Broadway Revival Recording

August 20, 2013

Ghostlight Records’ “New Broadway Cast Recording” of Pippin offers an hour of highly melodic soft-pop Stephen Schwartz music from what must be one of the most fun shows on Broadway today. 

It is ample evidence of the musical and performance strengths that justify the show’s capturing the Tony Award for best revival of a musical.

It features the impressive title character performance of Matthew James Thomas and the personable work as the “Leading Player” that earned Patina Miller a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. More importantly, it documents the most memorable single moment in this or any recent season: six of the ten and a half minutes when Andrea Martin takes total control of the emotions of all 1,020 paying patrons and brings everyone into the revelry.

Also of note are the subtly soft sounds of Rachel Bay Jones as Pippin’s love interest, Catherine, and the suitably strident ones of Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charles (better known to history as Charlemagne). Mann actually comes off a bit better on the disc than in the theater as the audio-only recording doesn’t include his sometimes distracting mugging or the other times when he seems to switch on some sort of performance autopilot.

The original production, which was directed by Bob Fosse, ran for nearly 2,000 performances in the 1970s, a decade when Broadway seemed dominated by Stephen Schwartz projects. He followed Pippin with The Magic Show which ran for only 24 fewer performances but, since it relied so much on the work of magician Doug Henning, has rarely been performed since it closed. And then came Godspell (527 performances). Only Working, at 24 performances, marred Schwartz’ string of successes in the decade – and he didn’t write the score for it. He adapted the book and directed that show which had a score written by a collection of then-popular composers and lyricists.

This production of Pippin is the third revival that director Dianne Paulus has brought to Broadway. She did a superb job with the Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, James Rado American Tribal Love Rock Musical, Hair, and then stirred emotions with the liberties she considered taking with George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess.

Paulus brought a new concept to this show. Instead of staging it as if being performed by a touring troupe of medieval minstrels as in Fosse’s original, she stages it as a circus spectacular. With the circus creations of Gypsy Snider and five performers who have circus rather than theater experience, the show is unlike any other on Broadway. The CDs booklet does a good job of giving you an idea of what the production was like with photos of some of the circus moments as well as of the theatrical moments.

The revival rehabilitates the reputation of the Music Box Theatre as a house that can successfully house a musical. It is such a small house (just above a thousand seats) that it doesn’t get a chance to host a musical that often. Musicals are so expensive to mount that producers look for larger houses in order to have more seats to sell. The last musical here was Joseph Brooks’ ill-fated (and ill-conceived) In My Life – the Tourettes Syndrome love story marred by a subplot about God going on vacation! Before that, the only other musical in the house in this century was the equally short lived, but certainly not poorly conceived, Michel Legrand musical Amour.

This album seems to have been well recorded with the superb orchestrations of Larry Hochman performed with loving panache by Charlie Alterman’s twelve-piece pit band. I say “seems” because the mastering puts the entire score at such a high gain level as to be right at the edge of distortion, creating a disturbing fuzziness, or at least a hint of one.

That is not the only significant criticism the album deserves, however. Record producers Schwartz and Kurt Deutch realized that they had room for about another ten minutes on the disc and made a bum choice of filler. They give us four tracks of the pit band playing songs without the vocals they were written to support. These karaoke-style tracks may be fun for singing along, but they are not good listening. It is almost like watching video of the show without the actors – boring!

It isn’t as if there wasn’t something else that would have been great as a “bonus track” of just about ten minutes. 

I’ve already mentioned that a strength of the disc is that it gives us Andrea Martin’s singing of “No Time At All.” That track is just under six minutes. However, her scene is just over 10 minutes and includes a both hilarious and touching introductory spoken section and almost a dozen laugh-inducing asides. 

As grateful as I am for the 6 minute track, I do wish they had thought to give us the full in-theater experience of her time on stage. 

Now that would have been extraordinary!

New Broadway Cast Recording
Running time 66 minutes over 20 tracks
Packaged with notes, lyrics and 26 color photographs
Ghostlight Records Catalog 8-4473