In, 1972, Pippin, which had its first Broadway revival about a month ago, was a Broadway hit for many reasons. One was the direction/choreography of Bob Fosse and another was Ben Vereen. Vereen, who had been nominated for a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his breakout performance as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972, was cast as the Leading Player in Pippin. The musical opened at the Imperial Theatre in 1972 and in 1973 Vereen won a Tony as Best Actor in a Musical. It ran for 1,944 performances from October 23, 1972, until June 12, 1977. Vereen’s performance in Pippin was mesmerizing, as he commanded the stage each and every moment he was on it.
In Charge All the Way
As the Leading Player in Pippin, Vereen defined the role and the tone of the musical, enhancing and heightening its dark, foreboding atmosphere, biting satire and blatant theatricality. From the start of the musical with the enticing and engaging “Magic To Do” to the haunting, angry “Finale,” Vereen pushed the show’s energy.
On the Right Track
In Pippin, the musical number “On the Right Track” is a duet between The Leading Player and the character of Pippin. It occurs when Pippin is at a crossroads, feels he has no direction and is losing faith. The Leading Player encourages him in the song and inspires Pippin to keep trying. “On the Right Track” included an ending in which Vereen did a quick split to the floor and then propelled himself back to a standing pose. He had all of about 4 seconds to perform the coda, which created a spectacular button for the musical number. Vereen’s “Easy baby” line led into the move. It was a moment that was uniquely Ben Vereen in that it displayed the essence of him as a performer- pushing himself to create a lasting memory through a detailed, totally committed movement sequence of which most performers were incapable.
Vereen Was the Show
It’s hard to believe that the musical Pippin would have been a hit without Vereen. Stephen Schwartz’s music is very fine as are his lyrics but the show had book problems all through development and Fosse wrested creative control from the writer Roger O. Hirson. Reviews were mixed and some doubted the show’s viability
An advertising campaign featuring Vereen and two female chorus members in a short segment performing Fosse isolations and moves captured people’s imaginations and helped to sell the show. There was nothing spectacular about the commercial, but it was a great tease as Vereen projected his showmanship subtly to the TV camera.
A Hit Once Again
Pippin is on Broadway again. This time its sporting a circus theme and this time the Leading Player is an actress, Patina Miller. Miller, who is best known for creating the role of Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act in London and New York, is nominated for a Tony for her work on Pippin. Perhaps like Vereen did 40 years ago she too can win that coveted award.