Gold star to you if you saw the episode title, “Glory” — or heard those chords under the opening scenes — and knew it was time for Fosse/Verdon to arrive at Pippin, a show I recently tried to summarize coherently for a colleague and ultimately just landed on “It’s weird. It’s great!” (Readers, I welcome your alternate elevator pitches.)
That less-than-eloquent logline aside, Pippin’s titular young man spends the show on a quest for an extraordinary life, and ultimately must consider whether it’s better to be content with a “normal” existence or, well, go out in a blaze of glory. The comparisons to life as an aspiring and/or successful artist write themselves, and this week’s episode positions Bob as searching for his own corner of the sky. And even when he has everything he thinks he wanted, it’s still not enough.
It’s 1972, three years after Sweet Charity flopped — and if history wasn’t already a major spoiler, “Glory” reveals that Cabaret is a major hit. The reviews are raves, and you can already hear the awards being engraved. It’s a “blank check,” Paddy tells him, the kind of clout that means anything he wants to do next is his.
That brings us to Pippin, which Bob wants to rip open at the seams. “Go big,” he calls it. Glorifying battles, barbarous, and bloody? Ben Vereen’s Leading Player doing a soft-shoe amidst the carnage? When the creatives in the room bristle, he uses his trump card: He made a little movie called Cabaret, remember? He even wants to change the musical’s ending, arguing it’s “too soft” — the soft option being that Pippin chooses love over performing an “extraordinary” act of self-immolation. “How realistic is that?” Bob grumbles. He wants all that glory, glory. (Note: That original ending is the one that ultimately stayed, though there’s an alternate one that gives the show a more ambiguous conclusion.)
So Bob’s career is riding high — enter 1973, when he wins an Oscar for that film, two Tony Awards for Pippin, and three Emmys for the TV special Liza With a Z. But Gwen isn’t seeing that same shine. It’s now been 14 years since her last Tony Award, and her play Children! Children! is dead on arrival. With opening just two weeks away, Gwen tells Bob the show’s been cut down to a skim 45 minutes (“It’s not even a play anymore, it’s a skit!”) and asks if he can come see it before opening night and share some notes. We need to give another round of applause to Michelle Williams here, she’s calm and upbeat but her eyes are begging.
It’s no dice though, which is incredibly frustrating after all the help she’s given him on his work, with little thanks and even less credit. When he shows up on opening night, as my colleague Marc foreshadowed last week, Gwen informs him the show is closing the next day. In the aftermath of that theatrical disaster, Gwen tries to entice Bob with the prospect of doing Chicago — so eager for this show in particular, perhaps, because it’s back in the patented Gwen Verdon triple-threat wheelhouse, but also because doing it together would bring caché she doesn’t have on her own at this point. But Bob isn’t reliant on Gwen in that way anymore (except, cue the deep sigh, when he needs her help to perfect his own work), and won’t commit to doing that project next. Does this mean we’ll have to wait even longer still to see “All That Jazz?” There are only three episodes left, and Fosse/Verdon does jump around in time, but that seems to be the case.
Enter Ann Reinking. Played by Margaret Qualley, the actress-dancer first crossed paths with Fosse while working on Pippin and became his eventual romantic partner and protégé. Sound familiar? The dude definitely had a routine. But before Bob and Ann become involved, she’s apparently one of the few (or only?) dancers in the company who resists his advances — all the others, it seems, make their way through his hotel room in quick succession, but she’s not interested in “watching” a rough cut of Liza With a Z with him, especially not after he extended that same invitation to two other women in earshot.
Gwen, visiting their rehearsals, sees his interest a mile away and assesses the situation perfectly: Ann’s so good, she doesn’t need to sleep with him to get ahead.
Bob’s womanizing and drug use only increase during this period, compounded and fueled by his success. One dancer has to shove him off her outside her apartment to make him stop coming on to her, and he retaliates by cutting her from the show’s “Manson Trio” number. When she later apologizes and offers to get a drink with him, you feel terrible for her and furious at him, for putting her in a position where she feels she has to “rectify” this so her career won’t suffer more. (And that part in the number? It goes to Ann.) The episode gives a montage of pills, parties, bedsheets, and various women in them, over and over and over. Like the Leading Player says: “Nothing has been completely fulfilling now, has it?”
Though Gwen has moved on with a younger actor beau, she’s reluctant to tell Bob because she fears he won’t take it well. Consider that this is happening as she’s hoping to get him to agree to Chicago, and it makes sense she wouldn’t want to risk him pushing her away. Joan Simon, ever the pal even from her hospital bed (she dies of bone cancer in 1973, and at this point knows she’s in the last weeks of her life), asks Gwen how many of Bob’s girlfriends she’s had to suffer through. Maybe some of her friend’s sass sticks, though, because she hangs up on Bob when he calls her at 3 a.m. asking her to look at Pippin‘s finale.
But things between them cross an entirely different line when Bob, melancholy about the meaninglessness of his shiny new awards and under the influence of his drugs of choice, picks up his Oscar and goes over to Gwen’s apartment in the dead of night to crawl into bed with her — except that Gwen’s new guy is there too, and neither of them are particularly pleased by the unannounced visit. Their daughter, Nicole, witnesses the aftermath of the scene, which is possibly more hurtful to him than getting punched by the man in his ex’s bed.
The Curtain Call
After the scene at the apartment, Bob hits bottom — a Pippin-accented hallucinatory bottom. Back at his hotel, he contemplates jumping out the window, his own surreal version of Pippin deciding whether or not to set himself aflame. The room becomes a soundstage, and visions of Gwen and the Pippin company try to push him towards suicide, using songs from the show to make their ominous pitch. “You made me a star,” Dream Gwen tells him, “but if you do this you’ll eclipse me — you’ll eclipse everyone.”
What stops him is Nicole. Despite seeming only marginally interested in caring for her (care, in his version of it, involves having her hang around his rehearsal studios while he works and giving her endless vending machine money for chips and cans of Tab), he sees a vision of her singing Pippin‘s “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” the song Catherine sings when Pippin leaves their idyllic farm to continue searching for his great purpose, at a scene that resembles a funeral. When he retreats and dials 911, the Dream Troupe calls it cowardice. (“He chose life,” one of the Dream Dancers smirked, calling back to Bob’s dismissal of the Pippin ending. “How realistic is that?”) He comes to in a psychiatric hospital two days later, but you can be pretty sure he won’t be down for long. Rivers belong where they can ramble, you know.