At the rise of the curtain, from the center of glowing rotating hands, appears the face of the Leading Player. She introduces the audience to the world that she inhabits as the bare stage populated by a group of actors becomes visible; they are Players in a theatrical caravan. One by one, they all come forward and join the Leading Player in welcoming the audience with magic tricks, dance and other elements of spectacle, preparing the audience for the story that they are about to tell ("Magic to Do").
The story begins, and the audience learns that the tale concerns a boy named Pippin, who is the firstborn son of Charlemagne. The story starts when Pippin has returned home from the University of Padua, where he was scholar of the house. He is a young man who refuses to waste his life in pursuit of only "common things." He believes there is something much more fulfilling in life ("Corner of the Sky").
After four days of being back home, Charlemagne finally visits with Pippin. Father and son attempt to carry on a meaningful conversation, but it is obvious that Charlemagne has other matters on his mind ("Welcome Home"). The Leading Player introduces Lewis, Pippin's half brother, who is directly behind Pippin in line for the throne, and Lewis' mother, Fastrada. Lewis is vapid and vain, but Fastrada is intent on winning him the throne. Charlemagne is not pleased that she has overdrawn her allowance again. He leaves.
Pippin notices that everyone around him is preparing for the campaign against the Visigoths. He decides that he wants to be a soldier and join the campaign, but his father will not let him join the fight. Pippin argues that he is next in line for the throne, however, and might be fighting his own war someday. Charlemagne reluctantly agrees, and Pippin gets a helmet to join his father in battle. The soldiers begin preparing to fight the Visigoths, but the eager Pippin keeps getting in the way of his father's meticulous war campaign strategies ("War Is a Science"). As plans unravel, Pippin becomes disturbed by the language that Charlemagne uses to talk about the enemy. Charlemagne insists that the Visigoth king is talking the same way with his men.
Then, a drum roll is heard; it is a signal that the time for battle has come. Pippin and Lewis follow their father onto the battlefield. A bloody battle is waged, much to Pippin's horror ("Glory"). In the end, Charlemagne and his men win the war. Declaring victory, the king tells the men to sack and pillage. Left alone, Pippin walks among the dismembered body pieces. He eventually realizes that war is a terrible thing and cannot agree to partake in the victory celebrations. Charlemagne chastises his son for this, but Pippin tells him that he'll have to get used to celebrating without him ("Corner of the Sky – Reprise").
The Leading Player enters to reflect on a man who had all of the earthly possessions that he desired, but still felt that there was something missing from his life ("Simple Joys"). Pippin has unexpectedly become this man.
We shift to the countryside to find Berthe, Pippin's grandmother, enjoying all of the simple joys in life. Pippin appears and confesses his confusion and frustration with life. She advises him to stop thinking and just enjoy life ("No Time at All").
Alone again, Pippin realizes that his grandmother is right. He takes off his shirt and begins to bask in the sun. Soon after, attractive and seductive women appear and slowly surround him ("With You"). At first, Pippin is enjoying the romanticism, but the mood quickly changes, and the women bombard him. Pippin is pulled in several directions by these exotic women. Repelled by this, he screams out and demands to be left alone. The Leading Player comes forward to inform Pippin that his father is now slaughtering those of his own people who choose to speak out against him. Pippin is disgusted with his father's actions and decides that it is time for the tyrant to be overthrown.
As Pippin leaves a secret meeting where plans are made to eliminate the King, Fastrada and Lewis are eavesdropping. Lewis is shocked, but his mother reminds him that, if Pippin kills Charlemagne or if his father discovers Pippin's plot and has him executed, Lewis is next in line for the throne. Fastrada tries secretly to expedite this process by telling her husband that Pippin is disloyal and that Lewis loves his father. When this has no impact, she resorts to another plan: Fastrada prepares her husband to go off for his yearly prayer at Arles, and promptly informs Pippin that his father will be praying there. She does not tell the King that Pippin wishes him harm ("Spread a Little Sunshine").
In the Chapel at Arles, Charlemagne is praying. A disguised Pippin enters and confronts his father about the harm that he has brought to his subjects. He then takes a knife and strikes him to the ground. The monks all rise and bow to their new king ("Morning Glow"). Pippin has now become King of the Holy Roman Empire and prepares himself to hear petitions from the many people in his kingdom. He gives money to the poor, gives land to the peasants and abolishes taxes for everyone. He also abolishes the army. Unfortunately, when the Infidel Huns attack, Pippin's kingdom cannot fight back. Soon, he is forced to revoke all of the promises that he made and, as a result, becomes very unpopular. Lost and confused, Pippin goes to pray at the body of his dead father. He asks his father if he can have his knife back, and Charlemagne appears. He takes the crown from Pippin and leaves. The Leading Player tells Pippin that it's time for him to think about his life ("Act One Finale").
Pippin is still agitated and confused, but the Leading Player assures him that things are going exactly as planned ("On the Right Track"). He tries out a variety of different professions and activities, but none is to his liking.
Enter Catherine. She is a widow with a young son and a large estate. When she first sees Pippin, he is a lying on a road like a discarded rag ("There He Was"). It is revealed that Pippin has lost the will to live; she cleans him up and tries restore his ambition. She describes herself as an ordinary woman with ordinary needs. Unfortunately, nothing she says to Pippin makes him change ("Kind of Woman").
She finally sends her son, Theo, to talk with Pippin. Theo attempts to show Pippin his duck, but Pippin is not interested. Catherine decides to give Pippin one more chance. She talks with him and finds out that he is in complete despair because he has an overwhelming need to be fulfilled... and he is not. She tells him about real despair: a husband that she loved very much, who was struck by fever and taken from her. She then asks Pippin to help her run the estate, and he hops out of bed and starts becoming part of her everyday life doing chores. But, this work doesn't really interest him either ("Extraordinary").
Pippin finally decides that he has had enough of menial chores around Catherine's estate and he tells her that he is leaving. Then, Otto the duck gets sick, and Theo comes to Pippin for help. Pippin tries to tell the boy that he doesn't know anything about ducks; all he can do is pray for the duck to recover ("Prayer for a Duck"). Unfortunately, the duck dies; Theo is heartbroken and plunges into his own monumental despair. Pippin overcomes his own despair by cheering Theo up.
In the course of all of this, he finds himself becoming extremely attracted to Catherine. The two of them have fallen in love ("Love Song"). As six months go by, Catherine and Theo throw a party for Pippin. Pippin realizes that the three of them are becoming a family and it completely terrifies him. Pippin tells Catherine that he must leave. Catherine is left alone to reflect on how much Pippin changed her life ("I Guess I'll Miss the Man").
Pippin is once again very discouraged and sits alone. The Leading Player and Charlemagne appear to talk Pippin through what he has learned – what they knew all along – that there is nothing completely fulfilling. Pippin agrees, but the Leading Player suddenly says that there is one thing that it is completely fulfilling – the much anticipated climax of the show. A player with a torch jumps in, and a trick firebox is rolled on. This player goes upstage of the box while another player steps inside of it. A cloth is held up in front of the box, and the player with the torch sets fire to a dummy inside of it that is supposed to be a man. We see the dummy burn and, after the flames vanish, the cloth is brought up again; the Player steps in front of it. The Troupe applauds.
Pippin is underwhelmed by this trick, but the Leading Player assures him that, when Pippin does it, it will be real. He asks Pippin to set himself on fire for the audience ("Finale"). Just before he is about to step into the box, he stops. Catherine and Theo appear, and Pippin begins to go towards them. The Leading Player is infuriated and demands that Pippin continue with the trick. Pippin takes Catherine and Theo by the hand and the three of them stand together. Pippin realizes that all of the magic and greatness he wanted may have been with them. The Leading Player mocks and threatens Pippin. She removes their costumes, turns off the stage lighting and empties the stage to show Pippin what life is like without "magic." Pippin is finally fulfilled. The Leading Player turns to address the audience. She apologizes for what has happened and abruptly leaves the stage after demanding that the band leave, as well. Now, Pippin cannot even sing. Pippin, who seems to be unfazed, simply sings a capella. Smiling, he and Catherine eventually depart.
Theo is left on stage and stares at a pile of discarded gloves as the voices of the players can be heard. The curtain slowly falls.