers for a nearly 40-year-old show. Just so that you are forewarned.
The realization I came to is that the character of The Lead Player in Pippin is very much a devil/Satan figure. Specifically he is The Tempter continually tempting Pippin into various sins and wrong paths, eventually tempting him to his own destruction.
Of course this whole idea is complicated a bit by the play within a play structure. But when taken as a whole most of the cast are clearly players within the troupe putting on Pippin: His Life and Times, with the exception of three roles: Pippin himself, Catherine and her son. These last three roles appear to be the “real” people portrayed. This can be seen in a couple of ways. First, near the beginning at Pippin’s first appearance The Lead Player apologizes for Pippin by mentioning that this is his first time playing the role. Similarly when Catherine appears she first misses her cue and then is distracted by Pippin into saying a line in a way The Lead Player doesn’t like – she says the line quite sweetly, but The Lead Player wants it said “naggingly.” So, one can see to some extent that what is being seen on stage is the tempting of Pippin largely using other people who have already given into their temptation.
This all works very well, and in the end Pippin is saved from The Lead Player’s final temptation by love. Of course from a Christian perspective this part misses the mark by a bit – since the love that saves Pippin is his love for Catherine and her son, not the sacrificial love of Christ. But the love of family is in many ways a reflection of Christian love – and one could even point out that Pippin sacrificed himself for this love by giving up both his search for purpose and meaning in life, and to some extent his freedom and position.
Of course while contemplating the possibly underlying theology – which may or may not have been intended by the creators of the show – I still managed to enjoy this production. I had seen it once before – probably around 1983 or 1984 when it aired on Showtime during the fairly brief period when we had Showtime before a change in cable companies took it away and replaced it with HBO.
I did notice a few thing with this production.
First, it appears that a couple of numbers were trimmed (“War is a Science”) or removed (“I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”). But that may have been to keep the total running time under 2 hours for broadcast on non-commercial television.
Second, during several number I noticed that Ben Verene (The Lead Player) was sweating quite a bit. Now some of this was probably because of the stage lights – which may have been extra bright to deal with circa 1981 video cameras. But I’m sure a lot of it was due to the exertion of his dancing. A couple of times William Katt (Pippin) was also noticeably sweaty.
Third, it was interesting to note that while the production has aged very well – i.e. other than the 1972 musical styles, everything in appearance would probably play well in 2010 – a few shots of the audience were quite dated. Similarly most of the actors that I’ve seen recently (or at least William Katt) looked noticeably younger.
Fourth, the cast was quite good. Only Ben Verene was repeating his role from Broadway 9 years earlier. With Irene Ryan having died or just after the original run, Martha Raye was a very suitable substitute (and perhaps more recognizable to 1981 audiences than Ryan would have been if she were still living). And the casting of Chita Rivera in the role of Fastrada was probably as close to a coup as getting Verene to reprise his role.
And finally, during one of the early scenes with Charlemagne it occurred to me that Bryan Blessed could easily have filled that role around the same time – albeit probably in a British production, not that the accent would have been a problem. Of course I cannot help but suspect that I was struck by that thought due to his playing a slightly similar role in The Black Adder. (And if you doubt that he could do a musical – note that he originated the roles of Bustopher Jones and Old Deuteronomy in the London production of Cats and is featured in the cast recording.)