Apr 25, 2013

Pippin: a Gay Piece of the Sky

In high school (1975-78) and college (1978-82), I hung out with the drama club crowd and played in the orchestra, so I spent a lot of time playing in, going to, and analyzing musicals.  I saw Pippin on stage at least three times, including a 1978 performance with a young Chris Young, who would go on to become a Hollywood star. Its bare sets, broken fourth wall, and tinkly songs made it a favorite of high school drama clubs (photo is from an Eagan, Minnesota production starring Jordan Oxborough).








It has a theme similar to that of Peer Gynt: Pippin, son of King Charlemagne, sets out to find where he belongs in the world.   He tries becoming a scholar, a warrior, a hedonist, and a fighter against tyranny -- butting heads with the gay-vague villain Lewis.

None of those work, so Pippin becomes an artist, a religious zealot, and a tyrant.  Then he realizes that the only true happiness lies back home, in being a husband and father to the widow Catherine and her young son Theo.

Same old story: job, house, wife, kids.  Conform. Resistance is futile. Learn to love Big Brother.

The difference: everyone in Pippin knows that they're acting in a play, they and often break the fourth wall.  The Lead Player, a sort of Mephistophiles, keeps admonishing the actor playing Pippin to have his character dream, experiment, achieve things.

When the actor decides that Pippin would be happiest settling down with Catherine,  the Leading Player becomes furious. He orders the troupe and the orchestra to pack up everything, including the sets and the costumes, and leave.  No more play!  But even on a dark, silent stage, with no script and no final bows, Pippin is content.

I'll take the Lead Player's advice and aspire, thanks.

One thing Pippin never tries is same-sex love.  He doesn't even do any buddy-bonding, though sometimes the androgynous, leering, gay-coded Lead Player seems to have a homoerotic interest in him (or a hetero-erotic, when she's a woman).

And there is substantial beefcake.  Pippin and Lewis usually wear sleeveless form-fitting chain mail tunics that accentuate their chest and biceps, and they sometimes go completely shirtless.  You're not going to see many more bare chests on stage, except maybe in The King and I.

Pippin premiered on Broadway in 1972, and ran through 1977, with John Rubinstein (left) as Pippin and Ben Vereen as the Leading Player.




Other Pippins include Barry Williams (1975, above), William Katt (1981 film version), Jack Noseworthy (2000), Matthew Arden and Tyler Giordano (2009, playing Pippin together), James Royce Edwards, and Matthew James Thomas (2012, left).