Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pippin: Deaf and Dangerous Theatre

There are few individual words that strike fear into the heart of the erstwhile theatergoer than the cheery sounding “Pippin.”

Throughout the country, from Salinas, CA to Elsah, IL, it’s hard to have escaped this show’s reach. In my youth, the only musicals more often mangled at the hands of pimply teens were: Oklahoma!, The Fantasticks! and Godspell (The last also a Stephen Schwartz creation).

Yet, since its initial 1972 run of over 5 years, it has never made a return to the Great White Way. The televised version starring William Katt (the titular star of The Greatest American Hero) as the eponymous protagonist was a non-starter few even know exist. Consequently, most have either seen terrible performances of this modern classic or have come to rely on the original cast recording to assess its merits.

A quick dash to the iTunes store will remind you of the thin 70s arrangements (Oh, the Wah Wah pedal in “Simple Joys” and the featured flute in “Magic to Do”). A sweet revelation in that walk down memory lane leads you to actor John Rubenstein with his trembling voice, full of hope and terror - always dangerously close to falling off the melody. Vocally, he was the personification of callow youth. His timid abilities actually make one long for the less trained singer on stage. He captures an authenticity of naiveté, hard to carry off with the polish of the well-trained voice that is ubiquitous in the musical theatre landscape of today.

But the voices are the least important part of the Pippin I just witnessed.


Because half the actors were deaf. Nary a word, nor note escaped their mouths.

But a more enlivening production of Pippin, you’ve never experienced.

If you have yet to see a Deaf West production, go. Go immediately, the next time you hear one is anywhere near you. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing.

(Though if you have the chance, also go see “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” anywhere it’s being done – even if it’s a concert version. My old friends Brendan Milburn & Val Vigoda wrote that show specifically for Deaf West with the talented, Tony-winning Rachel Sheinkin and they’ve been doing a concert version for the last year. Check it out in the Bay Area this April. details at:

Sadly, the Pippin at the Mark Taper has closed and I don’t know if there are any confirmed plans to bring it back anywhere anytime soon. I personally avoid Broadway revivals like the plague, but we can all hope this one’s heading eastward. Certainly, there are enough houses empty on Broadway to welcome it, so keep your fingers crossed.

I first heard about Deaf West in 1996 because the theatre of which I was a member (Sacred Fools) was moving into DW’s old space on 666 N. Heliotrope. Fools is still there churning out lots of little, funny, punky shows and Deaf West moved to the Valley and has blown up large. They still only have a 99-seat theatre up there which they use for workshops and kids shows, but they now co-produce their big productions with theatres that have much larger spaces.

I never saw a Deaf West show, however, ‘til “Big River” in 2004. When they started in 1991, Deaf West did small shows, and received little attention. They had a special and specific mission to create work for and performed by the deaf community. I'm not fluent in sign language (ASL), and I can hear, so what would attract me to go to a show like that? It’s not surprising that they didn’t reach a wide audience at first.

All that changed in 2000 when they started doing musicals.

How does a deaf actor do a musical you may ask? Damn good question. And their solution is unique, riveting and…surprise! - exceedingly popular. Director Jeff Calhoun has been the mastermind behind this technique starting with their first attempt – “Oliver!” in 2000. It didn’t get that much notice, but in 2002 he adapted “Big River” and it became a sensation. It went from their little theatre to The Mark Taper Forum to Broadway and then it returned to The Ahmanson in LA which holds 2000 people. That’s where I saw the show and I was blown away.

Essentially, the protagonist and a few other roles are played by a deaf actor AND a singing actor simultaneously. Often, the deaf actor often seems like the “lead” of the two, directly engaging with the other actors more often (when only one of them is interacting). The singer sometimes stands to the side, sometimes nearly off-stage, other times downstage, facing the deaf actor upstage. The focus the singer places on the deaf actor is magnetic. You can literally feel the energy of connection. They become in service of the deaf actor, hanging on their every motion. The deaf actors will sign the lyrics and dialogue and while they don’t often mouth the words themselves, you feel like the voice is coming from them.

Calhoun does a brilliant job mixing it up, so the actors occasionally switch “lead”, sometimes act in unison, or in parallel, or simultaneously, but juxtaposed. In the last case, we get to see different parts of Pippin’s psyche personified.

The most extraordinary moments are when there is a full dislocation between the performers. When Pippin is invited to celebrate his one year anniversary with the widow who saved him from depression, his voiced half wants to run screaming, but his deaf half isn’t prepared to leave and lingers at first. Eventually the singing Pippin tears him away. It’s at that moment we see not only the warring sides within Pippin the character, but we are painfully aware of a new relationship that has been created between the two actors. They are Siamese twins, inseparable but different people. The winning Tyrone Giordano is the deaf physical embodiment of Pippin. He even gets to have sex with the widow “Catherine” while the voice of Pippin, the brilliant Michael Arden, is literally shut out of the room. And yet, after “sex presented pastorally” Arden emerges after this first brief separation smoking a post-coital cig. Those clever devices abound.

When the strapping, virile black adult actor voices the under five-foot tall white child playing Pippin’s step-son curls up into a ball onstage after his deaf counterpart has run off in a tantrum, we are treated to theatre in it’s most expressive form. Our brain does the computations for the relationships and in deciphering that fusion we get a burst of creative inspiration that we can savor. And it is a bounty.

With the Pippin character who rarely leaves the stage, the bond is all the more powerful because we feel a deep brotherly love for which we have no context. Arden wasn’t just a translator. Their love wasn’t quite like Honey to Duke in the funny pages. They are twins by choice, or circumstance in the universe in which they are consigned to live out their days. It was clear that while the two disagreed like siblings at times, one would die without the other by his side.

And Calhoun takes advantage of this, when near the end, the Leading Player strips Pippin of his the magic, his clothes, and the colored lights in order to teach him a lesson for choosing a life path that embraces the ordinary. (Much influence from mentor Lenny and his "Make Our Garden Grow," Stephen?) Ty Taylor’s rippling muscled performance as The Leading Player hit the mark with a part whose name shall ever have Ben Vereen emblazoned upon it. Armed with a killer voice and sexual magnetism, he turns into the antagonist Pippin needs. In a normal production, you have Pippin left in his underwear, awkwardly clinging with to his lover and her child in the merciless glare of the fluorescent work lights. It can be a hokey attempt at a Brechtian device, or at best occasionally moving, but we don’t really feel the Leading Player has truly wounded Pippin.

But in Deaf West’s Pippin, the Leading Player orders his minions to remove Pippin’s voice bodily. They then grab and hoist Arden into the air and remove him from the theatre - kicking and screaming. Not played for laughs – like a Kate and Petruchio - in a brilliant directorial choice, Calhoun actually has Arden play deaf at that moment. By that I mean the man who was The Voice begins to sign and grunt as a deaf mute. While Arden signed for substantial parts of the show along with Giordano, we were given this extraordinary moment of theatre where The Voice calls out to The Body in this visceral reversal - enough to bring a chocked scream to my throat. “They can’t do that. The show CAN’T go on. He was the voice and this is a musical!”

We sat in stunned silence, partially because we didn’t know how they’d finish the show. Partially, in delight of seeing the conventions they’d set-up and broken within the context of the show, but also because this was the second time this had happened in this final performance.

It was not supposed to be this way.

Halfway through the production, during the grandmother’s forgettable ditty “No Time At All”, there was a disturbance. At first I didn’t know what was going on. There seemed to be an additional choral part I was unfamiliar with. Had Tom Kitt (the excellent orchestrator who dusted off Schwartz’s tunes without dominating them with his own voice) added something for the shirtless men before they make their reveal from under grandma’s copious skirts? It didn’t make sense to my ears.

Then I realized there was an audience member vocalizing in addition to the actress. Ironically, at the end of this song, they do encourage the audience to sing along, but this outburst was no song.

Soon I was able to identify from where the disruption was coming. The Mark Taper is a thrust stage (U-shaped). So as I was sitting in the Far Left House I could easily look across the stage directly at Far Right audience members. And there, in the front row, was a man grunting, standing up from his seat and sitting back down in jerky movements. Initially, it was small bits of bothered gesticulation, and then as the commotion grew, his parents or handlers came over to see if he was OK. He moved to leave the theatre. He sat back down. There were no words other than a constant attempt at “No.” But perhaps it was just a guttural expression of helplessness incarnate. The man may have just been a lanky boy, but he was a good six feet tall and he was one of the only black people in the crowd. He kept leaping up from his seat and moving unpredictably. He’d go up three stairs and almost leave, then he’d return. There are stairs that lead straight onto the stage as well and I was waiting for him to walk right up there and continue his distress. The singers never looked, but were keenly aware. They kept going – riveted on their performance of a light-hearted tune about seizing the day and enjoying all the fun that life is. After three balks at leaving the theatre, the boy was encouraged out of the theatre, not to return.

I was devastated and space was electrified. There’s nothing that can elevate the awareness of an audience like a grand mishap. Whether it’s an actor going up on his lines, a set falling over and nearly killing someone, or an unpredictable audience member, it galvanizes a crowd and cast like a near death experience. A passive audience and a tired ensemble perks up at the adrenaline rush. There’s real drama. Real danger and it puts the play’s artifice in perspective.

The humanity in this disturbance was overwhelming. I couldn’t help the tears from coming. I so badly wanted this kid to be let back in the theatre. I want to know how it escalated. Was he autistic? Deaf as well? Were all the sound and light and movement overwhelming and he really just needed a quiet space free from excitement to be happy? Or did a few moments of uneasiness cause his guardians to suggest he leave which he desperately didn’t want to do? Could he have wanted to have seen the show as much as I wanted him to?

What would I do if I had an autistic child?

Suddenly the theatre had become the ruminating center I believe it was designed to be. This light entertainment suddenly brought me to consider my deeper beliefs about the world. It made me look at myself as the parent I am not yet. It made me wonder what my girlfriend and I would do were we to have a child and it was diagnosed in utero as autistic. How would we live our lives needing to care for him throughout not only the rest of our lives, but even after our deaths?

And then I began experiencing the entirety of Pippin in this context. A friend of sophisticated theatrical tastes saw the show earlier that week and reported it wasn’t all that. Certainly Deaf West’s production elevated the material, but he felt there wasn’t much to work with – especially considering he’d see the genius of their 2006 production “Sleeping Beauty Wakes.”

But I respectfully disagree. I’ll grant you the dramaturgical style of Pippin is simplistic and the messages are baldly presented. (My girlfriend who’d managed to avoid the show in her youth actually whispered to me after the second number “Is this a kids show?”) And indeed it feels very “Story Theatre.” Other early Schwartz like Godspell have a similar presentational aesthetic. Were it not for the sex scenes and the chorus dressed like strippers (male and female alike), it could be appropriate for children, but Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson (the librettist) also tackle some serious issues, albeit in simple if not shticky ways. Luckily, the warring king Charlemagne who had to put some of them over was portrayed by ever-delightful Troy Kotsur and voiced by Dan Callaway and I was happy to watch their antics.

Their anti-war statement (against Vietnam at the time) could perhaps be heard by its original audience in their comic/absurdist presentation better than the overt denunciations in Hair. I don’t know if the war themes resonated with this audience though. Our ongoing wars have vanished from the news and our nation’s consciousness as the financial crisis has exploded. That doesn’t give any less reality to the 4,259 US killed and 31,089 US wounded. We’re just ignoring it. Just like we’re ignoring another 1,000 US military killed in Afghanistan and the estimated 100,000+ Iraqi’s killed. Odd. After writing those numbers I’d have expected those scenes about war would have greater resonance, but we’ve really compartmentalized those horrors.

Back to the drama. The lack of consequences for our protagonist’s actions may also fuel arguments against Pippin as a good dramatic work. His patricide is taken back as in a child-like “do-over” when Pippin realizes it’s hard to be the king. He doesn’t have to deal with his failures. The radical governmental shifts he tries to impose once he becomes king, like abolishing the army and giving land to the poor, don’t work out, so he simply reverses his decisions. As such, not only do we not see Pippin deal with the complexities of adult life, but it reveals a statement from the authors which is a strangely practically-minded and downright conservative message. Don’t try to change the world. It doesn’t work. I find that particularly strange as my memory of Pippin is that of a child’s version of Hair.

Despite whatever message may have been intended in the work, I was surprised how both during the show and for days afterwards I continued to reflect on my life in response to the performance. Schwartz has not only created an iconic set of songs, but like most great theatrical work, I was able to revisit the piece later in life and see something completely different in how the it held a mirror to my life. I didn’t think Pippin had such substance, but I’m pleasantly surprised.

While Pippin’s music and lyrics may not have the sophistication of any Sondheim, or even Rogers & Hammerstein, Schwartz has tunes that cut to the heart and stick to the tongue. The opening of “Corner of the Sky”, “Magic to Do” and “Morning Glow” are recognizable after just one bar of the piano introduction. It’s hard to say that about most of the pabulum crossing the boards these days. He also knows how to write something that feels good to sing. The entire day before going to see the show “Corner of the Sky” crept into my voice and I found myself humming it, singing it, and then when I got in my car, wailing full blast. It's just infectious and while pop may be derided by myself and others at times, I also know how hard it is to write a hook that sticky.

He was also able to set up the theme of the show in a single couplet. “So many men seem destined to settle for something small/But I won't rest until I know I'll have it all”. The search begins for something big and when in the end he chooses a simple unremarkable life instead of burning up in glory, I couldn’t stop thinking of my own choices in life.

I was once obsessed with breaking ground and creating riveting, disturbing, unforgettable pieces of live theatre. No more. I was driven to explore the effects of technology and apropos to Deaf West, I’ve been fascinated with the separation of voice and body since I first strapped on a body mic as a teen. In 1995 when writing my first opera, my original plan was to have all singers on mic and doubled with dancer doppelgangers. I never got to fully realize that vision. Instead, the plentiful multimedia/video aspects subbed for the dancers in productions of ECSTATIC JOURNEY at Aspen and American Opera Projects. But it was a joy to see Susan Marshall pull off the exact style of fluid staging I envisioned for Phillip Glass’ less remarkable 1997 score of the dance/opera “Les Enfants Terribles” (an adaptation of the Cocteau). That production marked the second time I’d ever paid to see something twice. The first time was to see John Moran’s genius “Mathew in the School of Life” at The Kitchen in 1995. While there was no singing or dancing per se, I’d also call it a dance opera where multiple performers played the same character. Here they would lip-sync to a pre-recorded score. It was the technique I stole from and reversed for my first one-man opera VIRTUAL MOTION.

The intersection of me, the “multiple actors per character” technique and Pippin occurred in 2001 when Stephen Schwartz chose my “avant-musical” WARNING!: eXplicit Material” to be presented in the Disney/ASCAP Music Theatre Workshop.

Stephen amusingly introduced the show thusly: “You’re about to see a show that’s the most left of center of anything that’s ever been presented here at Disney. In fact, it’s…well... here’s David.” I then appear to step forward to give a quick pre-talk, but instead the scene quickly ramps up into a vortex of an opening number involving 3 people playing me, David Rodwin (1 female), 5 actors playing the protagonist (2 of them female), 2 shrinks eventually to be played by life-sized puppets who lip-sync only) and a bevy of sex dancers involved in an absurdist orgy with pre-recorded voice-pitch-shifted dialogue recreated from the worst porn movies on record. Set to a hip hop riff I assembled based on a sample of a bridge from the original Big Mamma Thornton rendition of “Hound Dog.” It was a delightful bit of chaos that won me fans to this day.

Stranger still, it was only after watching Pippin for the first time in 20 years that I realized part of my opening was simply a modern take on “Magic to Do” when I thought I was stealing from Shakespeare, Vonnegut and Chuck Mee. (I’ll explain another time.)

In fact, the basic thrust of WARNING! was that of Pippin. Young guy dissatisfied with life quits his job, and hits the road looking for meaning. Again, I usually thought I was stealing from another source, The Muppet Movie in reverse, as he picks up a coterie of misfits who become a surrogate family. But like in Pippin, he too finds, love and lust, money, power, friendship (no war), and deals with his own imperfections. But honestly, the piece is too big and avant to be commercially produced and I never found an ending that works.

Which returns us to Pippin’s ending. We last left Pippin stripped of his clothes and voice. And we watched in breathless awe as our mute Pippin comes downstage and signs his way through something. I didn’t know what. But it was a beautiful silence. Then his lover joins him and we hear the words. It barely mattered. The way they came together meant everything. As he leaves the pursuit of greatness behind, his deaf step-son sneaks back to the stage and we hear the trope of “Corner of the Sky” when...the immortal actor who played his voice returns to accompany the optimism of a new generation. Maybe this time.

1 comment:

  1. Wish I could have been there. I worked with a theatre co. here in Philly that did a Deaf MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING-- well, Deaf & Hearing-- the main characters did all the signing, and actors in minor roles did their speaking. It was like watching a Bruce Lee movie with talking instead of hitting. Damn cool.