by Deirdre Donovan
best Broadway memories are sometimes made far from the madding crowd of Times
Square. That clearly was the case as Donald Pippin took the stage at Lang
Recital Hall at Hunter College with A Maestro’s Memories, under the
aegis of The Ziegfeld Society. Tickling the ivories, and accompanied by two
fine singers Klea Blackhurst and Nat Chandler, Pippin time-traveled back over
the decades to trace his journey from his earliest boyhood memories in the
South to the Great White Way and beyond. And, as Mark York so aptly put it
when introducing the program, “In a city that eats you up and spits you out,”
Pippin has proved to be a sterling exception.
show opened in the key of simplicity. Pippin strolled on stage and seated
himself at a piano at center stage. But instead of immediately plunking out
some familiar Broadway tunes, Pippin gazed overhead to a screen where a mélange
of playbill covers materialized and indexed his half-century career. For the
next hour and change, this multi-media screen would serve as the maestro’s
scrapbook as he recounted his personal Broadway stories, musical by musical,
and his rendezvous with legendary performers.
made this show highly appealing is that Pippin offers his audience something
rare: a true insider’s look at Broadway. Pippin is the maestro who
made Chorus Line hum and La Cage Aux Folles strike its
gender-bending grace notes. Pippin also is the one who kept those 8-year-old
toughies of Oliver! in line by shortening their musical rehearsals if
they promised to deliver the juice on their first efforts. Little wonder they
is a natural raconteur! His stage presence is undeniable and his mellifluous
voice carries well through an auditorium. Pippin wasted no words in recounting
how he became stage-struck as a youngster in North Carolina and how he managed
to become the local boy wonder that would place (and often ace) each musical
competition that crossed his path.
his talent and pluck would eventually gain him notice beyond his home turf.
And, as he ripened in years and honed his craft, Pippin eventually found
himself a student at Harvard, the place where he wrote (according to an online
bio) some rather “dismal music.” He later migrated to San Francisco where he
would artistically flower, and not only make a name for himself in musical
circles, but push the envelope in multi-genres, baroque, chamber music, and
opera in particular.
the Bay Area allowed Pippin opportunities to broaden his musical range and
scope, it was New York—and Broadway--where he would truly establish himself as
a cutting-edge artist. He made his first foray with Ankles Aweigh in
1955, a musical comedy that he souped up with dance music. Five years later,
he stepped in as Assistant Conductor of Irma La Douce, giving him a real
go in the limelight. His big break, of course, came, with Oliver! the
musical hit that put Pippin on the map and won him a Tony Award for Best
Musical Director 1963. Pippin cemented his reputation with the likes of Ben
Franklin in Paris 1964-65), Mame (1966-70), Applause (1970-72),
Seesaw (1973), Mack and Mabel (1974), La Cage Aux Folles (1983-1987)—to
mention a few.
Pippin shared some
surprising anecdotes about Broadway musicals and legendary performers that he
has worked with over the years. In fact, he noted that for A Chorus Line, he
would disappear—quite literally—into his music. Pippin and the orchestra were
hidden by black fabric, and he wore earphones to receive his cues for
conducting. Pippin also recounted his many pleasant collaborations with Angela
Lansbury, including the 1996 TV Movie Mrs. Santa Claus, and went on to
mention other luminaries like Marvin Hamlisch, Jerry Herman, Frank Sinatra,
Donna McKechnie, Lauren Bacall (Woman of the Year, 1981), Julie Andrews,
and countless others. And, oh yes! Pippin has been Musical Director at Radio
City Music Hall, and helped the famed Rockettes keep their rhythm and kicks
only flaw to A Maestro’s Memoirs was that it was a one-afternoon event.
One can only hope that Pippin—conductor, music director, vocal arranger,
pianist, and songwriter--will bring this gem of a show to a larger audience.
Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College, May 17, 2014
more information on The Ziegfeld Society and their future events, visit www.theziegfeldsociety.com