March 22, 2019

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Pip and tuck: creative licence applied to classic

Playwright granted approval for script changes in Winnipeg Studio Theatre reimagining

The ensemble salutes King Pippin played by Wes Rambow (centre). (Photos by Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

The ensemble salutes King Pippin played by Wes Rambow (centre). (Photos by Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Pippin, a musical by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and Roger O. Hirson, has been a Broadway hit not once but twice, first in its original 1972 incarnation (directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, no less) and later in its 2013 iteration, which won a Tony Award for best revival.

Hence, there are questions about the Winnipeg Studio Theatre production — Pippin: Reimagined — which sees Winnipeg director Simon Miron take liberties with the original.

The primary question is: isn’t Pippin enough?

“I appreciate that question because, yes, I’m not your typical musical theatre artist,” Miron says while on a rehearsal break in the Prairie Theatre Exchange rehearsal hall. He says that despite his extensive work and study in the field — he has a master’s degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland — he remains free from excessive attachment to musical theatre canon.

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Pippin, a musical by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and Roger O. Hirson, has been a Broadway hit not once but twice, first in its original 1972 incarnation (directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, no less) and later in its 2013 iteration, which won a Tony Award for best revival.

Hence, there are questions about the Winnipeg Studio Theatre production — Pippin: Reimagined — which sees Winnipeg director Simon Miron take liberties with the original.

The primary question is: isn’t Pippin enough?

"I appreciate that question because, yes, I’m not your typical musical theatre artist," Miron says while on a rehearsal break in the Prairie Theatre Exchange rehearsal hall. He says that despite his extensive work and study in the field — he has a master’s degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland — he remains free from excessive attachment to musical theatre canon.

"I grew up with a lot of people who love musical theatre and love musicals in a way that was so wonderful," he says. "They have boundless knowledge of musical theatre history.

"But that is not me," he says. "I knew of Pippin, but I only read the script about a year ago."

The show has a wandering troupe of actors playing out the story of the title character (played by Wes Rambo), based on the would-be king who rose to overtake his monarch father Charlemagne. The play has a touch of Candide in its portrayal of how its hero’s innocence is relentlessly despoiled.

But what struck Miron about the play is how the other players are engaged in an elaborate plot to compel Pippin to kill himself. For Miron, those dynamics made the musical a potential allegory on the subject of mental illness, specifically depression.

"This group of players wanders around trying to find somebody to convince to kill himself. That’s essentially the plot of the play," he says. "They hang around looking to find somebody that believes they’re special — like a millennial — who is over-educated and under-experienced and believes that they are extraordinary.

Pippin’s ensemble dances through a scene around female lead Katie German during a Feb. 26 rehersal.</p></p>

Pippin’s ensemble dances through a scene around female lead Katie German during a Feb. 26 rehersal.

"They feed on this belief and create this mental anguish in that person and drive them to suicide," Miron says.

Miron found that aspect more interesting than the circus elements of the revival, which are downplayed for this production.

"That wasn’t the angle that we were going to take, and we don’t have the time or the resources to do that," he says, adding he kept in email contact with Schwartz, who vetted any changes.

"I told him every change that we made in the script, and he was incredible at getting back to you very quickly and efficiently," Miron says.

"You can’t rewrite the show and that’s not what we’re trying to do," Miron says. "We’re really trying to interpret it in a way that we can highlight some of the things in it that we find fascinating."

He and his other collaborators researched cults, for example, a subject that proved to uncover a rich vein of subtext.

"What drives a person to seek out like-minded individuals who have something that looks really nice and shiny, and use words like ‘magic,’ ‘extraordinary’ and ‘special’?" Miron says. "Those words can be really twisted easily for people to do kind of shitty things. That was the big angle we wanted to take."

This production uses the 2013 revival script, along with the ending of the 1972 production, in which Pippin comes to the conclusion he is "trapped but happy." It particularly hit Miron where he lived, though the line was reportedly an instigator of screaming matches between Fosse, writers and producers when it was first proposed.

"That ending really kicked (me) in the chest," Miron recalls. "At the time I read it, I was a stay-at-home dad still struggling as an independent artist here in Winnipeg, but raising two kids at home.

"There is something about that that is so indicative of how I felt, holding a screaming baby while I was trying to read the script," he says. "It just hit me really hard."

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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