November 2, 2005
Mention “Pippin” to anyone familiar with 1972’s original Broadway version of the musical and the immediate response isn’t likely to include Stephen Schwartz’s music, songs like “Corner of the Sky,” or even Roger O. Hirson’s story of the son of King Charlemagne and his quest for ultimate happiness. The most indelible mark made by “Pippin” was its choreography. The Broadway musical was at a crossroads – or, more accurately, in the doldrums – at the time, and what seemed to be the way out was sex. Or at least the suggestion of such, in hip-shaking, pelvis-thrusting and butt-wiggling movement. For the moment it worked; “Pippin,” with plenty of all of the above, spent nearly five years on Broadway, racking up over $3 million in profits.”It was Bob Fosse, is what it was. For its time, it broke ground,” says Wendy Moore, referring to the director and choreographer responsible for the sexual overtones of the original “Pippin.” Moore didn’t see Fosse’s version, but first experienced “Pippin” on a video, featuring original star Ben Vereen, which she believes may have been even more suggestive than the stage production. “It was very much a dance show – and a vehicle for Ben Vereen.”Audiences leaving Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “Pippin,” which opened last night at the Aspen District Theatre, are more likely to exit singing “Magic to Do” than fantasizing about the Leading Player’s and Catherine’s bodies. Moore, director of ACT’s production, isn’t Bob Fosse. Quite the opposite. The 58-year-old mother of two recently retired from a 30-year career in public-school education, most recently as principal of Carbondale’s Roaring Fork High School. 2005 isn’t 1972. And ACT isn’t Broadway.”It’s not the same here,” said Moore, distinguishing the current version of “Pippin” from the original. “We know who we are playing to.”
Moore is unbothered by the idea of stripping what has become a signature element of “Pippin” from the ACT production. It wasn’t the physical gyrations that first caught her attention, and she doesn’t believe that Fosse’s touch is necessary.”Fosse was definitely going for a statement. I don’t think that statement has to be there,” said Moore. “You can be suggestive without being outrageous. This production is more calm than anything you’d see on regular television.”What attracted me is the music,” continued Moore, who last directed ACT in 2000’s “The Wizard of Oz.” “I think the music is beautiful. I first heard ‘Corner of the Sky’ before I knew the musical existed, and I thought it was an outstanding song – very lilting, and speaks to all of us, that we need to find that place where we belong.”To Moore, that idea of finding our places in life – “Cats fit on the windowsill / Children fit in the snow,” as the lyric to “Corner of the Sky” has it – is more crucial than the choreography. A discussion of “Pippin” is almost as likely to include the phrase “the search for ultimate happiness” as it is a mention of Vereen’s thrusting. The theme raised by “Pippin,” of abandoning a search for greatness in favor of recognizing happiness where one stands, is more timeless than early-’70s sexual brazenness.”The story is one man’s search for meaning,” said Moore. “And it’s your search for meaning, and my search for meaning. It’s a search for maturity, and the same you see in ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ It’s a common theme, and it’s a common theme because we all go through it.”The young man going through this particular journey is Pippin (played by Paul Dankers), the eldest son of Charlemagne, the ninth-century emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (played by Bob Moore, the director’s husband). Despite all the creature comforts one could ask for, Pippin seeks something bigger: “I won’t rest until I know I’ll have it all,” he sings in “Corner of the Sky.” Or in “Extraordinary”: “I’ve got to be someone who lives / All of his life in superlatives.”
Moore compares the character to the typical American 19-year-old. “Pippin’s got an adolescent energy to him: ‘I’m pretty sure I am in charge of the world.’ And, ‘Give me the world; I want to test it all and taste it all,'” she said. “He looks like a kid at Elitch’s: ‘I want to go on another ride.’ Think of a freshman in college, with one side of his head shaved and a tattoo, and that’s Pippin.”While Fosse’s dance has been washed away, not so for another touch that gave “Pippin” its identity. Like several other musicals of the period – “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” – “Pippin” used an ensemble cast, with actors taking on multiple roles.In “Pippin,” the Band of Players, a group of 17 performers headed by the Lead Player (Ben Vereen in the original, Adam Leath in the ACT production), interact not only with Pippin, guiding him on his journey, but also with the audience. The Band weaves through the house to welcome the theatergoers and entertains them with juggling and magic tricks before the action starts onstage. The opening number, “Magic to Do,” breaks down the separation between cast and crowd, promising intrigue, humor, battles (and sex).”There’s a song where Pippin’s grandmother says, ‘You have to sing along, you have to live your life,'” noted Moore. “So it’s written for there to be audience interaction. So people go out in the audience and encourage them to sing along.” (Moore adds the anecdote that Irene Ryan, who played the grandmother in both the original “Pippin” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” died of a heart attack just offstage after singing the song one night.)Moore takes the idea of “players” to an extreme. The entire cast is on stage virtually the entire time. The scenery, by ACT veteran Tom Ward, is also never moved offstage.”The author refers to this group as ‘the band of players,'” explained Moore. “And I thought, if there’s a band of players, they don’t play in the wings. They need to be onstage.”
Its creators seeking to break with Broadway traditions, “Pippin” features no overture, and no intermission. There is no single, predominant set. “It doesn’t look like a Rodgers & Hammerstein show,” said Moore.Pippin does indeed try most every avenue to find his ultimate happiness. A scholarly sort, he follows his father’s footsteps into battle. But the gore leaves him disillusioned. Coaxed by his vivacious grandmother Berthe (Jane Robertson), Pippin follows a route that must have been familiar to a lot of 19-year-olds in 1972: sex. (In Fosse’s version, there was an orgy.) The experience exhausts, rather than fulfills, him. Next up are politics, art and domesticity, all of which he finds lacking.
Pippin finally finds an acceptable level of ecstasy not in earthshaking accomplishments, but in humble acceptance of himself and his life. “I’m not a river / Or a giant bird that soars to the sea,” the Band of Players sing in “Finale.””He keeps looking. And looking,” said Moore. “And all of a sudden, he has an epiphany – that he shouldn’t be looking far, far away; he should be looking right next to him.
“And that’s how it is, right? People are usually looking for the Pulitzer Prize, the Oscar – and most people don’t get it. Isn’t it true that, when you finally decide to open yourself to the possibility of happiness – when you open your eyes and just look what’s around you – that’s when you let happiness in?”God, I sound like a child of the ’60s.”What she is, is a woman of the theater. A Wisconsin native, Moore was hired as a 22-year-old to teach drama and speech at a high school in Thornton, Colo. Figuring a drama teacher would have had some experience in theater, she was asked to direct “Up the Down Staircase.” She didn’t have the experience, but she quickly found the passion.”They hired me to direct a play. And I figured, if they’re dumb enough to ask me, I’m dumb enough to do it,” said Moore. “And I loved it.”
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Performing at Golden’s Heritage Square Opera House, she met another cast member, Bob Moore. The two married in 1972, and in 1975 headed to St. Louis to run a showboat on the Mississippi River. Wendy was the resident director; Bob, the business manager and cast member. When their oldest daughter Mandy – now a dancer in Los Angeles – was born, they decided to settle on solid ground. For 20 years, the Moores – including another daughter, Missy, who has appeared frequently on local stages – lived in Summit County. Wendy divided her energies between schools, as a teacher and principal, and the stage, running Breckenridge’s Backstage Theatre. Several years ago, the Moores moved to Carbondale, where Wendy took the job as principal of Roaring Fork High School.Retiring last June from her work in schools, Moore is now looking at a life focused on the stage. She appeared recently in a Dillon production of “The Oldest Profession,” playing one of five aging prostitutes. It was her first onstage role in longer than she can remember. She is also filling her plate with directing: In addition to “Pippin,” she is slated to direct the death-row drama “The Exonerated” for Fort Collins’ Open Stage in April and the children’s play “A Year in the Life of Frog and Toad” for the Evergreen Players next summer.It seems to be Moore’s vision of ultimate happiness.”When I sat down and thought about what retirement looked like, there was a lot of theater in it,” she said.Performances of “Pippin” start at 7 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Aspen District Theatre. It will resume its run Nov. 10-13. Advance tickets are available at the Wheeler Box Office (920-5770).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org