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Working Magic With Pippin
by Scott Miller

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The end of the show is genuinely bizarre and unlike the ending of any other musical. It is important to remember throughout Pippin that each event, each episode must be not only disturbing to Pippin, but to the audience as well. They have to feel the disgust and dismay Pippin feels. If the battlefield is not disturbing, if Fastrada and Lewis aren't intolerable, if the orgy isn't frightening, if Catherine's estate isn't claustrophobic, the audience won't accept that Pippin has come to the extreme position of considering suicide.

Once he has failed to find fulfillment in anything he's tried, Leading Player leads Pippin gently toward the Grand Finale. When Pippin finds out the finale involves setting himself on fire, he resists. To convince him, the company sings the "Finale" and Pippin slowly gets sucked into their enthusiasm. When the players launch into a majestic four-part quotation of "Corner of the Sky," we think Pippin may actually get into the fire. But suddenly he realizes the magnitude and finality of what he's considering and he stops.

This sequence involves many subtextual implications. First of all, if this is all happening in Pippin's imagination, then he is actually trying to convince himself to commit this fiery suicide. The finale is symbolic of Pippin's interior struggle over whether or not to kill himself. It seems logical to assume from Leading Player's rage and surprise over Pippin's reticence that the players have done the show many times before (earlier, Catherine says in the original version that "they" don't usually touch her hand, indicating that other men have done this show in Pippin's place) but no one has ever refused to do the finale until now. If that's true, then they have never needed to sing this song before -- it is, in fact, being made up on the spot. The song's structure is consistent with this interpretation -- Leading Player sings the verse first alone, then Fastrada joins, then the rest of the company joins (it's helpful to keep this is mind while choreographing the finale). Fosse told the original cast that the Players wanted Pippin to kill himself in order to achieve a kind of group orgasm, a final realization of their desires. In the original production, the Players all started masturbating themselves as they convinced Pippin to get in the fire box, rubbing themselves, sucking their fingers, literally miming masturbation in some cases. Like the bulk of the show, sex was a barely concealed subtext to everything that happened.

But Pippin decides he doesn't want to set himself on fire. This is a great breakthrough for him, and once Catherine has joined him on stage, it appears that his decision is final. Leading Player still tries to bully and shame him into the fire. The entire company turns on him, calling him a coward and a compromiser. This is the moment toward which the whole show has been building, the true test of Pippin's resolve. He makes the bravest choice yet -- he chooses to ignore the peer pressure, the allure of fame and admiration, the abuse of Leading Player, the players' ridicule of Catherine. He accepts that he is not extraordinary, and in that moment, he finally becomes an adult. He leaves the childish fantasy and dreams behind and faces the real world for the first time, a life with Catherine that is not part of the play. By admitting that he is ordinary and by facing up to the realities of his life, he is finally truly courageous. He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, genuinely extraordinary. His ordeal throughout the show has been his rite of passage.

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