Thursday, May 8, 2014

Donald Pippin: A Maestro's Memoirs

The Ziegfeld Society just enjoyed their wonderful April event - Erté - The Life and Art of Erté and now they are right onto their MAY EVENT......Donald Pippin, the original music director for the Broadway productions of A Chorus Line and La Cage Aux Folles, among others! - A Maestro's Memoirs.....Saturday, May 17th - Lang Hall, Hunter College at 4:00pm.
We sat down a few days ago to talk about the journey that has led him to this point. Today, I celebrate Don Pippin and his body of "worth".
My first question for Don comes from Stephen Sorrentino, who I interviewed a few days ago. What makes Don happy and what makes him unhappy.
What makes him happy is being home with his animals. He has four dogs. He loves being at home. He loves taking care of them,. getting them to the vet, looking after them. He loves "home things". Prior to our interview, he was out fixing steps on the deck. He loves doing things He is a homebody.
What makes him unhappy is when he can't be as physically active as he would like.
The other day he had a reaction to some medication he was on and it affected every muscle in his body. It didn't make him an invalid, but close to it. It was a miserable time for him. He can only imagine what it must be like for people who suddenly lose the use of their legs.
with his Mame, Angela Lansbury
It is horrible when one cannot do what they desire to physically. Don lives a physical life. He is not a couch potato. He needs his body to be able to work the way he wants it to. He takes Pilates three times a week. He does cardio work a few times a week.He keeps himself healthy.
Donald started out on his path by going to Julliard as a serious concert pianist.
That was his major and that was where his life was when he first went there. Then he saw Kiss Me, Kate and his life changed.
He suddenly felt, "What is the marvelous music I've never been exposed to?"
In his native Tennessee, they didn't hear show music. He had never seen a show or heard Broadway music. He fell in love with the type of music this was. Not only was it the music, it had words and people expressed themselves through songs. He was hooked. Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms took a back seat. He suddenly discovered the theatre was something he was interested in. He ended up getting summer stock and got three years of experience under his belt with thirty six shows. Then he decided he was ready to try Broadway.
He has loved all of the shows he did on Broadway and never got bored with any of them. In a way, the most talked about and "unusual" of the shows he did was A Chorus Line for so many years.
He was the musical director for over fifteen years. He didn't do the show for fifteen years, but he was in charge, and he would check it out.  
Michael Bennett would send him out to check the road companies and the European companies.
Don would come back from time to time to the New York company and make sure it was in fine shape. Throughout this time, he worked at Radio City Music Hall and a couple of other shows. A Chorus Line was a major part of Don's life for fifteen years.
 He actually saw people who came in young have children before it was all over. They would be fifteen years older and their children would be young teenagers.That was the only time that Don had such a long run with a show.
Don's parents were not in the business at all, although his mother loved music.
She decided to pre-natally influence him. She predetermined that he was going to be a musician. He has no idea why. She went to concerts. She played the radio. She played phonograph records. She loved the piano. This was all before he was born.
Don was so happy working that he always seemed successful.
He never felt he wasn't succeeding. He didn't have any giant plans for himself except for the fact that he wanted to do Broadway shows. That's what he went after. Oliver! was his first successful show. He was nominated for a Tony AND won it. He was aware of the fact that that was a very good start for a career.
It had premiered in the West End in 1960, enjoying a long run, then a successful Broadway production in 1963 and further tours and revivals. The National Asian Artists Project will present Oliver! on June 5th here in New York. The producer is Baayork Lee who played Connie in the original production of A Chorus Line on Broadway.
Unfortunately, Don's mom never experienced his Broadway successes. She passed on when he was ten years old. That was a real shocker. He was definitely a mama's boy. His older brother, Earl, who became a doctor, was definitely a father's boy. Their family was kind of spread into two groups. Fortunately, there were loving people in their lives. That helped a lot for a growing grieving boy.

Don said he honestly can't recall any low points in his career. If he had to choose a low point in his life, it would have to be when he was in the service. He was a medic in the army during World War II. That got pretty depressing. He had to do a lot of mental work.
His grandfather was a "damn fire hell damnation" Methodist minister. He had an Uncle who was the same type of Baptist minister. His mother was not a religious "nut" but she embraced and had a feeling of optimism about her. All of that helped him greatly get through that low period. He could talk to himself. Occasionally, it would have been nice to have an adult person to go to to talk. He could always begin to reason through things and he had some good thoughts to bring into his mind.
Klea Blackhurst and Don Pippin, Hello, Dolly! Goodspeed Opera House
What Donald is concerned about today as far as the theatre is concerned is that it doesn't have what he experienced during the "golden age of Broadway". Broadway had a style and a sound. The minute you heard something from a recording, you knew right away, "That's Broadway."
Today, listening to the Broadway channel on Sirius XM in his car, and hearing what comes on, he thinks he's listening to a lounge act in Las Vegas. Broadway has no "sound" anymore, something that says, "That's Broadway."
All the guitars and small orchestras, which he feels is unfortunate, make it all sound like a commercial television sound. That is what all the contemporary composers are bringing to the table.
That bothers Don. He doesn't know if he's listening to a commercial recording that really needs all the dancing and everything that goes with it or it it Broadway? He finds it very distracting himself. Broadway does have a sound which Don hopes will find if it wants to, something THAT IS Broadway, and not from another medium. 
Don is working on his memoirs currently. His solo program that he will be presenting for The Ziegfeld Society at Hunter College on the 17th was previously presented very successfully at The Goodspeed Opera House.
It is called A Maestro's Memoirs.
The Lang Theatre is more of a recital hall than a theatrical well but he believes it will work well. There are a lot of projections. As long as he has a good piano and a good sound system, everything will be fine.
When I asked Don how long he sat down to write for his book, he said that was an embarrassing question! Suddenly a week has gone by and he hasn't written anything. A couple of his friends have been bugging him about this because he tells so many funny and amusing stories about the shows and people he has worked on and known. As a result of that, he found himself putting together this show. As he was writing his memoirs, he kept hearing all of the music that happened at that time. This show is based on his career and life story through all of the music that he has conducted and the people he has known.
He has so many favorite moments depending upon what he is remembering at any given moment. Bea Arthur, for example, was the dearest person in the world. Don has been able to keep great friendships and contacts from the beginning with so many stars. Angela Lansbury, especially. We all are constantly having these moments in our lives. You have to see the show to hear a great story about Don Pippin's and Jerry Herman's fathers. I'm sworn to secrecy, but it WILL stop the show!
It took place the opening night of Mame.
Every time he retells this story, he gets goosebumps. Jerry Herman, of course, also knows this story. Nothing sheds light on the relationship Don has with Jerry better than this story.
It's one of my favorite story's I've heard Don tell over the years.
Don's mom used to talk about the word, "luck." Don once asked her, "What is luck?" She responded, "It's being prepared for something when the opportunity arrives." She said, "As you go through life, many things will be offered to you, but if you're not prepared, you're not going to be lucky." Donald sometimes talk about this at seminars. People will sometimes ask him, "How do you make things happen in this business?" It seems that his whole life, he has always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. He has always been prepared. He has always been prepared for some things he hasn't even had a chance to do!
Don Pippin and Donna McKechnie rom the Philly POPS' MARVIN HAMLISCH- A MUSICAL TRIBUTE (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)

He has coached Opera at Julliard. He loves opera and keeps thinking someday he will do one. He has studied a lot of opera.
He hasn't so far, but when the chance come up, he will be ready!

Don's biggest vice is what he was doing at the time of our interview. He gets very comfortable in his favorite chair. Sometimes, that involves watching terrible television with his little dog in his lap and a cup of coffee.
He just feels so comfortable! He can really waste a lot of time doing "silly" things like that. The opposite of that is that he is a good planner. Once he makes up his mind that he's got to do something, it can really begin to obsess him in a way.
He dreams about it, he thinks about it when he's awake, lying in bed, or it will wake him up. He keeps going at it and doesn't let go of it until he feels he has it under control. He's now going through this regarding his upcoming appearance on the 17th. He hasn't done it in a while. It's a lot to remember. He drills it continuously in his mind.
He tells himself, "OK, we've got to do this." There are a lot of cues for the projections. He is obsessive in that way of preparing.
When he knows he has something to do, he disciplines himself to get it done. He still makes time to live.
Don admits that his professional schedule is not as busy as he would like it to be.
Once he decided that he had enough of Broadway and walked away, he has had quite a career as a guest conductor.
He has appeared with almost every major symphony in the country. That includes Christmas and holiday programs, Jerry Herman and Marvin Hamlisch tributes, and many others as a guest conductor. That has let up. Why? He doesn't know? He has tried to reason through this.
Bookwriters Robert Lee and Jerry Lawrence with Don Pippin during rehearsals for the original Broadway production of Mame, 1966
It has to do with one of three things, sometimes all three. He remembers from his days of serving on boards
and considering hiring someone. What happens when Don's name comes up, and I'm convinced it does quite a bit, people will say,"He's too old", or, "He's too expensive", or "He wouldn't be interested in this." So, they don't call him. He, "ME TOO"", when it came to discussing others for certain events and gigs.

If one is lucky to be in the business a long time, as Don has, although you have been lucky enough to have a decent reputation, sometimes familiarity doesn't always get you the jobs. Don was just telling his agent a few days ago that he would love to go for a few more symphony dates.He loves doing those big programs.
Terre Blair Hamlisch presents Marvin's baton to Don :Photo by Sharla Feldscher (BroadwayWorld.com)
    Don considers himself a good student of life. He has been fortunate in learning. He had a background in
Don's dear friend, Jerry Herman
which he was taught decently by the standards that East Tennessee could provide at that time. He has enjoyed good health. He has led a very lucky life. I asked Don to give me his thoughts on the aging process.
Getting older can be very frightening sometimes. It comes from a combination of realizing your body doesn't "click" and cannot quite do what it has always done.
Don has always drilled himself to be able to do everything in the world. He has never thought of himself being limited.
He does now! He's beginning to realize he can't stand quite as long as he used to.
He sits down a little bit more. You have to, at some point, and Donald has very good doctors where he is, realize that he has been very lucky with his health thus far and there is no reason to believe that won't continue. He is continuing to enjoy life. We all have to learn that when there are limitations to accept them and not as a negative thing, but as a part of life. That is what Don has tried to do. Otherwise, he would get very depressed.
Don has been very lucky with the composers he has worked with, like Jerry Herman.
He is so saturated with Jerry, in a good way. They have a wonderful working relationship. He is certainly one of Don's most frequent composers.
He loves conducting
Cole Porter
Jerry's music and feels, as I do, that he can do it better than anybody else because he understands Jerry's music on a level deeper than anybody else. Don is also very fond of some of the other classics. Cole Porter knocks Don out. There have been a couple of movies on his life, one of them very good.
To see what one mind could create the thoughts and words that he did, never mind the fact that he knew how to put chords as melodies to go with them. In a way, he's kind of Don's favorite.
One composer that Don loved working with was Jule Styne. Don looked up to him, but working with him was sometimes a challenge. Early in Don's career, Jule called him to do a couple of his shows. Don was never available. He was always tied up. When they celebrated his work in  Broadway Sings Jule Styne for television, Jule called Don and asked if he would be available. Fortunately, Don was. That was when Don began his working relationship with Jule.

Don considers Jule a genius. He doesn't think people really realize what a talent he was. He was not a young man when Don met him. He could still play the piano very well. Jule also taught Don to always speak up when he was unhappy about something.
Jule had a reputation of being tough. He had that reputation because he spoke up, but it was ALWAYS in a constructive manner.
When Don walked away from Broadway, it was due to the fact that nothing was coming his way of interest to him. When he left, Broadway was really making that turn around of going from what he called the golden age. Everything was getting too commercial. No longer were there great producers like David Merrick. Suddenly, everything was coming by way of committees. It was getting to be so expensive that shows needed at least twenty producers in order to get a show on the boards. For Don, Broadway had lost its direction.
At the beginning, Don was very lucky. Everything he did had a great leader. It had either a great director or a great producer at the helm. He always felt there was some One he could turn to when a decision had to be made or if he didn't like something or something could be discussed before it became a problem for the show. He hates to use the word amateur, but they were amateur professionals or professional amateurs.
They were taking over the business. That is exactly where Broadway is today.
If Don didn't do what he has done, what does he think he have done with his life? He probably would have
been a doctor, because he did take several years of medical school. His brother did go that route. The government had put him into pre-med work and when the army drafted him into active service, because of that background, they made him a medic. Working in the hospital during those years definitely convinced him that he would not want to do that all of his life. That's why he went back to music.
We're all the better for it!
Who does Don think would make a great blog/interview subject for me? Stephen Sondheim! If only! It is someone who Don has never worked with but who intrigues him. They know each other only professionally. It is a brilliant mind and Don would love to know what goes on in his mind to create what he creates. It's an amazing mind. He has created brilliant work. So has Don! See for yourself on June 17th!

  Saturday, May 17th - Land Hall, Hunter College at 4:00pm.

PLEASE NOTE the time change.  This event will be at 4:00pm (not our usual 3:30pm time).

A message from The Ziegfeld Society's President, Mark York
Folks, this event and its star, Don Pippin, means so much to me, Mark York.
You see, in 1991, I was about to throw my hands up and go back to Oklahoma, feeling that I had failed here in NYC.  But on that fateful Easter Sunday...March 31, 1991...I met Don Pippin and he got me the job as Music Coordinator for one of Broadway's great composers, Jerry Herman.  My entire life and career made a 180 degree turn by this one man.  What Don didn't realize was that I got into Musical Theatre in Tuttle, Oklahoma because of the 1977 Broadway Revival Tour of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! that played in Oklahoma City starring Carol Channing, Lee Roy Reams, Eddie Bracken and Florence Lacey.
Additional dance music by Donald Pippin
Mame
Mack and Mabel (1974 Original Broadway Cast)
When the title song ended, as the entire civic center was clapping and cheering at the top of our lungs, I looked at my Mom and said "THIS is what I am going to do!"  And I have since that very moment.
It was my first epiphany of life.
To meet Don Pippin, Jerry Herman's Conductor of his many hits, was beyond any dreams I had. When I hear the name Don Pippin, all I think is...The Man Who Changed My Life.

I sincerely hope you will join us for this glorious journey through the Golden Years of  Broadway...which Don Pippin conducted. And he is a Storyteller Extraordinaire.
A Broadway presence for over half a century, Maestro Pippin was the original music director for the Broadway production of Mame, Mack and Mabel, Seesaw, Applause, A Chorus Line, 1987 revival of Cabaret, La Cage aux Folles.  In 1963 he won a Tony Award for his work in Oliver!, and in 1986 he was awarded a Drama Desk Special Award for musical direction and commitment to theater.  He continues to conduct “Pop” Symphony orchestras all over the USA and Europe.
Although known best as an arranger/ conductor, Pippin is also a pianist. He has accompanied many of our great entertainers: Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ann Hampton Callaway, Julie Andrews, Alfred Drake, Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, Marilyn Horne, and Debbie Voigt.


Don will also be performing at the piano with two very special guest performers....
Klea Blackhurst (star of Hello, Dolly! at Goodspeed Opera House, the award-winning tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything The Traffic Will Allow, recent revival of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Bingo, By Jupiter, Radio Gals, Oil City Symphony, Call Me Madam, Chicago, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Red Hot and Blue and Anything Goes;  performed with symphonies across the world including the London Palladium presentation of Jerry Herman’s Broadway with Angela Lansbury, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, 10 Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Conventions, New York’s Town Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, New York’s 92nd Street Y Lyrics and Lyricists -Leo Robin & Cole Porter) and Nat Chandler (Broadway: the title role of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera. National Tours: Lancelot in Camelot starring Robert Goulet, The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber with Sarah Brightman, Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Nat’s first professional job in musical theatre, Lun Tha in The King and I starring Yul Brynner. Last seen on Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim tribute, Children and Art and appeared in the City Center Encores! production of The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.)
DON'T MISS THIS EXCITING EVENT!  Buy you tickets NOW online at
                             www.theziegfeldsociety.com

or mail your check to:
The Ziegfeld Society
400 East 58th Street
Suite 16C
NY, NY  10022

Thank you Donald Pippin for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!
With grateful XOXOXs ,



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1 comment:

  1. What a wonderfully written heartfelt article. Since you know me personally, obviously I love that he has 4 dogs. I also really love that you called it his body of worth. Well done!

    ReplyDelete