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Actually, it doesn't.
The show is basically a Play Within a Play performed by a friendly (but slightly creepy) group of players led by the mysterious Leading Player. The players tell the audience that their show is building up to a fantastic Grand Finale, but don't give any information about what the Finale actually is. The Leading Player introduces us to the actor playing Pippin, who is apparently a new member of the troupe, playing Pippin for the first time. Pippin is "very" desperately searching for a purpose in life, and wants to find something completely fufilling. Over the course of the show Pippin experiments with war, sex, revolution, art, religion and love, screwing up at everything or finding it unfulfilling. As the show goes on, the audience (hopefully) starts to question the motives of the Players, who become steadily more bizarre and scary.
But just when Pippin is feeling most desperate, he meets a young widow named Catherine, and her son, Theo. Catherine is one of the Players, but she seems different from the rest of them, and actually cares a great deal about Pippin. This frustrates and confuses the Leading Player. This isn't how Catherine's part is supposed to go. Pippin starts to work on Catherine's very ordinary estate and becomes a part of her and her son's very ordinary lives. Eventually, of course, he and Catherine fall in love, and it seems like they could actually live together happily. But Pippin, with some provocation from the Leading Player, decides that simply living with and loving someone isn't glamourous enough for him, and he runs away from the two.
When he's failed at everything, the players reappear, saying that the only truly satisifying thing in the world is their Grand Finale. Which, it turns out, is to try to make him commit suicide by lighting himself on fire. All for the audience's entertainment, of course.
Except, they don't.
Right when it looks like Pippin is about to do it, He realizes that nothing in the world is truly perfect, and that the only time he was happy was when he was with Catherine. She reappears on stage, and he walks over and takes her hand. The Leading Player throws a temper tantrum and tells the Players to take down all the sets, costumes, lights, and makeup on Pippin and Catherine, but nothing deters them. Finally, the Players are forced to leave the stage after saying that if any of the audience members should wish to perform their perfect act, they'll always be waiting. Pippin finds himself on an empty stage, prepared to live out the rest of his life in the most ordinary way of all, feeling "trapped, but happy."
(In the revised ending, Pippin and Catherine leave the stage, leaving Theo alone to sing the chorus of 'Corner of the Sky,' as the Players move in on him, having found a new victim.)
- Actor Allusion: To Irene Ryan, the original Berthe, who was best known as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies:
Now, I could waylay some aging roué
- Aerith and Bob: Charlemagne, Fastrada, Pippin...and Lewis, Theo and Catherine
- Semi-justified, as Charlemagne, Fastrada, Lewis and Pippin are versions of the historical figures with those names. Theo and Catherine were created for the musical, but their names are plausible for the time period.
- Ambiguously Gay: Lewis is often played this way.
- Asskicking Equals Authority: Charles says that's the world he knew.
- Audience Participation Song: Berthe asks the audience to sing along with her in the choruses of "No Time At All" (except for the last one, which she insists on taking by herself).
- Bad News in a Good Way: A scene where couriers come on to report cheerfully such news as: "Peasants revolt. King slays thousands."
- BSOD Song: Pippin's final song.
- Call to Agriculture: This is basically what Pippin ends up settling for. Not that he's not happy with it.
- Catch Phrase: Fastrada -- "After all, I'm just an ordinary housewife and mother, just like all you housewives and mothers out there."
- The Chessmaster / Manipulative Bastard: Leading Player controls everything that goes on in the play. EVERYTHING.
- Coming of Age Story: Definitely one for Pippin. Though not in the way you might think...
- Conversation Casualty: Charles is killed by Pippin, disguised as a monk, at the end of a conversation about the meaning of empire.
- Cool Old Lady: Berthe to a T
- Creepy Circus Music: The opening song "Magic To Do" sounds pretty much like this. Despite the fact the Players are desperately trying to entertain and appear as friendly as possible, and the lyrics are upbeat and cheery, the music just doesn't sound quite right.
- Cue the Sun: Disturbingly warped in the final scene. The Players tell Pippin to "think about the sun" as they bring on a backdrop depicting the sun and a lot of stage lighting as encouragement for him to commit Self-Immolation.
- Cut Song: "Marking Time" was replaced by "Extraordinary," but its tune remained in the show as the underscoring for a romantic moment.
- Dark Reprise: The first time Pippin sings "Corner of the Sky", it's full of hope and determination. Throughout the show, it is reprised more and more desperately each time he gives up on something, culminating during the Finale, as he prepares to light himself on fire
- Deliberately Cute Child: "Enter Theo! A small lovable boy, with a large, lovable duck!"
- Desperately Looking for a Purpose In Life: Emphasis on the desperately.
- Devil in Disguise: The Leading Player
- Does Not Like Shoes: Pippin, though it wasn't originally in the script. See Original Cast Precedent below.
- The Ending Changes Everything: With one line, "Why, we're right inside your heads," the entire play takes on a new meaning.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Leading Player doesn't have a name.
- Evil Matriarch: Fastrada
- For the Evulz: Let's face it, if Leading Player has any other motivation for killing Pippin(s) we don't know it.
- Gender Neutral Narrator: Original Cast Precedent has the Leading Player as male, but numerous productions have cast females. Aside from the changing of keys, it doesn't make much difference.
- Glory Seeker: At one point Pippin takes after his Miles Gloriosus half-brother and becomes a glory-seeking warrior, but it doesn't take long for him to become disillusioned.
- The Good King: Pippin tries to become this but it turns out to be much harder than it looks.
- Heel Face Turn: Arguably, Catherine, when she interrupts Pippin's suicide during the grand finale
- Historical Domain Character: The entire cast except Catherine and Theo are historical figures, Charlemagne being the most notable.
- "I Am" Song: "Kind of Woman" for Catherine, "Spread A Little Sunshine" for Fastrada and "Extraordinary" for Pippin
- I Just Want to Be Special: Kind of the point of" Extraordinary"
- Incest Subtext: Due to Original Cast Precedent, between Lewis and Fastrada. It's usually shown more through choreography and subtext than dialogue.
- It's All About Me: Pippin. When you think about it, this is really the whole point of the show. I mean, he has a freakin' song just about how special he thinks he is.
- "I Want" Song: "Corner of the Sky" is Pippin's and one of the best examples of the trope
- Just the First Citizen: 'Leading Player' is a pretty benign title for someone doing what he's doing.
- Large Ham: Ben Vereen impressed the producers with his audition so much that the role of the Leading Player was created for him out of what was previously two smaller, less important roles. The Hamminess of the Leading Player has continued ever since.
- Lemony Narrator: The Leading Player in spades! He definately has an agenda of his own, often makes comments on the actions of the other players and as we eventually realize, is a very fleshed out character.
- Losing Your Head: Pippin has a poignant conversation with the head of a fallen Visigoth soldier. In a later scene, after Pippin has been crowned king, a headless man comes up to him and asks for his head to be reattached.
- The Magnificent: After Pippin is crowned king, the Leading Player dubs him "King Pippin, the Charitable" for distributing money to the poor, "King Pippin, the Just" for giving land to the peasants, and "King Pippin, the Peaceful" for abolishing taxation and the army. Then, when the threat of war forces Pippin to suspend all these reforms, Fastrada dubs him "King Pippin the Unpopular."
- Mating Dance: The "dance as metaphor" variety.
- Mentor Archetype: Leading Player would like Pippin to think he's one. See Treacherous Advisor.
- Midword Rhyme: In "Magic to Do".
Journey, journey to a spot ex-
- Miles Gloriosus: Lewis, a strong stupid type who likes wearing shiny breastplates, swinging a sword around and boasting about the number of enemies slain by his hand.
- Morality Ballad: "Simple Joys"
- No Fourth Wall: When the title character's very first words are a request to have some more lighting, it's clear that the Fourth Wall is going to be transparent at best.
- No Serious Business in Show Business: The songs, the poster, even the characters will try and convince you this is a musical comedy "coming of age" tale. It's not.
- Lampshaded when Pippin says "And this isn't a bad ending for a musical comedy" at the end.
- One-Scene Wonder: Berthe is in one scene and has one song. And yet her song is among the most famous in the musical, and she often gets the most applause at curtain calls.
- Original Cast Precedent: The original actor for Pippin had absolutely no luck with the costume department in regards to shoes. He could never find a pair of shoes that were comfortable, so one night, fed up, he decided to do the whole show barefoot. It wasn't easy. In his dressing room after the curtain call, Bob Fosse came in. The actor prepared himself for a grovelling apology, but instead Fosse gushed, "I love it! Barefoot! Gives you that innocence." Since then, Pippin is always barefoot.
- Our Acts Are Different: Pippin was originally written in one act, but most regional productions insert an intermission.
- In some productions, the intermission is placed immediately after Pippin kills Charlegmagne.The second act then picks up exactly where the first act ended, and Morning Glow is used as an opening number.
- The version from Music Theatre International places an intermission after Charles is raised with an Act I Finale. Act II opens with On The Right Track.
- Patter Song: oh, War Is A Science, why are you so cool?
- Rape, Pillage and Burn: After Charles defeats the Visigoths in battle, he says that it's time for his men to rape and sack. "Oh yes, it's required."
- "And we have to sing too, that's absolutely essential." What a charming musical comedy.
- Reset Button: When Pippin regrets assassinating his father, the Leading Player allows him to undo it.
Charlemagne [cheerfully]: It's alright, son. Just don't let it happen again!
- Royals Who Actually Do Something: Charlemagne is shown leading his troops to battle, and even Pippin tries to do something during his brief stint as king.
- Self-Immolation: The fate intended for Pippin by the Leading Player.
- Terms of Endangerment: The Leading Player often calls Pippin 'baby' and his last line is 'you try singing without music, sweetheart.' He seems to do it more and more as the play goes on, ESPECIALLY in the Grand Finale.
- Tenor Boy: Pippin
- Treacherous Advisor: The Leading Player
- The Vamp: Fastrada
- Villain Song: "Spread A Little Sunshine" for Fastrada. Suprisingly the play's true villain The Leading Player doesn't really get one.
- Although, out of context, "Spread a Little Sunshine" is just a nice, catchy tune about the golden rule.