CAMBRIDGE — Diane Paulus said she hadn’t attempted any of the acrobatics involved in the circus-themed production of “Pippin” she’s directing at the American Repertory Theater.
“I think I have enough respect for my own limitations,” she said the other day at the Loeb Drama Center, where the set has been rigged with silks and trapeze, the stage floor scattered with colorful oversize balls and hoops big enough to leap through. “That’s why I’m a director: I really live vicariously through other people’s daring feats.”
But some of her team gleefully told a different story.
“She did get up on one of the balls,” said actor Matthew James Thomas, late of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” who plays the title character in this show, too. “She was trying to explain physically what you should do on the ball . . . and she was so in her directing that she was all of a sudden standing atop this giant ball, and she was like, how do I get down?”
“Hysterical,” confirmed Gypsy Snider, choreographer of the production’s circus elements. “I was also there when she jumped on the mini-trampoline. Diane can’t do anything unless she’s affected by it. So every single word, every idea, every movement, it’s like it’s coming out of her. She’s directing and she’s Up! On the thing! Like this! And I love that. It’s the way that I direct circus. . . . She’s never sitting, watching.”
Staying atop what’s called a “rolling globe” also offers a handy metaphor for the balancing act that ART artistic director Paulus is attempting with “Pippin,” much as she did with her Tony Award-winning revivals, “Hair” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” She has to honor the 1972 Broadway hit, with its iconic songs by Stephen Schwartz and its Tony Award-winning choreography and direction by Bob Fosse, while at the same time appealing to a new generation of theatergoers.
“Many people, when they do a revival, either essentially do a museum re-creation of the show or they feel they have to completely reinvent the show . . . and I feel that Diane rather skillfully walks the line between those,” Schwartz said.
As with “Hair,” Paulus was among the first wave of this musical’s fans. Growing up in New York, she saw “Pippin” three times on Broadway, and the soundtrack album has been a part of her life ever since: “I played ‘Corner of the Sky’ on piano and sang ‘With You’ at my brother’s wedding,” she said. At the Loeb, where performances begin Wednesday, a live band of a dozen musicians will play the songs in new orchestrations by Tony Award winner Larry Hochman (“The Book of Mormon”). Broadway veterans in the cast include Tony winner Andrea Martin as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, and Tony nominee Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada, his stepmother. Whether the ART production is bound for New York, Paulus won’t say, but it is a collaboration with commercial producers.
“Pippin,” which hasn’t been on Broadway since the original production closed 35 years ago, is about a young man, the firstborn son of Charlemagne, and his attempts to live a life that is extraordinary and completely fulfilling, whether on the battlefield, while overthrowing a tyrant, or in an ordinary romance with a young widow.
With the musical’s troupe of loosely defined “players” who help to tell Pippin’s story, Paulus said, she finally “got a hook into” the musical creatively, more than two years ago. She was talking about the show with Snider, a founder of the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main.
“The feeling in ‘Pippin’ of how far you’ll go to prove you’re extraordinary felt so resonant to her, and what that means is, acrobatics puts those questions into dynamic expression,” said Paulus, who’s spent a good chunk of time lately immersed in circus, having also directed “Amaluna,” a Cirque du Soleil show that premiered in Montreal in April. “Will you jump through a hoop of fire? Will you walk on a tightwire? Will you risk your life to jump in the air, flip three times, and land on someone’s shoulders?
“The idea of these troupe of players having some reference to a circus really kind of ignited my imagination, and I started thinking about the combination of acrobatics with the Fosse,” Paulus said.
For choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse,” as the ART credits say, Paulus recruited Chet Walker, who was in the ensemble of the original “Pippin” and went on to work with Fosse on several shows. The ART production is keeping the original choreography of the famous “Manson Trio” dance. In the rest of the show, Walker is incorporating the work of seven circus performers under Snider. Aside from globe-walking, skills on display include trapeze, aerial hoop, silks, tumbling, juggling, and partner acrobatics.
As Pippin, Paulus cast Thomas, a young Brit with some of the wry charm of John Barrowman. Thomas was the alternate lead in “Spider-Man” until early November, performing two shows each week, usually on the weekends, which involved much flying around the cavernous Foxwoods Theatre on Broadway. “Pippin” takes another approach.
“It’s one thing to jump off a 75-foot balcony at the Foxwoods with wires that can hold 12,000 pounds of pressure,” said Thomas. “It’s another thing jumping backwards off a pole with no wires and just human hands to catch you.”
Thomas has nothing but good words for his “Spider-Man” experience despite that production’s troubled history. Ask about the backstage battles and he talks about the nightly standing ovations. But Paulus wants to make sure there’s no confusion.
“This is a very different aesthetic of acrobatics. I wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re in Spider-Man land here,” she said. “It’s very human-based; it’s not about fancy flying effects. It’s very grounded and very theatrical and we’re trying to be innovative in the emotional impact of the acrobatics.”
Snider said she and Walker faced a huge challenge in combining their sides of the show.
“The way we work is completely different,” she said. “He’s got a ton of dancers where he can go, ‘Do this and do this and do this,’ and they’ll do it. With circus performers, there are not two in the world who do the same thing the same way.
“I’m throwing this girl from that end of the stage to this end of the stage. She’s not going to land right here every time,” she said. “[I say,] ‘Just be aware, that’s where they’re landing, more or less,’ and the dancers are going, ‘More or less? What do you mean? She might land on top of me?’ ”
As the Leading Player, the role that won Ben Vereen a Tony in 1973, Paulus cast Patina Miller, a 2011 Tony nominee for “Sister Act.” For her, collaborating with circus performers took some getting used to.
“Those first few rehearsals,” Miller recalled, “I’m the first one to say, I was like, oh no no, they’re doing this behind me? I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if that’s going to work. But seeing the level of professionalism of those guys — this is what they’ve been doing all their lives, it’s all they do, so when they tell me, ‘Can you just scoot up a little bit,’ I’m trusting that. I need to move.”
Paulus sees another effect: “All the acrobats want to do is sing. ‘Let us sing!’ They want to be in sing rehearsal. The actors want to be on the apparatus. The dancers want to learn how to do flips,” she said. “Everybody wants to learn each other’s discipline, which is really fun for the company.”
However much Paulus’s circus concept for the revival diverges from the original, the songs and text of this “Pippin” will be largely as they’ve been in previous productions. That wasn’t the case last year with “Porgy.” The ART’s reworking of the opera was famously assailed by none other than Stephen Sondheim before previews even began in Cambridge.
“Pippin” got a new ending about 20 years ago, Schwartz said, but for this production it has had only minor changes. “Unless you knew the show by heart,” he said, “you might not exactly notice them.”