Valdosta Daily Times

Features

March 27, 2013

Pippin!

VALDOSTA —  In directing Valdosta State University Theatre & Dance’s latest musical, “Pippin,” Eric Brandt Nielsen recalls an “unsettling” time in his life.

In the Vietnam era of the 1970s, sitting with the male cast of a production, “we were huddled around a TV broadcast that was announcing the draft results from a lottery,” the VSU dance professor shares in his “Pippin” director’s notes. “Our lives were being tossed around on ping-pong balls with our birthdates printed on them.”

Though they were preparing to step on stage for a college show, they watched the lottery to see if any of them might be going to war.

Though “Pippin” is a show known for its naughty pop — very much a musical of the ’60s and ’70s but set in the Middle Ages with a fictional account of the life of Charlemagne’s son, Pippin, the Stephen Schwartz musical was also an allegory for Vietnam.

On Broadway, under the direction of genius dance maestro Bob Fosse, “Pippin” flaunted its explicit nature but could also reveal what has been described as “surreal” and “disturbing” qualities. Fosse reportedly wanted to create an ending so dark that Schwartz had to remind the famed director who wrote the musical and tell him no.

Having directed “Pippin” twice previously for other venues, Nielsen says he’s been mindful of finding a balance with a student cast for a South Georgia audience. Nielsen’s direction hones some of Fosse’s edge while keeping the show fun and incorporating the recent revival’s new ending. Nielsen’s choreography tempers Fosse’s more overtly sexual dance routines with subdued but suggestive rhythms. Still, VSU Theatre & Dance issues a playgoers advisory of explicit theatre for “Pippin”: “Please note this production contains adult themes and language and is not recommended for young audiences.” Nielsen says the show should be considered PG-13.

For his young cast, Nielsen has felt compelled to inform them of the era when “Pippin” was first produced, especially since his cast knows little of the time surrounding the Vietnam War.

“I wanted them to understand what happened and how many musicals from the 1970s were political satire,” Nielsen says. He had to explain how the show’s line of a “police action” is crucial to the Vietnam era, which was never officially a declared war but referred to as a police action. “It’s an important line,” Nielsen says. “If it’s a war, it’s a war.”

The cast needs to understand these moments in the show, so they can convey the satire of those times to a 21st century audience. Some older audience members will get these lines immediately, Nielsen says, because it wasn’t just a show. Like Nielsen, they lived through those times.

“But the themes are timeless really,” Nielsen says; as long as there are wars and controversies surrounding wars, “Pippin” has something to say.

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