‘Magic to do – just for you’: the miracle of Stephen Schwartz’s musical Pippin

<span>‘Such a parable’ … Patina Miller, centre, as the Leading Player in Pippin on Broadway in 2013.</span><span>Photograph: Joan Marcus</span>
‘Such a parable’ … Patina Miller, centre, as the Leading Player in Pippin on Broadway in 2013.Photograph: Joan Marcus

In the 2019 bio-series Fosse/Verdon, Sam Rockwell breaks out a vulpine smile in a rehearsal room scene, playing the groundbreaking choreographer and director Bob Fosse. As he outlines his outlandish plans for a new musical called Pippin, about the son of the holy Roman emperor Charlemagne, eyebrows are raised among his ensemble. “I know that look,” he says, spotting their scepticism. “Remember that look, ladies and germs. It means we’re on to something good. We’re gonna take what’s here and we’re gonna blow it all up and we’re gonna see what happens.”

What happened? A Broadway run of almost 2,000 performances and five Tony awards (from 11 nominations). Fosse’s production of Pippin opened in 1972 and when it closed in 1977 it was among the longest-running productions in Broadway history. Not bad for a meta musical which continually breaks down how it tells its story. With a book by Roger O Hirson, it spins a mordant existential picaresque set in the middle ages following a restless, rather whiny prince who learns life lessons from a colourful cast and, at one point, a sickly duck named Otto.

Its composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, would later achieve one of the all-time musical theatre successes with Wicked (currently being turned into two movies with Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande). But when Pippin opened, he was just 24 years old, hot from an off-Broadway and London hit with Godspell. Schwartz could seductively sell a story and whet your appetite just like Fosse in the rehearsal room. Take the lyrics of Pippin’s opening number: “We’ve got magic to do, just for you / We’ve got miracle plays to play / We’ve got parts to perform, hearts to warm.”

Few songs capture the wonder of theatre like Magic to Do. “But also the magic of life,” adds Broadway and Glee star Alex Newell, on a break from rehearsals for a 50th anniversary Pippin concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in April. Newell is taking the role of the Leading Player, whose job is “to seduce not just the audience but also Pippin and the players around him” as the prince searches for answers through sex, war and politics.

Newell has had unfinished business with Pippin for years. “I was supposed to do it in high school but I couldn’t because I had to go film Glee,” says the actor, who in 2023 made history with J Harrison Ghee as the Tony awards’ first two out non-binary winners. Newell stayed with the musical theatre series for several years, playing trans teenager Unique Adams. “I missed that time to do Pippin as a teenager so doing it as an adult is wild.” For Newell, “Pippin is such a parable it can stand the test of time.” They saw Patina Miller as the Leading Player in the 2013 New York revival; the role was originated by Ben Vereen who can be seen in a filmed version of that production.

“There have been two amazing people [on Broadway] who have come before me in this role, both award-winning,” says Newell. “Both of them got to show such a different side of what everyone thought they were and what they could do. If you’re a big vocalist or a giant dancer you never get to mesh them together – they just know you for one thing. To have something that’s known for movement and storytelling, and the dark humour of it all, is just so brilliant.”

London had never seen anything like it – and didn’t know what to make of it

Patricia Hodge

In the Drury Lane concert – which features a 20-piece orchestra and a choir of 50 – Pippin will be played by Jac Yarrow, who made an acclaimed professional debut in 2019 in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium. The cast includes Lucie Jones (Waitress), Cedric Neal (Guys & Dolls) and Zizi Strallen (Mary Poppins) – plus the coup of having Patricia Hodge playing Pippin’s wisely humorous grandmother Berthe. Hodge played the role of Catherine, who falls for the prince, when Schwartz’s musical first ran in the West End in 1973.

Hodge agrees that the young composer had a gift for writing across generations. As Berthe, she will sing the rousing No Time at All (“Oh, it’s time to start livin’ / Time to take a little from this world we’re given / Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall / In just no time at all.”) The musical is “full of great philosophy”, says Hodge, who found herself asking. “How can someone so young have written this? I’m older now than [Elisabeth Welch] who played Berthe when we did the show and you think: this is such wisdom!”

In 2011, Hodge almost played Berthe in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival – which added a video game-style concept – but the dates didn’t work out. Pippin was staged again in 2017 at Manchester’s Hope Mill theatre (transferring to Southwark Playhouse) and again in 2020, at the newly opened, outdoor Garden theatre in Vauxhall, at that strange time of socially distanced Covid performances. With a cast of half a dozen to suit the then “rule of six”, its celebration of theatre’s escapism was particularly bittersweet.

How Hodge landed the role of Catherine was the stuff of fairy tales, even if Pippin’s London run had problems. She and Diane Langton were starring in a rock musical version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and had contracts committing them to that show. Then Hodge’s friends Anthony Andrews and Georgina Simpson returned from a trip to New York where they had seen Pippin and told her the character of Catherine was perfect for her. Both Hodge and Langton went to the London audition and got roles – Langton as Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada. They were duly released from their Two Gents contracts. “You couldn’t make that up – someone tells you that you should play a role and then you get it. It was wonderful. At the time you feel life is like that – you realise later that it isn’t and that those things are extremely rare.”

The trouble was that Fosse was now working on Lenny, his film starring Dustin Hoffman as standup Lenny Bruce. Hodge says: “We really didn’t get him until the last 10 days of rehearsal. It had a big bearing on how the show turned out. These days, West End performers are so brilliantly trained, they can match Broadway. In those days, we weren’t. We only had four weeks’ rehearsal … It was not sharp enough.” Moreover, “London wasn’t ready for it in the same way that New York was. They’d never seen anything like it and didn’t quite know what to make of it.”

London’s Pippin closed within three months, by which time Edward Heath’s government had brought in the three-day week to conserve electricity. Hodge remembers generators placed outside the theatres and “a depressive time for West End attendances”. But her memories of the stage magic burn bright, including those of Tony Walton’s innovative designs and the arresting opening. “It was a completely bare stage and then the music started – no big overture – and there was a sudden curtain of light at the front with all these dancing hands, and the Leading Player’s face appears out of it and he sings: ‘Join us, leave your field to flower …’”

If you’re a big vocalist or a giant dancer you never get to mesh them together

Alex Newell

The Drury Lane concert has engaged choreographer Joanna Goodwin and there will be a sequence inspired by Fosse’s famous “Manson trio”, the chillingly silky interlude in a battle sequence that is so captivating it was used to advertise Pippin in a US television commercial. If Pippin is a time capsule of a precise era of American horror – the Leading Player is a cultish figure of control like Charles Manson; the war with the Visigoths is inseparable from the campaign in Vietnam – it still reverberates.

Newell sees parallels with the US today, where “everyone is on such polar opposites … rather than thinking of the greater whole of everything”. It’s a musical about the difficulty of achieving progress, too. “You have Pippin looking at his father and saying, well, I would never do things that way. But he then ends up doing the same … You figure out that change doesn’t just happen over night. You don’t go to sleep one night and have everything change the next day just because you’re in power.”

Which lyric does Newell come back to? “It’s not even my song [in the concert] but Spread a Little Sunshine.” That number is used as part of a manipulative plot by Fastrada but taken at face value it has a simple beauty of its own: “And if we all could spread a little sunshine / All could light a little fire / We all would be a little closer / To our heart’s desire.” Newell recites some of the song’s lines and concludes: “If we did that, and all lent a helping hand, we would be so much better than where we are as a society.”

• Pippin is at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 29-30 April