Exclusive! Sondheim Explains Evolution from Bounce to Road Show

By Harry Haun
12 Aug 2008

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

When Bounce bounces back into the theatrical arena Oct. 28-Dec. 28 at The Public Theater, it will be wearing a brand-new title — its fourth. The show first known as Wise Guys, fleetingly known as Gold! and now formerly known as Bounce is called Road Show.

"We decided last Thursday [Aug. 7]," said Stephen Sondheim, who has supplied the score (his first new one in New York City in 14 years, when Passion was aroused) to John Weidman's musical book about the eccentric, real-life Mizner brothers. "Usually when you finish something, you let it sit for a couple of days and then look at it. Early last week we read through the script, and we not only liked the new work, we saw how much it needed a new title."

For one thing, Bounce's title tune was dropped in the revisions. "The song 'Bounce' is no longer in the show, but the tune is," the composer clarified. "It's slightly amended, and it has different lyrics. I utilized the tune with some variations and a new lyric."

For another thing, the show is no longer about the commodity that inspired the song in the first place — resilience. The musical is now more strongly focused to be about the different roads in life taken by Addison and Wilson Mizner — the first an architect, the second a conman. Good old-fashioned American get-up-and-go kept them tearing through the cultural history of this country for half a century until their deaths (within two months of each other) in 1933.

Sondheim once called them "two divergent aspects of American energy: the builder and the squanderer, the visionary and the promoter, the conformist and the maverick, the idealistic planner and the restless cynic, the one who uses things and the one who uses them up…"



When the show lifted off at New York Theatre Workshop in 1999, under the direction of Sam Mendes, with Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as Addison and Wilson, it came on like one of those broad-stroked "Road to" pictures that Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour dashed off at Paramount in the 1940s.

Wise Guys, seen only in a developmental reading, was completely Lamourless, but when Hal Prince took on the show in 2003, he injected a major female role into the proceedings — a dance-hall girl who marries (and widows) well (Michele Pawk starred).

That character has been jettisoned for the current resurrection, allowing Sondheim and Weidman to return to the basics: brothers, mother, father and a male lover for Addison. "This is closer to what we started with than anything we've done since," Sondheim said.

He continued, "There was always a road image. The boys start off with their pioneer father on his death bed telling them to follow the road of their dreams.

"In fact, there is an actual road in the climax of the show — an extraordinary road, designed by Addison and given Wilson's promotional push, that would lead into Boca Raton from the outside world — 16 lanes wide (this in a day with very few automobiles), motorized gondolas, palm trees, bands. It was like entering an amusement park. However, this scheme collapsed, and only a mile maybe was made.

"The whole idea of the road has persisted, so when John and I got finished with our final tweaks, we realized we needed a title that reflected the journeys of the show."

This 11th-hour title change, Sondheim feels, could be misconstrued in certain quarters: "A lot of people will think, I'm sure, that we just can't make up our minds. That's why we keep changing titles. It is quite the reverse, in fact. It's knowing exactly what we think the show is about, and I think a title is to inform an audience. If an audience comes to a show called Bounce, and that's not what it's about and there's no song called 'Bounce,' it seems to me extremely misleading. That's why we're calling it Road Show — and there won't be a title tune. It describes to an audience what they're going to see. It also suggests the loose structure of the piece."

After years of crafting this score, Sondheim has much to pick from in the Mendes and Prince editions — plus recent garnishments.

"Out of Sam's version, I'd say half the songs are still in the show — and a number of songs from this last version," Sondheim explained. "From this last version — from Bounce — there's one song that has been rewritten for another spot, and there's the opening number which has very much the same tune but entirely different lyrics. You could call those hold-overs. Otherwise, I'd guess, without going through the scorecard, there are more songs from the Hal Prince version than from the Sam Mendes, but it's actually an amalgam of the two — as well as a couple of new numbers. Or, actually, a couple of ones [written] before Sam's version."

Obviously, a whole lot of overhauling has gone on between rewrites. Now, Sondheim and Weidman are faced with the problem of what to ponder other than how to musicalize the Mizners. Happily, they're already "discussing" another show to fill that void.

"But I'm spending most of my time writing a book," said Sondheim, meaning his tome of annotated lyrics. "It's going to be long. I'm not, by nature, a prose writer, but I'm literate, and I have a couple of people who are vetting it for me, whom I trust, who are excellent prose writers."