Pippin: The Ultimate PostCollegiate Musical?

It will likely come as no surprise to you all that I was not your typical teenager.  I’ve found that most of my cultural influences were culled from digging through my parent’s cassette collections or buying boxes of VHS tapes from yard sales or books I found in thrift stores than anything my peers were talking about.  This resulted in the kind of 12 year old who read a biography on Bob Fosse (which really was a bit racy for a pre-teen) and, naturally, became a little bit obsessed with the musical, Pippin

For those who are not familiar with the award-winning ’72 musical [obviously, major SPOILER ALERT for the rest of this post as I am about to go into much detail regarding the plot], it follows the tale of a young man (the titular Pippin) on a quest to lead an extraordinary life.   It’s loosely based on real life hunchback, Pepin the Hunchback, and his father, Charlemagne and the plot to overtake the thrown.  But what the musical is actually about is exactly what each of us struggles with after graduation – what now?

The musical, which is presented in an ah-maz-ing framing device of a traveling theatre troupe originally lead by the flawless Ben Vereen, opens with our introduction to Pippin, who immediately promises a group of scholars he will find a place where his “spirit can run free” (hello, college graduation day much?)

After this “graduation”, Pippin returns home (step one:  move back with your parents) to a father who doesn’t see the value in over-education and encourages his son to follow in his career footsteps – specifically, the military.  Despite his father’s assertions that “War is a science” and should appeal to his brainy boy, it turns out that Pippin isn’t cut out for guts and glory and flees.  Sounds like someone had their first job-quitting experience!

Having discovered he’s not ready for a cut-throat world (puns!), he retreats to his grandmother’s country estate to try some simple living.  I enjoy this immensely not only because I moved in with my grandmother during college and retreated to a country-living setting myself, but also because this introduces one of the best numbers in the musical, Simple Joys. 

The genius of a lyrical line like “his life seemed purposeless and flat, aren’t you glad you don’t feel like that?” seems tailor-made for those settling into mid-twenties malaise.

Of course, simple joys aren’t exactly fulfilling – after several weeks of gluttonous indulgence and meaningless sexual encounters (oh, hey, 25 year old me says hi!), Pippin allows himself to be talked into something that involves taking action – starting a revolution.  They might as well call the next series of scenes Occupy Charlemagne, because Pippin organizes an uprising against his own father, slays him (don’t worry – he comes back to life!), realizes that it’s impossible to rule the masses in a purely democratic fashion, and swiftly drops the movement.

To make sure you’re with me so far, Pippin had major ambitions for himself that have thus far fallen by the wayside, finds himself overeducated for work when he tries to get into the family business, runs away to the country, gets tired of bumming and screwing around, and dabbles in a little progressive politics.  Seriously, a casual viewer may start to think this was actually written in 2012 instead of 1972 – perhaps Stephen Schwartz had a crystal ball?

And we’re back in!  Pippin tries his hand at art (failure), religion (failure), and collapses on the floor in defeat (this is basically me after work every day).  He’s discovered by the lovely widow Catherine (originated on Broadway by the incomparable Jill Clayburgh, R.I.P.) who brings him back to her humble farm.  He initially feels stifled by the seemingly boring tasks and unexciting surroundings, busting out into a song that, in my opinion, perfectly encapsulates the Millennial Generation:

Trust me, you will be singing this in your shower every time you apply for a dream job that you don’t get or you feel frustrated with the day-to-day grind or just about every day because it has serious ear worm quality (and it totally reminds me of the pitch-perfect SNL sketch a couple weeks ago.)  Turning back to Pippin, he naturally falls in love with life on the farm (and the practically-perfect Catherine) but once the Lead Player promises eternal glory, he leaves it all behind.

The musical ends with the Lead Player encouraging Pippin to complete one perfect act (aptly named The Finale) – setting himself on fire for the amusement of the players and the audience!  Yeah, the show does get a little dark at the end, with the cast pushing the lead actor towards suicide.  Luckily, Pippin realizes that if he’s never tied down to something, he may never actually be free and chooses to reject his extraordinary, undiscovered purpose for a comfortable life with Catherine and her son.  Conclusion?  Settling down may be mundane and boring but one can find fulfillment in an ordinary life.

Okay, so maybe the ending isn’t EXACTLY the ending I see for myself, but the trajectory of Pippin’s journey shares so many similarities with my own and that of my peers, that I am willing to unequivocally state that Pippin is the official musical of the postcollegiate life experience – SUCK IT, AVENUE Q

Important Post-Script:  All YouTube clips embedded and linked to are from the 1981 film version, starring William Katt, sporting the most beautiful head of blonde curly hair, and Ben Vereen reprising his Tony Award-winning role of Lead Player.  It is missing several sections of the original work, but it’s still worth watching if you’re into this kind of thing – and you totally are, don’t even pretend like you’re not.  I can see you.

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