According to musical theatre scholar Scott Miller in his 1996 book, From Assassins to West Side Story, "Pippin is a largely under-appreciated musical with a great deal more substance to it than many people realize." The story is set in Charlemagne's France. Because of its 1970s pop style score and a somewhat emasculated licensed version for amateur productions which is very different from the original Broadway production, the show now has a reputation for being merely cute and harmlessly naughty; but if done the way director Bob Fosse envisioned it, the show is surreal and disturbingly truthful.
A background and analysis essay about the show is on the New Line Theatre website
Once in battle, the Leading Player re-enters to lead the troupe in a mock battle using top hats, canes, and fancy jazz as to glorify warfare and violence ("Glory"). This charade of war does not appeal to Pippin, and the boy flees into the countryside. The Leading Player tells the audience of Pippin's travel through the country, until he stops at his exiled grandmother's estate ("Simple Joys"). There, Berthe (his grandmother, and Charles' mother, exiled by Fastrada) tells Pippin not to be so serious and to live a little ("No Time At All"). Pippin takes this advice and decides to search for something a bit more lighthearted. He chooses "the flesh," sex ("With You"). After an overwhelming orgy of sexual activity, Pippin realizes the true nature of sex as an all-consuming entity, and begs the Leading Player to halt the troupe in their erotic dances.
The Leading Player then tells Pippin that perhaps he should fight tyranny, and uses Charles as a perfect example of an unenlightened tyrant to fight. Pippin plans a revolution, and Fastrada is delighted to hear that perhaps Charles and Pippin will both perish so that her beloved Lewis can become king. Fastrada arranges the murder of Charles, and Pippin falls victim to her plot ("Spread a Little Sunshine"). While Charles is praying at Arles, Pippin murders him, and becomes the new king ("Morning Glow"). However, after petitions from the masses, Pippin realizes that neither he nor his father could change society and had to act as tyrants. He begs the Leading Player to bring his slain father back to life, and the Leading Player does so.
Pippin is left without direction until the Leading Player inspires him ("On the Right Track"). After experimenting with art and religion, he travels and stumbles upon an estate owned by Catherine ("Kind of Woman"), a widow, with a small boy, Theo. From the start, it is clear that the Leading Player is concerned with Catherine's actual attraction to Pippin—after all, she is but a player playing a part in his yet-to-be-unfolded plan. At first, Pippin thinks himself above such boring manorial duties as sweeping, repairs, and milking cows ("Extraordinary"), but eventually he comforts Theo on the sickness and eventual death of his pet ("Prayer for a Duck") and warms up to the lovely Catherine ("Love Song"). However, as time goes by, Pippin feels that he must leave the estate to continue searching for his purpose. Catherine is heartbroken, and reflects on him (much to the Leading Player's anger and surprise) ("I Guess I'll Miss the Man").
All alone on a stage, Pippin is surrounded by the Leading Player and the various troupe members. They all suggest that Pippin complete the most perfect act ever: the Finale. They tell Pippin to jump into a box of fire, light himself up, and "become one with the flame." Pippin is reluctant, but agrees that perhaps suicide is the best way to go ("Finale"), but he is stopped by his natural misgivings and also by one actress from the troupe—the woman playing Catherine. Catherine and her son Theo stand by Pippin and defy the script, the Leading Player, and Fastrada. Pippin comes to the realization that the widow's home was the only place where he was truly happy ("Magic Shows and Miracles") "....I never came close my love". After removing the sets, lighting, makeup, and costumes from the stage (to no success at dissuading Pippin), The Leading Player becomes furious and calls off the show, telling the rest of the troupe and the orchestra to pack up and leave Pippin, Catherine, and her son alone on an empty, dark and silent stage. Pippin realizes that he has given up his extraordinary purpose for the simplest and most ordinary life of all, and he is finally a happy man.
†Introduced by John Rubinstein in the title role on Broadway and performed by Paul Jones in the London production. The song was covered by the The Jackson 5 in 1972, and is included as a bonus track on the 2000 CD release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording. A duet by Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, whose vocals were recorded more than thirty years apart, is included on Clark's 2007 CD Duets.
††The song was covered by the The Supremes in 1972, and is included as a bonus track on the 2000 CD release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording.
Advertising for the Broadway production broke new ground by being the first commercial that actually showed scenes from a Broadway show. The commercial, which ran 120 seconds, showed Ben Vereen and two other dancers (one of whom was Ann Reinking who was in the chorus of the show) in the instrumental dance sequence from "Glory". The commercial ended with the tagline, "If you liked this minute, just wait until you see the other 119 of them!"
Among the replacements of the original cast include: Samuel E. Wright, Northern J. Calloway and Ben Harney for Ben Vereen; Michael Rupert for John Rubinstein; Betty Buckley for Jill Clayburgh; Dorothy Stickney for Irene Ryan; and Priscilla Lopez for Leland Palmer.