The journey of a young prince is the subject of the musical Pippin, which opens the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's 48th season this week.
It’s been 40 years since the original Broadway production – and the creative team behind the Rep’s show is hell-bent on bridging the cultural gap between the music and dance of the early '70s and the contemporary styles of today.
A Prince Giving Purpose
When Bob Fosse’s production of the Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson musical Pippin opened its 4 1/2 year run in October of 1972, its folk-pop sound seemed right in step with the pop music of the time. When Kansas City Rep artistic director Eric Rosen discovered the show about a decade later, its story of a young prince’s search for meaning and validation obsessed the young aspiring director.
"I've loved it since I was a kid," Rosen recalls. "There was a 1982 recording of the Fosse production that I watched probably every day for a couple years when I was 12 or 13.
"He starts out saying ‘I need to find something extraordinary to do with my life and I feel empty and vacant if I can't find my thing.'
"I think that's such a trope of all of Western literature of the past 150 years: a hero character taking a journey to find fulfillment and ultimately change expectations. So as a kid thrashing around feeling artistic and creative, Pippin running against the wall and hitting his head felt , to a very over-dramatic 13-year-old, like me."
Into the Future
Rosen said he and Pippin became estranged for about 20 years. But when he began to think about revisiting the show, he knew he’d have to update the look, feel and sound of a show that, if you just listen to the score, sounds a bit frozen in the Seventies.
"We've changed the conceptual frame from the '70s hippie folk rock style to this kind of really driving contemporary sound and rock concert feeling," Rosen says.
"Everything that happened to music from 1972 over the last 40 years has changed how we feel about music and what it expresses and what we can do in the theater. So it felt contrastingly dark in that very light musical style, and since our musical style is more aggressive, it feels more matched to what it says."
Toward realizing the ambience of a rock concert, Rosen and his creative team put the band on stage on a platform that slides back and forth. and instruments in his actors’ hands. Stage lights that would normally be hidden from the audience jut out onto the stage from each side of the proscenium.
Another way the Rep is modernizing its Pippin is in the dance. Brought in from New York is 29-year-old Chase Brock, whose visceral and youthful choreography can currently be seen in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. Brock says that as much as he respect Pippin’s original choreographer, the late Bob Fosse, it was important to stray far from Fosse’s iconic style.
"My first question to Eric was, 'Can I not do anything Bob Fosse did?'" Brock says. "He said, 'Absolutely. I don't want to do that version; I want to do our version.'
"And that's less about reinventing and more about making the story speak to our times in the way it spoke to its times in 1972."
Brock adds, "I would never want to do my watered-down imitation of anybody else. I want our audiences to have an experience that feels totally authentic and genuine and fresh."
Director Eric Rosen says Pippin has been one of the hardest shows he’s ever cast, as he needed actors who could both sing, play instruments, and dance Brock’s dances, which he describes as "a mosh pit at a performance art event."
"Pippin," Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Sep. 14- Oct. 7 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, MO, 816-235-2700.