I have loved Stephen Schwartz’s music ever since I heard the cast album of Godspell in 1971.
I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I played that record over and over again.
So I was wildly excited and nervous when — at age ten — I auditioned for a new musical being directed by Bob Fosse with songs written by Mr. Schwartz.
I performed Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son” at the audition. (My aunt had given me and my siblings many of Cat Stevens’ albums, which I also loved.)
I vaguely remember standing on a stage, singing to a few people in a darkened theater.
At one point during the audition — or maybe during a callback? — the pianist played a particular section of “Father and Son” in different keys in order to get a sense of my vocal range.
I gamely sang higher and higher until my voice finally cracked.
I must also have read from some sort of script, but I don’t remember doing any dancing during the audition.
Much to my delight and terror, I ended up being cast as the standby for the role of Theo. I did not attend the first few weeks of rehearsals, but joined the cast midway through the creative process in NYC.
I remember that Ben Vereen was very friendly and welcoming, even though he was one of the stars.
Mostly I watched from the sidelines and kept a low profile.
I moved with the cast and crew to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Pippin previewed.
The Kennedy Center had only recently been built and was enormous. I spent a lot of time exploring the backstage areas — as well as the snack room where I sometimes heated up a slice of pizza using an amazing new (to me at least) technology called the microwave oven.
I also spent a lot of time hanging out unobtrusively in the back of the theater, watching rehearsals and mimicking all of the dance routines to the best of my ability (which grew over time… during my stint in Pippin I studied tap and jazz at the Phil Black dance studios on the corner of Broadway and 50th street).
The role of Theo — Catherine’s son — was never large and grew smaller as the show was tightened up and re-written out of town.
And then, much to my parents’ surprise — since so many Broadway shows close out of town or last only a few weeks once they open in New York — Pippin proved to be a big hit.
I and the standby for Irene Ryan had to be backstage for every performance, but I never played the role of Theo on stage.
If I am remembering correctly, the various standbys — me, the standby for Irene Ryan, the standby for John Rubinstein, and the standby for Ben Vereen — along with the understudies for the other main roles would rehearse our parts with the stage manager on matinee days between the afternoon and evening performances.
Ben’s standby was a lovely man named Northern Calloway, whose day job was playing the role of “David” on Sesame Street, which was filmed in a converted theater on the upper west side of Manhattan (which I visited once or twice).
Jill Clayburgh’s understudy was Ann Reinking, who was a member of the chorus and went on to all sorts of success afterwards as a performer and as a choreographer.
A boy named Shane Nickerson played the role of Theo each night.
He and I became friends.
Shane’s sister Denise had played the role of Lolita in an unsuccessful musical version of the Nabokov novel and then was cast as Violet Beauregarde in the original movie of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
His family had a Yorkshire terrier named Tiffany, and on matinee days we would sometimes go and eat together at a steakhouse — with Tiffany getting to eat some of the leftovers when we returned to Shane’s dressing room at the Imperial Theatre afterwards.
Other than an ever-present anxiety that I might have to perform the role if Shane were to become ill, I had a lot of fun backstage.
I fetched hot beverages for some of the dancers before the show began at the coffee shop across 46th street (where the stage door was located).
I learned how to play chess with one of the younger stage hands.
I watched endless poker games conducted by dressers, musicians and stage hands at a big table (if I am remembering correctly) behind the orchestra pit while the show was running.
I became friends with one of the hairdressers and helped brush out the different wigs which the chorus members wore during the show.
And I hung out with the wonderful animal handlers, Jack and Mary, who took care of the duck and the sheep who appeared nightly in the show.
Among other duties they had to walk the sheep up and down 46th street and along 8th avenue in order to encourage it to poop before it went on stage.
The sheep liked to eat cigarette butts, which was not conducive to its health; so I would keep an eye out for them when we strolled around the theater district, chatting with surprised passersby.
I remained as a standby in the original cast until I grew too large for the role. (Theo enters in the second being carried on the Leading Player’s shoulders, and this was a very direct way to gauge my growth month by month…)
I was not the first to leave the company — that was probably Jill Clayburgh, who was replaced by Betty Buckley early in the run, and also dear Irene Ryan, who became ill and then passed away in California — but it was a very sad and awkward experience for me.
Show business can be very confusing regarding matters of the heart.
A cast and crew come together to create a show or a movie — or even just a TV commercial — and everyone strives (at least while on stage or when the cameras are rolling…) to be friendly and part of a team/family while they are attempting to make some magic together.
And then, when the shoot of the movie or the run of the play is over, everyone becomes a free agent again.
And one may never see any of them again!
Were any of those people my friends? Did any of them think about me when I was no longer part of the cast?
I certainly thought about them for years afterwards…
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
It is humbling to learn on Wikipedia how the lives of various Pippin cast members unfolded before and after their time on stage at the Imperial Theater in the early 70s.
Some are still involved with show business as performers or choreographers or teachers.
Some are dead.
And composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, bless him, has continued to write wonderful songs for Broadway and Hollywood.
I recorded his song “Magic To Do” (the opening number in Pippin) several years ago during rehearsals for a show I put together called Will Loves Steve, which featured songs written by Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Foster, Steve Sweeting, Stevie Wonder and Steven Georgiou — a.k.a. Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yousuf Islam.
Doug Hammer played piano — while simultaneously engineering the track — and Mike Callahan played clarinet.
For many years after Pippin I carried within me a sense that success meant starring on Broadway, or in the movies, or on TV.
Now, as an adult who makes a living as a musician in the Boston area, I am glad I did not end up starring on Broadway.
The life of a star — with folks asking to take selfies with them wherever they go in public, and having to repeat the same stories over and over again during media junkets while maintaining their youthfulness and beauty and fitness and marketability year after year — seems less and less appealing.
I am also amazed that anyone is able to perform — as a star or as a member of the chorus — eight shows per week, month after month, repeating the same songs and dances and dialogue and emotions with as much authenticity and enthusiasm as they can muster on any given day.
What a life!
I guess I have learned the same lesson as the title character in Pippin does: that a normal life without a lot of fanfare and razzle dazzle is AOK.
And there is still plenty of humble and unpublicized magic — like what happens in my Music Together classes, or during my performances at retirement communities, libraries and synagogues, or singing along at ukulele meetup groups — to be done each day if one is so inspired.
Thank you to Doug Hammer and Mike Callahan for their terrific musicianship and camaraderie (as well as Doug’s engineering/mixing/mastering expertise).
Thank you to Stephen Schwartz for writing such splendid songs — decade after decade!
And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.
ps: Since I wrote this blog post six years ago, I have been delighted to re-connect via email and Facebook with a few members of the original cast of Pippin.
I have been very touched to learn that, even though I was just ten years old and a standby for the role of Theo, I have been remembered by some of them.
And in honor of the 50th anniversary of Pippin opening on Broadway, the original standby for the role of Pippin, Walter Willison, has organized reunion performances at 54 Below in Manhattan on Monday, February 6, 2023 at 7:00 and 9:30 pm (both of which sold out after only three days!)
If you’d like to listen to my version of “Magic To Do” on a digital musical platform such as Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal, you can click here.
And if you’d like to hear more music, you can find me singing — with Doug Hammer playing his marvelous Schimmel grand piano — on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and other digital music platforms.
What a good story. I suspect you have more than a few chapters within you related to that experience, as well as to how it has shaped you.
Perhaps… Pippin blessed our family with one life-long friend, Mary Bloom — one of the animal handlers — who went on to become a renowned animal photographer. Thank you so much for reading and listening, Paula!
Willedare, may I reblog this?
If you think it is worthy of being re-blogged, sure! I trust your judgement. And THANK YOU for reading and listening, dear woman!
Reblogged this on Suzanne's Mom's Blog and commented:
I loved this post at A Musical Life on Planet Earth. Willedare is kindly letting me reblog it.
How lovely to re-connect with you and to learn of your journey to manhood. What wonderful memories. I have thought of you often over the years. Lovely thoughts and music. Nice to be back in touch.
Thanks for reading and listening, Candy. It is terrific to hear from one of Pippin’s original cast members!!!
Very much enjoyed learning more about you and your amazing experience with Pippin. Northern was the Leading Player when I saw it on Broadway.
I remember him as a very dear man. And I am surprised even to this day about how many of my assumptions about what is important, what is success, what is fame, what is friendship, etc. are rooted in my odd childhood as a professional model/actor/voice over artist… THANK YOU for taking the time to read and listen to this post. I was thinking after I read your post earlier today about how satisfying it is to find someone else who cares about something (in this case musical theater and the craft of songwriting) as much as I do. Please keep writing — new songs as well as new blog posts!
Thanks for this little bit of enlightenment. Such a wonderful adventure for a very observant and curious young lad. Bless you.
You are a peach to come and read and listen, Walter. And I also appreciate your gentle re-framing (on FB) that I was not “just a standby.” Lovely to be with you via Zoom at MMG on Saturday!
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