Zippel was born and raised in Easton, Pennsylvania. Falling in love with the theater as a child, Zippel first articulated his life's ambition to become a lyricist and director in junior high school. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he contributed lyrics to an Equity production of "a bizarre political musical" called Rotunda (which had a brief run in Washington, D.C.), before graduating with a B.A. in 1976. Mindful of the difficulties of achieving success in the theater, before committing himself to such a career Zippel first obtained a J.D. degree from Harvard Law School, graduating in the class of 1979 (along with such legal luminaries as former Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States). Even at Harvard, however, Zippel continued to pursue his real ambition, writing several pop songs with singer Pamala Stanley that appeared on her 1979 debut album, This Is Hot, and collaborating on three songs with Wally Harper, Barbara Cook's musical director, whose performance of the songs at Carnegie Hall in 1980 marked Zippel's own New York theatrical debut.
Pamela's First Musical, written with Coleman and Wendy Wasserstein, based on Wasserstein's children's book, received its world premiere in a concert staging at Town Hall in New York City on May 18, 2008.