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Pippin Comes to Shea's Buffalo Theater
by Anthony Chase
The Magic of Priscilla Lopez and John Rubinstein
The long-awaited national tour of Pippin opening at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre on Tuesday promises to be thrilling. This production was called one of the most electrifying and innovative musical revivals of the past decade when it opened on Broadway in 2013.
The show tells the tale of Pippin, the son of the great King Charlemagne, who is having a medieval identity crisis. He yearns for an extraordinary life, and goes through various experiences in that pursuit. While the story is slim, the clever staging and the appealing music made this show—both in its original 1972 production and in its current incarnation—an exhilarating theatrical event.
The score, by Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote Wicked and Godspell, is arguably his most satisfying, boasting such appealing tunes as “Corner of the Sky,” “Magic To Do,” “No Time at All,” “Morning Glow,” and “Love Song.”
While this production adopts “the style of Bob Fosse,” who directed the original production, director Diane Paulus has put her personal stamp on the proceedings. Fosse, who got his start in burlesque, understood the tricks of the theater and how to woo an audience. This time around, Paulus has set the action under the circus big top, and introduced the excitement of acrobatics.
The experience of seeing that original Broadway production, with John Rubinstein in the title role and Ben Vereen as the lead player was one of the formative events of my teen years. By that time, the original Berthe had been replaced by the great Dorothy Stickney (Irene Ryan had died during the run), and Jill Clayburgh had been replaced in the role of Catherine by an up and coming actress named Betty Buckley. The role of Fastrada, Pippin’s scheming stepmother, would be taken over by Priscilla Lopez—before she originated the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line, a character partially based on her own life experiences.
For this tour, Buffalo has the pleasure, and frankly the privilege of seeing John Rubinstein and Priscilla Lopez reunited in Pippin after 42 years, this time as King Charlemagne and as Pippin’s grandmother, Berthe.
Priscilla Lopez has enjoyed a career of staggering significance. A Chorus Line represented an iconic innovation in musical theater, and confirmed the reputation of Buffalo’s Michael Bennett, who conceived, directed, and choreographed. Lopez introduced the songs, “Nothing,” about a horrible acting teacher, and “What I Did for Love,” an anthem to the passion of dancers everywhere. Her career would go on to include a Tony Award for her performance in A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine; the original production of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics; and the original production of In the Heights the first musical by Lin Manuel Miranda, who wrote the current Broadway sensation, Hamilton. Those who listen to the Broadway channel on Sirius XM satellite radio know that several Lopez recordings are staples of their programming. In fact, to the delight of musical theater fanatics, Priscilla Lopez is played as often as Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. (Those who don’t know her from Broadway might have seen her as Jennifer Lopez’s mother in the film, Maid in Manhattan).
Despite this impressive resume, speaking by telephone from New York City, Lopez is remarkably modest about her celebrity among musical theater fans. She recounts a familiar lament among stars best known for their work in the live theater.
“I don’t have any kind of visual record of my work,” she explains. “There is a horrible video of A Chorus Line that was done from the back of the house at the Public [Theater] but it’s in black and white and so grainy that you can’t even see people’s faces! My work is preserved only in people’s minds. My work will only endure as long as people keep me in their memories.”
Starting Tuesday, all of Buffalo has an opportunity to see Lopez as Berthe in Pippin and to enter her into their theatrical memories. In fact, after the Buffalo engagement, Lopez will leave the production, so this may be the world’s last opportunity to see her in the role.
Was part of the appeal of doing Pippin the chance to work with John Rubinstein?
“Absolutely!” she says. “I did Pippin with John [Rubinstein] and Ben [Vereen] 42 years ago! Now, John and I are together again. Only this time we are playing the old facoctases! Also, Berthe is a fantastic part. Dorothy Stickney was doing it when I was in the show. She was 80 years old. I have another take on it totally. I realized that in the lyrics to ‘No Time at All,’ Berthe says, ‘I’ve known the fears of sixty-six years.’ And I thought, 66? I’m 66, and I’m not an old lady! I’m not going to play her like an old lady!”
This production requires Lopez to fly on a trapeze in the arms of a hunky acrobat. Reportedly, she’s still got the stuff.
I ask Lopez if she is aware of her popularity on satellite radio.
“I know they play me, because I get checks!” she says modestly. “There is a wonderful organization called ‘Sound Exchange,’ and I’m giving them a shout out because for years if you were played on radio or television, you didn’t get compensated.”
Lopez is curious to know which of her songs gets played.
“Do they play “The Best in the World”? she asks.
“They certainly do!” I confirm.
“The Best in the World” is a song Jerry Herman wrote for A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine. The Broadway channel plays it almost every day.
“I’m so happy to know that,” says Lopez with surprise, “because you know, most people think I won the Tony Award for A Chorus Line and I didn’t. It was for A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine!”
Another Lopez tune that gets a great deal of radio play is “Parable of the Monkey.” I know it is her voice, but I don’t know what show it’s from.
“Oh!” exclaims Lopez. “That is from a show called Her First Roman. It had Richard Kiley and Leslie Uggams. At the time, I was understudying Barbara Sharma. It was such a big flop that they never recorded the album. And then years later, they did the album and they couldn’t get Barbara Sharma so I got to record it.
Mystery solved. Her First Roman, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, played 17 performances on Broadway in 1968. “Parable of the Monkey” was cut before the opening, but restored for the studio recording.
“It’s so funny,” says Lopez, “I am always so critical and so hard on myself, and then years later I hear something and say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad!’”
It is funny to realize that this actress who projects such optimism through her stage characters is so self-critical. When she was rehearsing In the Heights, did she have any idea it would be a major hit and launch Lin Manuel Miranda’s career?
“I had no idea!” she admits. “Sometimes it is wonderful how things turn out!”
John Rubinstein, of course, was the original Pippin in 1972. He won a Tony Award for the original Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God. In addition he has made hundreds of television appearances and earned an Emmy nomination for his role on Family, on which he appeared for five years. He has worked in film, as a stage director, and as composer for film and theater. Interestingly, he is the son of the great concert pianist, Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982).
Pippin is not Rubenstein’s first tour to Buffalo.
“The last tour I did was in 1968—before Pippin,” recalls Rubinstein. “It was a bus and truck company of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. We did a lot of one-nighters. If we got to play two nights that was a luxury beyond imagination; we could sleep in the night after the first show instead of getting back onto the bus. I was 21 years old. I saw the country. I loved it. We went to like 160 cities, and Buffalo was one of them. I remember, because we had a huge snowball fight that evolved into toilet paper fight in the waist deep snow outside of our hotel.”
“Another time,” he recalls, “Around 1990, my second wife was working at Artpark. She was in [Cole Porter’s] Can Can, [a marvelous production, starring Mary Gordon Murray and Jack Gilpin that was directed by David Saint]. We went to Buffalo to have dinner, and driving back to Niagara, I took one wrong turn and ended up way far away from where I thought I was going! The streets in Buffalo are not parallel, they radiate out from the lake like the spokes of a wheel. We drove around for an hour!”
Life on the road is full of adventures. Rubinstein remembers that the tour of On a Clear Day ended in California, and after one performance he had gone to his dressing room and has just finished removing his costume when the door flew open.
“In walked Ann Miller,” he recalls. “I was facing her, and I was buck-naked. She stood there and said ‘Johnny!’—I had never met her before in my life—and she said, ‘Johnny! You did a fantastic job!’ And she kept talking for two or three minutes. ‘You’ve got a lot of talent kid!’ and on and on. Then she shook my hand, turned, and walked out, never once acknowledging that I had been stark naked the whole time!” He laughs at the memory.
Why tour again?
“Because a tour is a job,” says Rubinstein. “The main work of an actor is getting the next job. I have never really enjoyed years and years of sitting in an easy chair and considering offers. I do not consider myself to be a star. Priscilla [Lopez] represents an important part of theater history, it’s true. But we live the lives of actors. I’ve cobbled my life together and have made a living as an actor for 50 years now. I’m very proud of that.”
Pippin was Rubinstein’s first Broadway show. There are photographs of his famous father visiting him backstage at Pippin, looking blissfully happy and proud. What was that moment like?
“It was bizarre,” Rubinstein confesses. “My father loved the theater. He was very much responsible for my exposure to the theater. As a young child my parents took me to the theater very often, here, but also in Paris and in London. So to see me playing a big role in a big Broadway show when he knew that all my life this had been my dream, to get a little part in a show that might play Broadway. And for me to be starring in my very first Broadway show, he was excited for me, and very proud. But by the same token, it was not his kind of show! He never said he didn’t like it, but I knew him well enough to know. He and my mother came back stage. He didn’t say much, but her comment was, ‘Wow, you surely can jump high!’ That was it!”
Both of Rubinstein’s parents were from Poland. His mother was the daughter of the great Polish conductor, Emil Mlynarski (1870-1935) founder of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I haven’t been to Poland for a long time,” Rubinstein recalls. “1987 was the last time, for the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth. I conducted a symphony concert in Lodz, where he was born. My father was a huge star. In his day, if you were well known it was because you had accomplished something. He was a wonderful musician and a great performer. I learned so much about the profession by watching him perform and go on tour. That is another reason I am happy to go on tour. I know how important it is to bring the work to people where they live. Not everybody can fly to Broadway and afford those theater prices. To go to Grand Rapids, and Buffalo, and Fayetteville, and San Francisco, and Portland is very important, and people are so grateful. It’s very gratifying!”
Pippin will play at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre from Jan. 26—31. For tickets ($30-$75), call 1-800-745-3000, go to sheas.org or to the Shea’s Box Office. For groups (15+), call 716-829-1153. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm Wednesday night post show Talk-Back with the cast included in Wednesday performance ticket.
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