Road Show by Stephen Sondheim opens next week at Signature Theatre. Mark Horowitz caught up with Mr. Sondheim this past weekend to talk about the musical’s 23 year journey which brings us up to the audience’s first look as director Gary Griffin’s production on February 16.
Stephen Sondheim first sparked to the notion of writing a musical about Wilson Mizner in the early ‘50s after reading a pair of articles in the New Yorker about the very real but larger-than-life conman. Sondheim would finally complete that show to his satisfaction 55 years later, the actual work exerted between 1993 and 2008. In those fifteen years the show would bear four titles (Wise Guys, Gold, Bounce, and Road Show) and four directors (Sam Mendes, Hal Prince, Eric Schaeffer, and John Doyle).
Its focus would shift from Wilson standing alone to the relationship between him and his brother Addison, then to a greater focus on Addison. Along the way, there would be a fictional detour adding a heterosexual romance for Wilson (emphasis on the sexual). Over thirty songs would come and over half of them would go. But today Sondheim says Road Show is the show he hoped it would be all those decades ago.
The book of Road Show was written – and rewritten – by John Weidman, who had previously collaborated with Sondheim on Pacific Overtures and Assassins. Although Sondheim doesn’t think of himself as a real student of history, he describes their shows together as “three riffs on American history.” The more he talks about Weidman, the more excited Sondheim becomes. He is inspired by Weidman’s love and knowledge of history – that enthusiasm clearly becomes contagious when they work together.
We talk about Sondheim’s different experiences with collaborators. One of Weidman’s fascinations is how to turn facts into a play, whereas James Lapine’s realization of Seurat, another historical figure, in Sunday in the Park with George, treated him as “more of a blank canvas (no pun intended).” Sondheim says one of the most extraordinary experiences in his professional life was when Weidman presented him with a complete draft of the script for Assassins. Although they had been discussing the show in some depth for months and Sondheim knew what most of the scenes would be about, he was unprepared for the brilliant way Weidman had put it all together.
I ask Sondheim how much the characters of Wilson and Addison changed over the years as the show itself evolved. He says that the characters “always stayed the same.” He goes on to explain that through all the iterations of the show there were fundamental scenes and important moments in Wilson and Addison’s lives that were maintained in all the versions. And even though many songs were written and cut, there were a handful – albeit with some variations – that appeared in all the versions. So the characters stayed the same and the basic story stayed the same, but it wasn’t until the production that opened at the Public Theater in October 2008 that Sondheim and Weidman felt that the show became the show they intended.
The collaborator who provided the final ingredient was the director John Doyle. Doyle had previously directed startling and inventive productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company; Sondheim trusted his aesthetic and knew him to be smart. Sondheim describes Doyle’s primary contribution to the form of the show as “Speed. The first thing John asked us was,
‘Give me a script without any stage directions.’ (Or maybe he was the one who took them out himself, I’m not sure now.) That was the key — to compress it. To make the transitions as swift as possible.
The resulting production ran some 90 minutes without intermission and gave the show a motor that propelled Wilson and Addison through their tumultuous adventures and downfall. This Road Show was not only swift, the physical production and cast and orchestra size were spare. I ask Sondheim if that, too, should be a fundamental aesthetic for future productions, he answers, “Not at all. If someone wants to spend the money that’s fine.”
I should know better from experience than to ask Sondheim about overarching themes in his work. Although he thinks that, taken together, his three shows with Weidman tell part of American history, he’s not comfortable with the term the American Dream – “I’m not even sure I know what that means,” he says. However, when I ask about the theme of friendship in his shows, he says “Friendship does concern me.” However, he sees it as primarily being a theme in Merrily We Roll Along, not other shows. (He adds that this was something he and Furth added to the show; it had not been a focus of the Kaufman and Hart play). When I try and argue the case using Company as an example, Sondheim thinks I’m reading too much into it as a theme in the show and that, that standard, it could be found in almost any show. “You could say that Hamlet is a story about the friendship between Hamlet and Laertes.”
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I had focused on the relationship between Wilson and Addison as a friendship, but Sondheim makes clear that it’s about love. “Addison is in love with Wilson. He knows he’s dangerous, but he can’t break away from him.” I ask if the love is sexual, and Sondheim says not really. There is what the creators call the ‘blanket scene,” where the brothers huddle together in a sleeping bag to survive a frigid Alaskan storm. Addison gets turned on, but Sondheim describes it as a fleeting moment in their relationship. Does Wilson know? Sondheim knows his character: “He gets what’s going on. He lives his life attracting people. That’s what a conman has to do – that’s the one skill he has to have.” Does Wilson love Addison? Sondheim hesitates and starts to say no, then corrects himself and says “He loves him like an older brother – whatever their relative ages – he wants to protect him. Wilson was torn between protecting Addison and protecting himself.”
Finally, we talk about the music itself. I ask Sondheim if he thinks of it as a pastiche score. He’s startled and says no, asking why I would suggest it. I mention a number like “Gold” which evokes the kind of Western song one would associate with the California Gold Rush. Sondheim patiently explains there’s a difference between pastiche songs and period songs, and that some of the songs in Road Show are the latter. The difference? “They are not imitations or homages to particular songs or songwriters.”
He describes the score as “a standard, traditional musical comedy score” and not one that he can really characterize. I’m surprised when he adds, “I would rather write a score with an overarching idea, because it’s easier to write. Road Show is a series of disparate songs – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and the only thing that holds them together is whatever personal style I have.”
When I ask if he regrets losing any of the myriad cut songs from the show, he says “I don’t usually cling to song…I don’t remember anything specific.” Fortunately, the lyrics of all the songs are in his book Look, I Made a Hat, and there’s a complete original cast recording of the Bounce version of the show.
The director of Signature’s production of Road Show is Gary Griffin who directed a 2014 production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater which Sondheim saw. His reaction is enthusiastic: “Gary Griffin’s staging in Chicago was terrific!” Sondheim and Weidman are planning to come see the Signature production, “probably during previews…if we can be of any help.”