PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Weidman

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Weidman
 
Librettist John Weidman has had his share of interesting collaborations with Stephen Sondheim; Pacific Overtures and Assassins are among the most challenging and provocative entries in the composer's oeuvre.
John Weidman
John Weidman Photo by Aubrey Reuben

But nothing has matched the roller-coaster ride the two men have endured with Road Show, aka Bounce, aka Gold!, aka Wise Guys — the musical now finally getting its New York debut at The Public Theater. The show, about the picaresque adventures of the early-20th-century con men Wilson and Addison Mizner, has been through a trunkload of directors, actors, workshop and out-of-town productions. Characters have been added and subtracted; the score has grown and been pared down; Broadway productions have been announced and then called off. The end of this journey is an intermissionless, 90-minute show which stars current Sondheim faves Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, and is directed by John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company, A Catered Affair). Weidman talked to Playbill.com about what the show has been and what it is now.

Playbill.com: Road Show, which in part deals with a real estate boom and bust, seems to have found its moment, given recent events in the U.S.
John Weidman: Well, the show begins with a gold rush, and ends with a boom and bust in Florida. I think some of the behavior of stage will be familiar to people reading the headlines.

Playbill.com: Do you feel the show has an added resonance because of these events?
JW: Yes, I do. I think that some part of the behavior that we're exploring in the show is behavior that we're reading about in the newspapers, as I said. In terms of the timing of this production, it does have a connection.

Playbill.com: This is the third staged production of the show. How does the book differ from previous incarnations?
JW: One of the things that I find particularly satisfying about where we are with the show now, is that the impulses that originally propelled me into this material are finally realized on stage. Steve Sondheim, in an interview he did a couple months ago, described this as the longest out of town period in history. I think that's not inaccurate. It feels as though we went out of town with the show a number of years ago, and over an extended period of time have worked on it and made the changes and rewrites and achieved a kind of focus that you hope to when you are writing a show.

Playbill.com: You have two new lead actors.
JW: We've been very fortunate in the caliber of actors who have played these brothers at New York Theatre Workshop, the Goodman and the Kennedy Center. But when we sat down with John Doyle, these names [of Cerveris and Gemignani] bubbled up. Michael and Alex are actors we've all worked with. As we became clearer about the writing, that led to a kind of clarity about the casting. Playbill.com: Some of the things that director Harold Prince brought to the earlier Chicago production — such as the part of the love interest played by Michele Pawk — are not there anymore.
JW: We added a major female character after the early work on the show at New York Theatre Workshop, which seemed like a right choice at the time, as most choices do at the time. When we had a chance after the show closed in Washington, DC, to really sit with the material a while and look at it, it no longer seemed like adding that character was pushing us in the right direction. The first conversation we ever had with [Public Theater artistic director] Oskar Eustis was enormously helpful. His reputation as a dramaturg is entirely deserved. He's very smart about what we had on paper and where it seemed to be heading and where it seemed to want to go, which was back where we thought it wanted to go. One of the decisions early on was to lose that character and refocus the story around the relationship of the brothers and their relationship to the world they lived in.

Playbill.com: What used to be the title song, "Bounce," is no longer there.
JW: Correct. I guess every show wants to have a title that is a perfect reflection of what the show is about. The show that played Chicago and the Kennedy Center had an opening number called "Bounce," and that was the right opening number for that show, and Bounce was the right title for that show. But when we went back to rewrite that material, Bounce as an appropriate title fell away and we made another choice.

Playbill.com: To what extent do you feel the show is a political show with a message about the way the U.S. does business, and to what extent do you feel it's just a show about two brothers?
JW: I think every member of the audience will make their own decision about that. The lives the brothers lived and the way they affected each other had a larger impact, which is in particular reflected in their land deals in Florida, which not only brings down their relationship, but brought down many more people.

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