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Thursday, May 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Composer looks back on "Pippin"

Seattle Times theater critic

In 1972, Richard Nixon won a second term as U.S. president. The Vietnam War raged on. "The Godfather" was a new hit film.

And a 24-year old wunderkind theater composer named Stephen Schwartz created his first Broadway show, an anti-war and generation-gap parable titled "Pippin," which netted five Tony Awards and ran nearly five years.

Schwartz knows that today "Pippin," a pop-infused fantasia about the rebel son of the medieval ruler King Charlemagne, can be considered a time capsule — the work of an "idealistic kid" in an era of social turmoil.

But Schwartz (whose recent successes include scores for the current Broadway hit "Wicked" and the Disney film "The Prince of Egypt") is delighted to see "Pippin" appear again on high-profile stages — including that of the 5th Avenue Theatre.

The Seattle company's production of "Pippin," staged by 5th Avenue artistic head David Armstrong, opens Friday. And by chance or synchronicity, Schwartz's "Wicked" comes to the Paramount Theatre in September, on national tour.

Schwartz was in Seattle last month to perform at 5th Avenue's "Spotlight Night," in a free forum on "Pippin." Later, he discussed that early show, and his feelings about the future of the Broadway musical, over tea at a cafe in Manhattan, where he lives.

Articulate, gracious and busy with several new projects, he said "Pippin" is one of his most-produced shows in high school and college settings.

More by Stephen Schwartz


Music and/or lyrics

"Wicked" (2003) — Broadway musical

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) — Disney movie

"Pocahontas" (1995) — Disney movie

"Rags" (1986) — Broadway musical

"Working" (1978) — Broadway musical

"Godspell" (1971) — Off Broadway musical

Best-known songs

"Day by Day" (recorded by Judy Collins, The Fifth Dimension)

"Colors of the Wind" (recorded by Michael Crawford, Vanessa Williams)

"When You Believe" (recorded by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston)

Selected honors

Tony Award nominations: 6 (1 win)

Oscars: 3

Grammy Awards: 5

But it's just now getting a broader revival. "It has become timely again. It arose out of the Vietnam War and the fracturing of American society. In the 1990s that seemed like old news.

Coming up

"Pippin," music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz previews tonight, opens Friday and runs through May 21, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle, $19-$71 (206-292-ARTS or www.5thavenuetheatre.org).

"Now we're at war again, there's more political protests. A story about rebellion against an unjust father doesn't feel like such a museum piece."

The Broadway debut of "Pippin," which jump-started the career of co-star Ben Vereen and won raves for legendary director Bob Fosse, was aesthetically ahead of its time, according to Schwartz.

"In some ways it remains pretty avant-garde in its structure. It has a play-within-a-play format, and was very imaginatively designed, with some cool scenic effects. And Fosse used vaudeville, minstrelsy, medieval plays, commedia dell'arte — lots of different theatrical styles to tell the story."

Schwartz, who wrote the score for "Pippin" while Roger O. Hirson penned its book, extols Fosse's brilliance. But he also recalled a bumpy working relationship with the celebrated director of "Cabaret" and "Chicago."

"Bob was challenging to deal with. I was very young, he was very established. It was hard to hold my own and stand up for the aspects of the show I believed in and wanted to protect."

Years later, he "came to share and embrace more of what Bob did." But Schwartz and Hirson also have revised the book and score of "Pippin," putting back "some of the heart the Broadway version took out, and more of the character of Pippin."

At the 5th Avenue, the role will be filled by gifted Seattle actor-singer Louis Hobson, with Broadway vets Mimi Hines and Kim Huber also in the cast.

The show entire is in the hands of Armstrong, a Schwartz fan since he saw "Pippin" on Broadway, at age 16.

"It totally engaged me, and the Fosse choreography and staging influenced my own work," noted Armstrong. "In fact, my first professional theater job was choreographing 'Magic to Do,' a revue of songs from Schwartz shows."

Armstrong ranks Schwartz as one of the most influential Broadway composers of his era, starting with his Off Broadway hit, "Godspell."

"Stephen was one of the first to use pop and rock music in musicals, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and others.

"But Stephen came out of the theater. And because he's both a composer and a lyricist, he's a real storyteller. With some pop-oriented composers like Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn, lyrics tend to be second-tier and not the focus."

As for reviving "Pippin," the director says, "The score and the book seem fresher than ever. But I'm trying to approach it like it's a brand-new show written yesterday.

"And even though it's set in medieval times it always had contemporary references, which we've updated. We have a sequence where Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld make an appearance."

While working on new films and stage shows, Schwartz also keeps tabs on the next generation of Broadway composers. He was worried for a while that the great American musical might be an endangered species, but today he's optimistic.

"I think it's the healthiest time for new musicals in my memory," said Schwartz, singling out younger composers Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown for praise. "I'm enormously encouraged."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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