Pippin has had two very distinct lives on Broadway. In its first presentation, it was a star-making vehicle for Ben Vereen in 1972, earning him a Tony Award and making him an entertainment icon for decades after. It also earned two Tonys for Bob Fosse who directed and choreographed the original production. The show ran for almost five years and introduced the song "Corner of the Sky," later covered by the Jackson 5.
With its 2013 revival, the musical garnered 10 Tony nominations and once again snagged a Tony for the performer who inherited the role of Leading Player that Vereen made famous, but this time it was an award for Best Actress Patina Miller, marking this time a man and woman each won a Tony for playing the same role. It also won three other Tonys including Best Revival of a Musical.
The history of Pippin is an interesting one. Originally conceived as a student theater project (then titled Pippin, Pippin) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the musical's composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, essentially gutted all but the name and concept, starting fresh to develop the musical now known to audiences around the world. Since those student days, Schwartz has done very well for himself, having written the songs for Godspell and Wicked in addition to contributing songs to numerous films.
Schwartz and Vereen weren't the only up-and-comers to find fame with Pippin. Future stars of stage and screen filled key roles in the original production, including John Rubinstein and Jill Clayburgh. The role of Berthe was filled by a Hollywood icon, however, when famed stage actress Irene Ryan played her final role, dying the year after Pippin opened. For those unfamiliar with Ryan's stage work, perhaps her tenure as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies will strike a chord.
All of this talent has contributed on many fronts in the last 45 years, but Pippin remains unique and brings some unusual elements to the tried and true formula of musical theater. With amazing visuals and some nearly death-defying acrobatics in the mix, the wow factor for Pippin is fairly intense, although the core story is very universal and focused. With Pippin's desire to find his path, to decide what course his life should take, the journey to self-fulfillment and actualization is at the core of the magical tour on which Pippin takes its audience.
That journey is also one to which the actor who is currently touring as Pippin, Naysh Fox, can easily relate. Born and raised in Rhode Island, he now says that he first knew what he wanted to do when he was six years old and watched a movie starring Anthony Hopkins.
"From that moment on, I had the bug," says Fox. "I didn't do too much early on except a few home movies, but when I was 11 or 12 I was in a production of Les Miserables. I was interested in acting first, but the singing came later and added another element to it. I didn't do much in high school until my senior year, but after I graduated I started getting into some shows."
Fox found roles in musicals as diverse as West Side Story, Legally Blonde and Hair, but it was a production much closer to home which was particularly outside the box.
"I was in a local production of a musical called The Family, and it was written by the Rhode Island attorney general. She was the one who started the Witness Protection Program in Rhode Island, so this was a musical about some of those stories."
Does that make it a comedy or a drama?
Fox laughs. "A little of both, actually."
Along the way, Fox also found a mentor in the choreographer for the 2013 revival of Pippin, Chet Walker, with whom he worked for a couple of years. It was then that he first experienced Pippin, and it came at a great time in his development as a performer.
"When I first saw it, I was at a point when I wasn't sure if I could make this work. But when I saw Pippin, I realized that everyone's going through that. Everyone's trying to find that fulfillment. It really helped me to see that."
Having found some vindication and encouragement from the story of Pippin, it's not surprising that he would jump at the chance to play character. Although he admits he hasn't done much traveling with shows in the past, with the exception of some time he spent in Europe, he was eager to see the country and play this role that had spoken to him so personally just a couple years earlier. He auditioned in July and began rehearsals in September, opening with the show in January. While he already knew the material and had time to prepare, there were some challenging aspects for which he couldn't completely tackle on his own.
"No matter how much I could do on my own, nothing really prepares you for the acrobatics. I didn't grow up doing that, so it's been challenging. It's really a mental thing and such an honor to work with those acrobats every night. There is so much trust involved in what they do, and they have to be ready every night. They can't just decide they're tired and they're going to phone it in some night because if you ever don't do it full out, someone would get hurt."
Fox says he especially enjoys the song which comes at the end of Act I, "Morning Glow," and the scene at the hearth in Act II where Pippin comes to appreciate the simplicity of his life with Catherine.
"I love Act II. He starts to settle into real life, away from the glitz and glamour. It's really an ordinary life, but I really enjoy those scenes."
The show's run continues through June, giving Fox some more time to travel before heading back to his home in New York City and looking for new adventures. He's enjoying this opportunity to see the country outside his northeastern origins and gain some experience in a role he was clearly meant to play. Although the show and specifically the role of Pippin helped illuminate his own path to happiness and allowed him to see the universality of self-doubt, he thinks it does the same every night for the audiences who experience the show live.
"It's really every man's story so everyone can relate to it. I think everyone takes away something different from the show. There's no wrong answer."
Subscribe to whatzup2nite for a chance to win a pair of passes to:
Late Nite Catechism
February 8 • Paramount Theatre, Anderson, IN