Sondheim Talks About Wise Guys at Algonquin

News   Sondheim Talks About Wise Guys at Algonquin Wise Guys, the new Stephen Sondheim musical about the highly eccentric and flamboyant brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, is scheduled to open at the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC June 30, 1997.

Wise Guys, the new Stephen Sondheim musical about the highly eccentric and flamboyant brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, is scheduled to open at the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC June 30, 1997.

Wise Guys was commissioned by the Kennedy Center in 1995 and had been announced as the first production of the Center's 1996-97 season this fall. The show, to have a book by John Weidman, was subsequently postponed to the end of this season.

On Dec. 11, Sondheim was at the Algonquin Hotel in New York to receive the third annual Japan Musical Award for his contribution to the musical theatre. He told Playbill On-Line that Wise Guys was progressing well. "We started with the second act first, and now I'm going back and working on material for the first, including the opening."

Asked whether he and Weidman had discovered the show's theme, its raison d'etre, Sondheim nodded and said, "Oh yes, I've known that since I was 22 years old... But I'm not telling you. It's a secret. Every show has to have a secret, and this is it."

Single tickets will not go on sale until about two months before the opening, said spokesperson Nichole Lewis. But subscriptions, including Wise Guys are on sale by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444 1324. Sondheim said the show will be "a vaudeville" and librettist Weidman said the show will have an element of "creepy fun," according to a story published in the winter 1996 issue of the Sondheim Review.

Stephen Banfield's book Sondheim's Broadway Musicals (University of Michigan Press, 1993) says Sondheim has been thinking of doing a musical on this subject since he was in his 20s.

The book says: "Plans for a musical about the roguish Mizner brothers (Addison and Wilson) had been discussed with Hammerstein as early as 1953, the year the book The Legendary Mizners by Alva Johnston appeared, and seemed to have remained alive until some time after 1956, when David Merrick, for purposes of comparison, sent Sondheim a script by Sam Behrman of Irving Berlin's unproduced musical Sentimental Guy, similarly based on Johnston's book. Sondheim produced a detailed scheme of scenes and numbers, which included the use of Runyonesque Wilson as a guitar balladeer (which he had been in his youth), a 'Verfremdungseffekt' eventually followed through thirty-five years later in Assassins; there are also a few short music sketches, and a charming song, doubtless intended to be the first, depicting Mrs. Mizner's genteel tea, 'Afternoon in Benicia,' whose draft breaks off after 52 measures. The project proceeded no farther than this."

Playbill On-Line member Bill Jennings pointed out that at least three songs from Berlin's Mizner musical, Sentimental Guy, were recorded on Varese Sarabande's Unsung Irving Berlin CD: "You're a Sucker for a Dame," "You're a Sentimental Guy" and "Love Leads to Marriage."

The liner notes to that recording (by Isaiah Sheffer) say that Berlin's Mizner musical was variously titled The Mizner Story, Sentimental Guy, and--perhaps significantly--Wise Guy.

The liner notes say of a fourth song, "Go Home And Tell It To Your Wife," that "there is evidence that the song was also at one time intended for the unproduced Broadway musical Wise Guy."

The Sondheim Review, the quarterly magazine devoted to Sondheim and his works, quoted Sondheim's remarks at a symposium at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Sondheim is quoted as saying "One day [librettist] John [Weidman] and I were talking about the story of the brothers, and he pointed out to me that the life of the Mizners parallels the life of vaudeville -- from its rise in the 1880s to its death in the 1930s. And suddenly it clicked!"

Sondheim is also reported to have said he has watched films of original vaudeville acts at the Library of Congress in preparation for writing a show that will be completely stylized in the form of vaudeville.

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