A new Stephen Sondheim musical was heard in New York March 28.
Victor Garber, who has starred in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Assassins, sang the lead in a showcase presentation of highlights from Wise Guys at the 890 Broadway rehearsal studios, for an audience that included major Broadway producers, plus the writers.
Present at the reading were producers Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind and principals of Dodger Productions -- all of whom collaborated on the current Broadway revival of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A Dodgers spokesperson said there are "no options, no partnerships" yet.
Wise Guys was commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC where it was supposed to debut in June 1997. The debut has been postponed to an unspecified date in the 1997-98 season there.
Sondheim is writing music and lyrics to John Weidman's book for the project, which follows real-life brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner over 60 years from the 1860s to the 1920s. Told in terms of American vaudeville, the musical deals with con-man Wilson's unrelenting exploitation of everyone -- except his architect brother Addison. In an interview published in the winter 1997 issue of the Sondheim Review, a quarterly magazine, Weidman discussed the project in some detail. Editor Paul Salsini gave permission for Playbill On-Line to excerpt parts of the story, written by Sean Patrick Flahaven.
Weidman also wrote the books for Sondheim's Pacific Overtures and Assassins as well as the Maltby & Shire musical Big.
* The brothers led "quintessentially American lives," Weidman says. They "lived with a kind of energy, irresponsibility and speed. . . They had qualities which were admirable and qualities which were appalling, qualities which seem to be as peculiarly American today as they were then.
* "Wilson went through life looking for suckers, and he was very successful at finding them. When he found one, he would take advantage of him, then move on to find another one. Really, the only person who was not fair game was his brother, Addison, whom he cared about. . . But Wilson hit the skids at a certain point, and when he was down and out, the only sucker left was his brother, so in the end, he took advantage of him like he had taken advantage of everybody else."
* Addison Mizner is the first overtly gay character Sondheim has dealt with in a musical. "One of the things that makes it interesting to write about them now, as opposed to forty years ago, is that those issues can be part of the texture of the show. I think they loved each other in lots of different, very complicated ways."
* Sondheim has been considering adapting the story of Wilson and Addison Mizner since 1953, when he read Alva Johnston's book, "The Legendary Mizners."
"Steve called me when Passion was in previews and asked if I had ever heard of Wilson Mizner," Weidman said. "I said that I had not, and he said that Wilson was a character he had always been interested in, and there was a book to read, and would I take the time to read it? I said, 'Sure.' "
* Wise Guys will draw on American vaudeville for its look a feel: " The terseness, speed, recklessness and riskiness of their lives seem very much like the same qualities that one discovers in vaudeville. That's how they lived, from one act to the next, from juggling acts, to melodrama, to comedy, to sentimental songs--you name it. It's those changes in tone and color that make it possible to express what their lives were about using the elements of vaudeville. . . Coincidentally, their life span is approximately the life span of vaudeville in the United States." The show will be structured somewhat like Assassins, in that there will be scenes in which the characters are aware that they are singing and "breaking the fourth wall."
* Weidman said the show's production schedule calls for a reading in February, a workshop production in late spring and a full production in the fall 1997. The ultimate goal, however, is to move the show to Broadway.
* The lead characters of Wilson and Addison Mizner are huge parts, and will certainly require talented performers with large personalities. Weidman indicated that he and Sondheim have certain actors in mind, but declined to discuss it until the writing is completed and a director is selected.
-- By Robert Viagas