Influenced by playwrights as diverse in style as Noël Coward and Thornton Wilder, Mr. Hirson launched his writing career in the 1950s heyday of live television, penning scripts for anthology series including “Goodyear Television Playhouse,” “Repertory Theatre,” “The Alcoa Hour,” “The Armstrong Circle Theatre” and “Playhouse 90.”
With a reputation for warm, witty dialogue and short turnaround time at the typewriter, he went on to adapt literary classics into television movies — including “A Christmas Carol” (1984), starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge; and “The Old Man and the Sea” (1990), with Anthony Quinn as Ernest Hemingway’s stoic fisherman.
He also turned toward projects drawn from American history, receiving an Emmy nomination for an episode of “The Adams Chronicles” (1976), a PBS miniseries that chronicled President John Adams and his family; and co-writing “A Woman Named Jackie” (1991), about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Mr. Hirson was best known for his work on Broadway, where he first co-wrote the book for “Walking Happy” (1966), based on a play by Harold Brighouse. The show received a Tony nomination for best musical, and Mr. Hirson soon landed an introduction to Schwartz, a 20-something composer with shoulder-length hair and a knack for writing bubbly, rock-influenced scores.
Half the age of Mr. Hirson and fresh off the success of “Godspell,” Schwartz had written an early version of “Pippin” while at Carnegie Mellon University and soon enlisted Mr. Hirson to rewrite the book.
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The result was an irreverent, anachronistic story of a young man — Pippin, son of King Charles (Charlemagne) — in search of direction in the late-8th-century Holy Roman Empire, where echoes of the modern sexual revolution and anti-Vietnam War movement reverberated in his search for happiness and fulfillment.
Opening at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on Oct. 23, 1972, “Pippin” ran for 1,944 performances and received 11 Tony nominations (including best book for Mr. Hirson), winning five. It also spawned singles by the Jackson 5 (“Corner of the Sky”), the Supremes (“I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”) and a solo Michael Jackson (“Morning Glow”) and became a favorite of school and community theaters.
More than many Broadway shows, its success was the result of a sometimes painful collaborative process, with Mr. Hirson and Schwartz battling with Fosse, the acclaimed director and choreographer, over basic elements of story and structure.
By most accounts, Fosse — who received no credit for the book — played a key role in developing the script, notably the concept of a show within a show. The star role was given to a mysterious figure known as the Leading Player (originally Ben Vereen, in a Tony-winning performance), who oversees a group of commedia dell’arte clowns who advise Pippin (John Rubinstein) and speak directly to the audience.
“It wasn’t until Bob Fosse said he would direct that the tone of the musical changed from a sincere, naive, morality play to an anachronistic, cynical burlesque,” producer Stuart Ostrow wrote in a memoir, “Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain.”
Reviewing the original production, New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes described “Pippin” as “a trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills” — but went on to say that he loved it, in large part because of Fosse’s staging. The director, Barnes added, “takes a painfully ordinary little show and launches it into space.”
In interviews, Schwartz often emphasized the depth that Mr. Hirson brought to the writing of the cynical old king, noting that Mr. Hirson “may have been the Charlemagne character” while “the character of Pippin became a great deal like me at that time.” (Fosse, whose work on the musical was recently featured in the FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” was perhaps closest to the mischievous Leading Player.)
“There was a tension running through the creation of the musical that really endowed it with a special life,” David Hirson said in a phone interview. “There were some rough goings from time to time, but my father always viewed it as — perhaps not the easiest collaboration, but ultimately very satisfying.”
The younger of two sons, Roger Overholt Hirson was born in Manhattan on May 5, 1926. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker. After graduating from Friends Seminary, a private Quaker school in New York, he enlisted in the Army, serving in Europe during World War II.
While on leave, he traveled to England, attending performances by Laurence Olivier that stimulated his interest in theater. He studied English at Yale, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1948, and wrote obituaries for the Long Island Press before launching his television career.
Mr. Hirson wrote two plays that were produced off-Broadway in the 1960s, “Journey to the Day” and “World War 2½ ,” and occasionally dabbled in Hollywood screenwriting. He received a story credit for “The Bridge at Remagen” (1969) and screenwriting credits for “Pieces of Dreams” (1970) and “Demon Seed” (1977), a horror film in which Julie Christie is impregnated by a computer.
For 50 years, he played weekly tennis matches with hypercompetitive book publisher Roger Straus Jr., who named Mr. Hirson co-executor of his will.
Mr. Hirson’s marriage to Alice Thorsell, an actress who performed under the name Alice Hirson, ended in divorce. His second wife, Jean Tan de Bibiana, died in 2007. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Christopher Hirson of Berlin and David Hirson of Manhattan, and a grandson.
In 2013, Mr. Hirson and Schwartz worked with director Diane Paulus on a Broadway revival of “Pippin,” which featured gymnastics and a big-top setting while seeking to retain the feisty spirit of Fosse’s original staging. The production won four Tonys, including best musical revival and best actress for Patina Miller, who played the Leading Player, changing the character’s gender.
“My father’s attitude toward that show, and to a lot of his work, was ‘Don’t be afraid to play with it,’ ” said David Hirson, who wrote the 1991 Broadway play “La Bête.” Set in 17th-century France, the play was restaged several years ago — and, similar to Mr. Hirson’s production, reimagined with a princess character instead of a prince. “Why not play with that?” the younger Hirson recalled his father saying.
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