PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Weidman

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Weidman Librettist John Weidman has three collaborations with composer Stephen Sondheim on his mind these days: Bounce, Assassins and Pacific Overtures.
John Weidman.
John Weidman. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

More than a decade separates each effort: Pacific Overtures, his first partnership with Sondheim, debuted on Broadway in 1976. Assassins premiered at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons in 1991. And Bounce had its world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre this past summer (though it was decades in development). But, between now and fall 2004, Broadway may see productions of all three, making for a small scale, unofficial Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman festival. Two mountings are for certain, and courtesy of the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company. Assassins will have its Broadway debut at Studio 54 in March 2004, with Joe Mantello directing. The creators had planned to present the dark satiric show—about the killers and would-be killers of American presidents—in fall 2001, but those plans were shelved after the events of Sept. 11. Pacific Overtures, meanwhile, was recently announced for a fall 2004 Roundabout slot, with Amon Miyamoto—who directed a praised Japanese-language version of the musical at the Lincoln Center Festival in July 2002—at the helm. The big question mark is Bounce—a musical about the lives of the colorful 1920s American capitalists-cum-con artists, Addison and Wilson Mizner. Since an aborted 1999 workshop Off-Broadway, the show has been a magnet for curiosity, speculation, rumor and conjecture. A tornado of press surrounding the Goodman Theatre production, and a bigger squall is expected to engulf the musical when it plays The Kennedy Center for a month beginning Oct. 21. Weidman, speaking from the Watergate Hotel, just across from the Kennedy Center, talked to Playbill On-Line about the latest draft Bounce, the musical's hopes for a New York engagement and a cast recording, and the essence of a Sondheim-Weidman collaboration.

Playbill On-Line: If all goes well, you could see three Sondheim-Weidman musicals on Broadway within the coming year.
John Weidman: Yes. All these things, all of a sudden, which were balls in the air, seem to be coming down. I suppose it will be overwhelming when the projects take on a bit more reality than they have at the moment. They are all definitely scheduled. But for Bounce, we don't have a [Broadway] theatre, and it's not clear what the next move will be. Assassins is something that got delayed for two years. We're back looking at the casting again and figuring out who's available. And the production of Pacific Overtures—which is the one Steve and I initially sought at the new national theatre of Tokyo, which came over here to the Lincoln Center Festival—is just a fabulous production. We've got casting issues with that as well, because Amon Miyamoto, who directed it, is obviously going to do it now with Asian-American actors.

PBOL: How have the rehearsals for Bounce been going?
JW: Extremely well. I think we had a very productive period between the production in Chicago and the first rehearsal here.

PBOL: You and Sondheim have been revising the work. What sort of changes have been made?
JW: I suppose, in the most general sense, we've tried to clarify the central relationship between the [Mizner] brothers, to make the story stronger and clearer. Steve's written a new song for the last 15 minutes of the show, for the Boca Raton land boom sequence in Florida. We've cut one song—a song called "Alaska," a kind of patter song that Michele Pawk and Howard McGillin sang at the Belmont racetrack—in the first act. That has been replaced by a much stronger piece of material and the entire scene has been rewritten. And we lifted one song, "You Are the Best Thing That Ever Has Happened to Me," a ballad which Michele Pawk and Howard McGillin sang a full version of very close to the end of the first act. That scene has been cut and the song has been moved to earlier in the act, a place where we feel it works.

PBOL: Has the production changed in length?
JW: The first act is about 15 minutes shorter. I think the audience will very much feel that. The second act will probably run the same length. PBOL: What message would you like audiences to take away from this show?
JW: One of the things that we realized about the show in Chicago, was, in terms of—not the speed of it, but the style of it—we wanted to take the relationship between the brothers more seriously, and to take the thematic issues that drove the show more seriously. We've all contributed to that; Hal Prince has as director, and Steve and I have in rewriting. I think that the issues of creation versus squandering against the backdrop of a country which provides ample opportunities to do both, the issues of what happens when opportunity turns into opportunism—those are the issues that are alive in the show. But I think the relationship of the brothers, we hope, has become a more powerful and more compelling story than it was in Chicago. People take the emotional ride of the show now. I think the "What it's about" question will take care of itself.

PBOL: Are there plans for a cast recording?
JW: My first answer is yes, there are plans for a cast album, and I believe the plans are not just in the works, but being finalized. But the producers' office would be a better place to confirm that with.

PBOL: As far as New York is concerned, will that all be decided after the Washington run? There have been reports that the producers had been looking into booking Broadway theatres for this coming spring, which would seem to indicate that they want to bring Bounce in no matter what happens at the Kennedy Center.
JW: I think that that is the case. We'll all have a look at the show in front of an audience down here, but I think I can speak for Roger Berlind and Arielle Tepper in that they're very pleased with the work we've done between Chicago and here. We're eager to take the show to the next step and that would be New York.

PBOL: On to Assassins. That's a show that has had tough luck as far as the intrusion of current events is concerned. Broadway plans in 1991 were derailed by the first Gulf War, and the Roundabout postponed its planned 2001 production after the events of Sept. 11. Has these delays been frustrating?
JW: I don't know if frustrating is the right word. The last time around, Steve and I had been approached by different directors who wanted to do Assassins in New York, and Joe Mantello really was the first person who I felt got the show and whose sensibility was a perfect fit with the sensibility of the material. And all his casting instincts simply confirmed that. The cast that we put together for that production was really wonderful. The original cast at Playwrights Horizons was equally wonderful, but Joe had a slightly edgier and more eccentric view of who would be a good fit for a particular role. I really felt that that was going to be a terrific production. There we were, ready to go. At the same time, on the morning of Sept. 12, Steve and I called each other, virtually at the same time, and said, you know, you can't play this show is front of an audience that was as grief stricken as we all were at that time. The show asks the audience to engage in very difficult material in a variety of different ways, many of which are satiric and comic. We knew we needed to do the show at a different time. This seems to be a very good time to do the show. I think people are very politically unsettled. The show, which is unsettling, will be a very good fit with an audience at this point.

PBOL: Will the musical be markedly different from what was seen in 1991?
JW: In terms of the text, no. Joe had a very smart idea for what will feel like a minor adjustment early on in the show. But in terms of settling the audience and making them comfortable with the way the story will be told, it will pay large dividends. Otherwise, the show will be the same one people saw at Playwrights Horizons, with the large exception of the fact that the new song that Steve wrote for the production in London will now be part of it.

PBOL: And casting is still up in the air?
JW: Well, I'm happy to say that, as of the last conversation I had with Joe, many of the key people, the crucial people—Neil Patrick Harris, for example—are available. Obviously, Douglas Sills is otherwise engaged [in Little Shop of Horrors]. I've got my fingers crossed and I'm hoping we've got the lion's share of those people back. It was an amazing group.

PBOL: Pacific Overtures will be directed by Amon Miyamoto, but it will be a different production from that which he staged at the Lincoln Center Festival.
JW: Whatever the venue is will necessarily result in scenic adjustments. I don't think the American Airlines Theatre is what's planned for it. The fact of him working with Asian-American actors who will be singing and speaking in English, as opposed to the Japanese cast he brought over from Japan with him, I have a feeling will be the fundamental difference between what people saw previously and what they'll see this time. Steve and I haven't talked to Miyamoto in a couple months, since we've been preoccupied with Bounce. But we'll start auditioning in November.

PBOL: What makes for a Sondheim-Weidman project? What sort of material makes both of you think, "We have to work together on this"?
JW: I don't know. Anytime there's three of anything, one's tempted to look for commonalities that define the grouping. I think I've always been interested in personal stories that at the same time had a larger social context or meaning. And certainly, all three of these shows fit that bill. I once had a conversation with Steve where he said that most of talent was about imagination. And I think that his imagination and my imagination tend to overlap in a variety of ways.

PBOL: Any change that the next Sondheim project, a musical of Groundhog Day, will be the next show you collaborate on?
JW: We've talked about it. It's a wonderful movie. We did have a discussion about it. I tell you, Bounce has been going on for so long. "Life after Bounce" is something I've discussed with my wife, my kids, Steve and various other people. [Laughs] And I know we're going to get there. But discussions about other things have largely been put on hold.

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