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A darker, more dangerous ‘Pippin’ swings into Shea’s

Youthful optimism flecked with the danger and darkness of adulthood. Hope tinged with a little bit of fear.

That’s how you might describe the elusive forms and feelings evoked in “Pippin,” the hit 1972 musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson that consummated American theatergoers’ commitment to an impressionistic new mode of American musical that valued sensation over story and temperament over tradition.

So widespread and total was the reach and influence of “Pippin” in the American provinces, from high school and college theater programs to countless regional theater productions, that it went without a Broadway revival for more than 40 years. And finally, when American Repertory Theatre director Diane Paulus came along with a bold new concept straight out of Cirque du Soleil that the musical’s creators endorsed, America’s love affair with the show was immediately and enthusiastically renewed.

A touring version of Paulus’ circus-driven Broadway revival, which ran for almost two years and won four Tony Awards including best revival of a musical, comes to Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Jan. 26 for a six-day run.

The show, which features a mysterious traveling theater troupe whose members perform the story of a young prince finding his way in the world, began as a student project at Carnegie Mellon University, where Schwartz, who also wrote the music and lyrics for “Godspell” and “Wicked,” studied as an undergraduate. The original show, which Schwartz conceived with fellow student Ron Strauss, was called “Pippin, Pippin.”

“At that time, we drama students were very enamored of James Goldman’s ‘The Lion in Winter’ because it had very snappy dialogue,” Schwartz said in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut. “Ron thought that it would be fun to do a musical that was along the same lines: Set in medieval times, full of plotting and court intrigue.”

Of that student production, Schwartz said, little of the story and “not a note, not a lyric, basically not a word of dialogue” survived in the 1972 Broadway version directed by Bob Fosse. To his more youthful and optimistic vision, Fosse added an emphasis on what Schwartz called “the dark undertone of the show.”

“He pushed the whole idea of this troupe of players who had a secret agenda, which was in the show but not nearly as prominent as it became,” Schwartz said. “One of the things that made the show work then and makes the show work now was that it was a synthesis of Bob’s more cynical and jaded sensibility, and because I was very young at the time, my more youthful open-heartedness. The conflict between those two points of view is very much part of the show.”

That tension received yet another layer of danger and darkness in Paulus’ production, in which the touring group of players becomes a kind of mystical, rag-tag circus. For Schwartz and Hirson, who had entertained countless pitches and new ideas for “Pippin” revivals over the years, Paulus’ take was the one that seemed most likely to work.

“Roger and I had been approached a couple of times, more than a couple of times, about potential revivals, but nothing had really seemed exactly right,” Schwartz said. “I was a big admirer of the revivals that [Paulus] had done previously, particularly the revival of ‘Hair,’ which I thought was a very tricky thing to pull off. It had very similar problems if you will or challenges as Pippin. The original production was very famous, but it was a show that seemed very much of its time, and I thought Diane handled it extremely skillfully and therefore was likely to do the same for Pippin”

The results could hardly have been better, with theater nerds and tourists alike embracing the show and its new sensibility – simultaneously darker and more accessible than its predecessor. For the revival, choreographer Chet Walker created new dances in the spirit of Fosse while retaining some of his original choreography. Circus and acrobatic expert Gypsy Snider, who founded the popular Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Dogts de la Main, was responsible for infusing a risky, cirque-inspired sensibility to the production, which was then fused with Walker’s more Fosse-esque style into a cohesive whole.

“The combination of the sort of cirque element and the Fosse element, which was very tricky to achieve, I think was ultimately done remarkably well,” Schwartz said. “The other thing that’s good about the whole cirque element is that by definition, there’s a huge element of danger: Are they going to fall. Are they going to hurt themselves based on these real displays of physical ability that they put on? And that element of danger and pushing oneself to the limit is thematically so appropriate for Pippin.”