Boston Phoenix Interview: Chet Walker Revisits Bob Fosse's 'Pippin'

Publication date: 
November 21, 2012
Author: 
DEBRA CASH

Michael Jackson didn't invent the moonwalk. Bob Fosse did. Chet Walker, the choreographer's protegé who co-created the 1999 Tony-winning Fosse, joined the Broadway cast of Pippin two years after its 1972 premiere. With the American Repertory Theater's upcoming revival directed by Diane Paulus, Walker finds himself revisiting — and reimagining — a work that had been relegated to student and regional productions. This time, Walker's choreography in Fosse's much-imitated but never surpassed style will be augmented by acrobatics from Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 doigts de la main.

With Pippin, you're revisiting not just a landmark show but your own early career. The '70s was the last Golden Age of Broadway. I got in on all the cool stuff. We were a smaller group of people, more of a family, that moved through show to show together. Not that we didn't worry about work. Back in those days we made $97.50 a week.
 
What did Fosse see in you? I'd never be that presumptuous. But before Pippin I auditioned for [the 1972 Liza Minnelli concert film for television] Liza with a Z. It was a Saturday at Showcase Studios. I showed up in tights and ballet shoes and white hair — it was natural then — and all these other guys around me were men in jeans and boots and beards and bandanas. Finally, at one point, Mr. Fosse said to me, "What am I going to do with you?" My voice was breaking at the time, and I said, "Hire me!" He laughed, and the next time, when I auditioned for Pippin, he said, "I remember you," and I remember thinking, "Oh please, don't remember that day."
 
Pippin for [Fosse] was a complete gift. After the [1969] movie of Sweet Charity he couldn't get hired. No one wanted him to do the movie of Cabaret. He was the last person they asked, and he won an Academy Award. Then Liza with a Z and then Pippin. It was a Triple Crown situation [Fosse won the Oscar, Emmy, and Tony for the three shows, respectively]. You work all the time, but he loved to work.
 
Ann Reinking has attributed Fosse's style to his need to work with his own deficiencies — the fact that he was pigeon-toed, wearing hats because he was going bald. I would never call them deficiencies! Yeah, he was going bald, but hats were part of that vaudevillian showmanship. Every vaudeville guy had a distinctive hat. He was pigeon-toed, but he never had a technique, he had a style. . . . Of all the [Broadway] choreographers, no one has a style as specific.
 
Ben Vereen was the original Leading Player in Pippin. Did he really invent Michael Jackson's moonwalk? No. Mr. Fosse did.
 
Are you having fun? It's amazing to go back [to Pippin] and go into an arena of other possibilities and bring that all together and blend that with acrobatics. I'm creating Mr. Fosse's look and adding Fosse-isms throughout it. He didn't want people to tell him what he did, he was always wanting to evolve.
 
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