After bringing acclaimed revivals of Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess to Broadway, director Diane Paulus still has some magic to do, and she’ll be doing it with the help of some extremely dexterous performers.
She’ll be doing it – with the help of some extremely dexterous performers – starting March 23, when the first Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin begins previews at the Music Box Theatre. This new production marks the show’s first return to Broadway since it won five Tony Awards® in 1972. And while it still features the sinuous Bob Fosse moves that helped make the show so memorable, it also introduces a new brand of razzle-dazzle.
Paulus, who saw the original Pippin three times and sang a song from it at her brother’s wedding, says she had a brainstorm when she met Gypsy Snider. A cofounder of the acclaimed Montreal circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, or 7 Fingers, Snider helped the company make a splash Off-Broadway in 2011 with the show Traces, which showed off the group’s incredible gifts for acrobatics and other circus skills.
About two years ago, Snider and Paulus – the latter of whom directed the new Cirque du Soleil piece Amaluna in Montreal last year – began discussing the possibility of incorporating 7 Fingers’ skills into the story of Pippin (Matthew James Thomas, who recently played the title role in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), the firstborn son of Charlemagne (Terrence Mann), and his attempts to live a fulfilling and “extraordinary” life.
“Taking the Fosse and expanding it to include a vocabulary of circus is thematically totally connected, because the life of an acrobat is literally ‘How far will I go to prove I’m extraordinary?’” Paulus told Playbill magazine. “‘Will I stand on my head on top of someone else’s head, will I jump through a hoop, will I walk on a tight wire? How far will I push myself physically?’ The circus metaphor reinforces the thematic issues.”
Not only has Paulus embraced this new concept, but she has done so while still staying true to Fosse’s signature choreography. The famous “Manson trio” dance that was featured in the original 1972 TV commercials remains in the show, and Paulus hired the longtime Fosse collaborator Chet Walker, who appeared in the original production of Pippin, to create dances “in the style of” the great choreographer.
But Walker’s Pippin dances have incorporated the aesthetic of his new collaborators as well as that of his old mentor. Between the seven performers under Snider’s leadership and the usual group of dancers, Paulus had a variety of talents at her disposal that include juggling, trapeze work, globe walking, tumbling and the dazzling two-man balancing act called partner acrobatics.
And as she learned during its pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she serves as the artistic director, the various members of her Pippin troupe are all excited about one another’s gifts. “All the acrobats want to do is sing,” Paulus told the Boston Globe. “The actors want to be on the apparatus. The dancers want to learn how to do flips. Everybody wants to learn each other’s discipline, which is really fun for the company.”
And for the audience, too, who will experience something “extraordinary” through a blend of magic old and new.