Pippin became a major plot point in FX's Fosse/Verdon. (In fact, series writer and executive producer Steven Levenson told Playbill that the creative team’s desire to investigate Pippin was a driving factor behind the series.) The TV show may have finished, but the library’s collections are full of archives relating to the creation of the milestone work. For those who are catching up, this is a spoiler-free collection of objects in the collections of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts related to the original 1972 production of Pippin, which bowed at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. The show featured direction and choreography by Bob Fosse, a book by Fosse and then uncredited writer Roger O. Hirson, and a score by Stephen Schwartz.
Predecessors to Pippin
The story of Pippin was a favorite of the 19th century. Eventual Pippin producer Stuart Ostrow kept a copy of a program from an 1870 production at Niblo’s Garden (the Prince Street theatre where The Black Crook opened in 1866). A nursery rhyme about Little King Pippin who “built a fine hall” seems to have inspired a piece of children’s theatre, which opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1865. Along with newspaper articles about the production, the Library preserves a Toy Theatre set designed for children to cut out figures to place onto a small stage. Although the plot of Little King Pippin had almost nothing to do with the Stephen Schwartz musical, the design of the figures is remarkably evocative of Patricia Zipprodt’s designs for the Broadway production.
Jules Fisher’s Lighting Design Documents
Pippin opened in 1972, three years before Tharon Musser introduced the computerized lighting board to Broadway with her design for the original production of A Chorus Line. It was nearly four decades before animated digital projection could be convincingly used on the Broadway stage. Still, directors and producers often needed lighting effects beyond simple colored gels. For the fire effect in the final scene of Pippin, designer Jules Fisher attempted to use something like a film projector with a rotating lens. Apparently, the projectors the team originally used did not provide the right effect, and Fisher, in this letter to Stuart Ostrow, suggests alternatives.
Fisher was also apparently responsible for providing some of the magic effects for the Leading Player. It seems if you had “magic to do” in the 1970s, you went to Louis Tannen Magic Supplies in Times Square. The store still exists, but is now located on 34th Street.
Patricia Zipprodt’s Costume Designs
Patricia Zipprodt was one of the foremost costume designers of the 1960s–1980s, creating the iconic look of many of the greatest hits of the era including Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Chicago, Sunday in the Park With George, and Pippin. Biographer Martin Gottfried reports that Fosse told Zipprodt he wanted the costumes to be “magical” and “anachronistic” like “Jesus in tennis shorts.” Zipprodt’s interpretations of this idea are preserved among her papers at the Library.
Production notes from Stuart Ostrow
Also in Ostrow’s scrapbook is a fascinating, chaotic, set of notes with instructions to many involved in the production. Here there is an instruction to Jules Fisher to “Burn up - Tony - dummy.” Presumably this is a note about the final scene in which a dummy should be immolated and a recognition that scenic designer Tony Walton might also need to be involved. There is also a note to Zipprodt that the child’s costume should have a “simple X” and that she should dispense with the “leotard” for at least one costume.
Fan letter to Stuart Ostrow
Like many in the theatre industry, producer Ostrow kept scrapbooks of material related to his work including newspaper articles, photographs, and correspondence. His scrapbook for Pippin includes an illustrated and staple-bound fan book by a young child named Katie, who expressed her admiration for the performance of Irene Ryan as Berthe (who she recognized from her television performance as “Granny” from The Beverly Hillbillies). Katie then illustrated her note with a production shot of three of the other female cast members with Pippin.
Even a quick look at the Library’s collections reveal that theatre, and especially musical theatre, is a deeply collaborative art form. Some collaborators wield more influence than others, but for every biography about a director-choreographer like Bob Fosse or a composer-lyricist like Stephen Schwartz, there are many more untold stories of stage managers, vendors, box office managers, and administrative assistants preserved in our archival collections.
Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.