The Curving Path to Road Show

Special Features   The Curving Path to Road Show
 
Stephen Sondheim talks about his fascination with two American dreamers and how it led him and collaborator John Weidman down the long road to Road Show.
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

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The ever-revivable Stephen Sondheim has, sez IBDB (the Internet Broadway Database), accumulated 26 Broadway credits in the past 14 years. That's nearly two a year, but his first new musical to hit New York since his Passion of 1994 is the Road Show that opens at The Public on Nov. 18.

If you think 14 years is an extravagantly long coffee break, you don't know the half of it — or even the quarter of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the idea of making a musical out of the colorfully twisted lives of the Brothers Mizner — con man Wilson and architect Addison — has reverberated in Sondheim's mind for 56 years, since 1952 when he came across Alva Johnston's biography, "The Legendary Mizners."

"They're extraordinary people," says Sondheim. "They represent a kind of vitality, both misguided and well-guided, that's peculiarly American. But what got me were the two guys themselves — the yin and yang of an intimate brother relationship. The fact that they also represent a kind of American energy enriches the story, I think."

With no formal training but a spark of genius, Addison became a master builder of the 20th century and created Boca Raton. Wilson countered his lack of training with helium and chutzpah, zigzagging through life a jack-of-all-trades and expert-at-none: raconteur, gambler, boxer, film hack ("20,000 Years in Sing Sing"), Brown Derby host. When their real-estate misadventure went kerplunk, says Sondheim, "Addison felt responsible and guilty, and Wilson — typically — did not. He just walked away. That's what he always did in life. Whatever he did, he would ruin and then walk away."

Addison died Feb. 5, 1933, in Florida, paying off creditors; Wilson followed him in death, his body wracked from drugs and drink — two days short of two months later.

In the highs and lows of their lives, Sondheim saw his first musical forming — an intense interest that lasted three years, until he learned some pretty big guns had hijacked the Mizner biography: Producer David Merrick was turning it into a Bob Hope vehicle called Sentimental Guy, with songs by Irving Berlin and book by S. N. Behrman. Years later, when Sondheim and Merrick were working on Gypsy, the composer inquired about the project and was told it had been abandoned after five scenes and a handful of songs. Immediately, Sondheim was interested all over again, but he didn't know who to write it with until, many years later, he pitched the idea to John Weidman, his musical-book collaborator on Assassins and Pacific Overtures.

Two of their Roundabout Assassins are now Mizners — Michael Cerveris is Wilson, and Alexander Gemignani is Addison — under John Doyle's direction. They're not the first: Victor Garber and Nathan Lane originated those roles in a 1999 developmental reading at New York Theatre Workshop helmed by Sam Mendes, and Howard McGillin and Richard Kind reprised them in Chicago and Washington, DC in 2003 in a revamped version Harold Prince directed (Michele Pawk was the vamp added to the mix).

"The show has gone through a lot of changes." (These words weigh heavily on Sondheim.) "It has essentially been on an out-of-town tryout since the late '90s.

"The first version was rather a goofy play, and it had a whole Hope-and-Crosby feeling to it, one of their 'Road' pictures where Crosby is the conner and Hope is the nerd patsy. That's not unlike Wilson to Addison. Wilson often left Addison holding the bag. We called it Wise Guys because it was indeed about a con man and his assistant. When Sam got hold of it, it became less goofy and more serious in content.

"For us, the love story had always been between the two brothers. When Hal did it, he thought that what it needed was a female lead. That seemed like an interesting idea so we sort of invented one. Nellie had been a small character in Wise Guys, and we blew her up into a major role. When the woman came into it, it became about resilience. That's when the idea of Bounceoccurred to me, and I wrote a title tune."

But having a woman on board proved a "Jonah" for the show. "It wasn't a disaster. It just wasn't what we wanted. We realized we'd made a terrible error by having this woman in the show so we reverted to what we had originally — but with all the stuff we had learned along the way — before Sam, during Sam, during Hal. We then got a new director who saw it pretty much the way we do. Now, it's swifter and funnier."

With this show, Sondheim and Weidman have emerged as models of resiliency themselves. "It occurred to John and me that we are, in fact, echoing the show in so many ways. This has been a long journey. The whole idea of the road is that it has many twists and turns you don't see. There are unexpectednesses that happen. One character will start out on one path and then end up on another one. Their paths keep constantly crossing, they keep osmosing into each other — that's the whole idea, and that's exactly what happened in the course of the history of this show.

"Here it is 14 years later, and we're still here, still bouncing. The only thing about the show is: It's a small show. You'd think that after working on a show intermittently, sporadically, for 14 years it would turn out to be Gotterdammerung — but it isn't. "We ask ourselves all the time, 'What the hell are we doing, going back to this again?' We can't let it go. It's a story we both like, characters we both like, something we'd like to share with an audience. Simple as that. We don't want to let it die without sharing it with an audience. If the audience rejects it — all right. At least we shared it. And this time around — for the first time — we're sharing the story we want to tell."

Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris
Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris
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