Last night I saw the revival of Pippin, a Broadway musical Tony winner from 1973 that has been a favorite among high schools and community theatres, but not so much with larger venues, at the Cadillac Palace Theater.
It has some issues.
The main character, Pippin, is roughly inspired by Charlemagne’s eldest son, a hunchback whose claim to the throne was tossed aside early in his life. With nothing to plan for, Pippin was lost, hanging with the wrong crowd, too unsure of his future to make anything of his life. Finally, he gets involved in an overthrow plot that goes comically wrong and spends the last two decades of his life in a monastery.
But lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer Roger Hirson saw something else. They saw an “Everyman” who wants to be extraordinary; a young person terrified of being ordinary. So the creative team (which of course was led by the bullying, sex-obsessed genius Bob Fosse) came up with a traveling band of “players” who guide Pippin through a series of life experiments and, in a surprise finale, encourage him to take an extraordinary act at last.
This being a Broadway musical, we can pretty much guess from the second song that as hard as our Everyman searches for something outside of the quotidian world, by the end he will understand that the most ordinary of lives are often the most inspiring and fulfilling.
Alright. I admit that I’m a Broadway nut. My degree is in theatre for goodness sake. So I’m fascinated with the story behind the story of Pippin, the changes and revamping of the script and characters, how an iconic show gets developed.
The most current revival, the 2013 Tony winner directed by Diane Paulus isn’t drastically different from the original. But it’s different enough—a more physical emphasis here, a different ending there—that this production sees something honorable in the ordinary life. This adaptation comes with the clear message that while our lives may seem ordinary, our thoughts are riling rolling waves of searching and wanting and imagining. The players of Pippin are alive in our heads giving us advice and warnings and often, pointing us in the wrong direction just for fun.
I feel a certain kinship with Pippin in that I’m a writer who is always looking for that one of a kind, extraordinary story. The character and situation that will stand out from the crowd, that will make my book as much of an institution as Harry Potter.
Or am I?
It’s a valid question because when I sit down to write, it’s not about queens and presidents or the one person on the planet who can save us. It’s about the quotidian aspects of life, the rhythms of our daily rituals, the “everywoman” down the street who wakes up to find that on this day, the rhythms feel off and she must now discover why and what to do about it.
At StoryStudio we don’t judge the size or genre or extraordinariness of a story, but rather how that story is told.
Big themes are important and large-scale events can drive plot, but so can those small, everyday wants that we may not pursue but that are still alive in our heads and hearts. Think about Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, or how even in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor is less concerned with being a cockroach and more concerned with how he’ll get through his day.
When I think about those “extraordinary” characters in stories, it’s not their grand acts that interest me. Rather, it’s how they experience the small, gnawing perturbations of their personal lives that gets my attention.
Real life after all is as extraordinary as it gets.