(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/25; ‘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.

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