ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's Bounce and Neva Small's Broadway

This week's column discusses Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Bounce, as well as a CD from actress Neva Small including some long lost show tunes.

BOUNCE [Nonesuch 79830]
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along opened 20-odd years ago and expired, unloved, after two weeks. Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents's Anyone Can Whistle closed 40 years and a fortnight ago, having staggered through a quick nine performances. If you have listened to and appreciated either of these cast albums more than 12 times, I expect you've already decided to give Bounce a try.

If Bounce is to go down in the record books without a New York appearance, so be it. I would say that the score is prime Sondheim, except that for me virtually all Sondheim is prime Sondheim — even cases where the shows, themselves, don't work out. Bounce is full of songs and sequences that we will listen to again and again and again, until people who didn't see the show in Chicago or Washington — or in its preliminary version, Wise Guys, at the New York Theatre Workshop — will perhaps start asking, "But how could this fail?"

Bounce or Gold! or Wise Guys, call it what you will, was commissioned in 1993. The inaugural attraction at the Kennedy Center in 1971 had been Leonard Bernstein's specially commissioned Mass. How better to celebrate the 25th anniversary than with a new musical from Sondheim? Sondheim's interest in the material dates back to 1952, when the then-budding songwriter read Alva Johnston's New Yorker series about the brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner. The rights were snapped up by a couple of not-so-budding veterans named Berlin and Behrman, and that was as far as Sondheim went with the Mizners. Until 1993. But the colorful brothers — one an architect (among other things), the other a conman (among other things) — have proven stubborn candidates for musicalization.

(From where I sit, younger brother Wilson seems to be sabotaging the piece. The central characters of a musical needn't be lovable and cuddly; just look at Mister Todd with his razors. But we've got to, in some way, care about them. Addison, the architect, earns our interest and sympathy, but Wilson — as drawn thus far by Sondheim and Weidman — has been a tough nut to crack.)

I called Wise Guys the best score of the 1999-2000 season, even in its then-incomplete state. Bounce has a somewhat different song lineup; additions include a new title song to go with the new title, while deletions include the old title song and the ballad "A Little House for Mama" (which is happily appended to the Bounce CD as a bonus track). My strong admiration for the score remains. Sondheim is inventive, as always, and lyrically dexterous; in this case, though, he seems to have consciously embraced musical comedy (which has not been the case in his last four musicals, since Sunday in the Park with George). Thus, Bounce gives us a welcome sense of fun; this is, in places, the Sondheim of A Funny Thing, with deliriously bouncy vamps and touches of broad, non intellectual humor. (There's a gag about Michigan, too complex to quote but delicious.) Sondheim propels the action with a series of extended musical scenes. As the action within the musical scene progresses, the main section comes back again and again — but with slightly altered meaning, as the context becomes skewed. Such as in "Addison's Trip" abroad, in the first act. "I'm on my way," he sings, as he goes to Hawaii. "I'm on my way," he sings, as he continues his journey. As he encounters business disaster after business disaster, it becomes "I'm in my way." This device is also used with "Opportunity," "Gold" and the soaring "You (Where Have You Been All My Life)." "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" is not the Best Thing [song] That Ever Sondheim has written, perhaps, but I place it (and "You") near the top of my list of his most singingly melodic work.

Richard Kind does an endearing job as Addison, the uncomfortable son who finds an unexpected career as a purveyor of questionable taste. (All those useless souvenirs and design ideas he picked up on his world tour become the cornerstone for the over-the-top millionaire mansions he builds in Palm Beach.) Addison is at once fussy, sympathetic and unhappily overshadowed by his ne'er-do-well brother; all of this comes through in Kind's performance.

(It seems relevant to add that Kind continually reminds me of Nathan Lane, who played the role in Wise Guys. Kind earned strong reviews in Bounce, and deserved them; but let me say that Lane — even in the formulative workshop — was giving one of the finest dramatic performances I've ever seen from him.)

Howard McGillin, as Wilson, also does well on the CD. Considerably better, let me add, than he did on stage. This is a weakness in the writing, I suppose; Wilson, as previously stated, seems ill-conceived to a damaging extent. ( Victor Garber, who played opposite Lane, had an even harder time of it.) McGillin gives full value to his songs, anyway.

Offering strong support is Michele Pawk, in a role that appears to have been considerably expanded over the course of time (and not convincingly so). Pawk brings a lot to her songs, especially "What's Your Rush" and "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." Jane Powell, who has been singing in the spotlight for sixty — count 'em — years, makes a feisty Mama. Gavin Creel is strong as Hollis Bessemer, the black sheep scion who bankrolls Addison. (This character in Wise Guys went under the name Paris Singer, the sewing machine heir best remembered for fathering a son with Isadora Duncan.) Creel does an especially appealing job with his song about "Talent," or the lack of it. Jonathan Tunick provides his customarily impeccable orchestrations.

So Bounce was here, and now it's gone. At least so far. Sondheim and Weidman's prior venture, which was quickly withdrawn after a limited run at Playwrights Horizons in 1991, is today a front-runner for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. So I wouldn't count Bounce out, despite present appearances.

NEVA SMALL: "My Place in the World" [NS-2211]
For about 20 years now I have been waiting impatiently for someone to record a song called "I Feel Like New Year's Eve," from the 1964 musical Something More! Lo and behold, here it is, which makes me glad to draw attention to "Neva Small: My Place in the World."

Something More! was one of those ill-assembled enterprises that was doomed to quick failure. The music was by Sammy Fain, best known for his Hollywood work but with five Broadway book musicals to his credit (including Flahooley and the soon-to-appear-on-CD Ankles Aweigh). Marilyn and Alan Bergman provided their first of two sets of Broadway lyrics, the second for Michael Bennett's 1978 Ballroom. The redoubtable Jule Styne, who had composed two musicals that underwent immensely troubled tryouts earlier in 1964, saw fit to produce and direct Something More!, which might well have contributed to the troubles.

On the plus side was a star performance from Barbara Cook, giving her all in her final leading lady role. Arthur Hill, of Virginia Woolf, gave a not- especially-convincing, top-billed performance as her husband; the "second couple" was played by Ronny Graham and Joan Copeland (who replaced Viveca Lindfors during the tryout). Included among a trio of cute kids was 11-year old Neva Small.

It is Neva Small who has rescued "I Feel Like New Year's Eve"; she did not sing the song in Something More!, but she watched Cook raise the rafters with it every night. (Kerr: "The sweetness is direct, personal, and should be packaged as a substitute for honey, no matter how many bees are thereby put out of business. Miss Cook is one of the true treasures of our musical comedy theatre.") Small, who in my memory always gave interesting and attractive performances, seems to be semi-retired; she last appeared on Broadway in 1976, and I don't recall seeing her onstage since 1990.

Listeners in search of curiosities will no doubt zero in on premiere recordings of two songs from The Prince of Grand Street, the 1978 Bob Merrill musical that foundered in Boston; Small was costarred, with Bob Preston as her lover. Other "lost songs" from lost flops on Small's resume include the title song from Show Me Where the Good Times Are, a 1970 musicalization of The Imaginary Invalid; and "Peach Ice Cream" from F. Jasmine Adams, the 1971 musicalization of Member of the Wedding.

Small, who played Chava in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, gives us two songs from that opus — including "Matchmaker" as a swinging waltz duet with Dizzy Gillespie. Merrill's attractive "Here I Am," which someone else sang while Neva was in her dressing room during Henry, Sweet Henry, gets the disc off to a nice start. Small also does a highly effective job with "I Go On." This deceptively simple song was also introduced while Neva was offstage, in Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz's Mass. (The liner notes include a photo of Bernstein as best man at the wedding of Small's parents.) Unlike most of these so-called personality CDs, Small has a personal connection to the material in "My Place in the World." The assured, intelligent performances combined with a reason for being makes this disc of more than passing interest.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

A scene from the Kennedy Center production of <i>Bounce</i>
A scene from the Kennedy Center production of Bounce