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After Years, Sondheim's 'Road Show' Pulls Into N.Y.

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After Years, Sondheim's 'Road Show' Pulls Into N.Y.

Performing Arts

After Years, Sondheim's 'Road Show' Pulls Into N.Y.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A big even in New York tonight. The curtain opens on a show that is a first of its kind, since 1994, that is. Stephen Sondheim has a new musical. It's called "Road Show." And as Jeff Lunden reports, it turns out that the man whose celebrated career spans from "West Side Story" to "Passion" - that was the 1994 show - has been mulling this idea over for his entire career.

(Soundbite of musical "Road Show")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) That sea was far from wreck. I went astray as dozens now and then. But on my way...

JEFF LUNDEN: Stephen Sondheim likes to joke that his new musical has had a very long out-of-town tryout. It was a workshop with the title "Wise Guys" in 1999. It was a production in Chicago, in Washington, D.C. with the title "Bounce" in 2003. And now, as "Road Show," it's finally opening in New York. But the idea for it goes back several more decades, to when Stephen Sondheim was just 22 years old.

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Musical Theater Composer and Lyricist): It's 56 years since I first read Alva Johnston's book.

LUNDEN: The book was called "The Legendary Mizners," and it was a biography of two brothers whose adventures, from prospecting for gold in the Yukon in the 1890s to participating in the land boom and bust in Florida in the 1920s, reflected a certain kind of American can-do spirit with some unsettling undertones.

Addison Mizner was an architect who helped create Florida's Palm Beach. And his brother, Wilson, was larger-than-life, a cocaine-addicted gambler who managed prizefighters, collaborated on Broadway plays, and was involved in all sorts of illegal schemes, including swindling his own wife.

Mr. SONDHEIM: He was essentially not a good guy. He was essentially a scam artist and a crook but apparently had great charm, and he was a great promoter. So, anyway, he fascinated me.

LUNDEN: So much so that the young Sondheim saved his pennies so he could take an option on the book to adapt it as a musical.

Mr. SONDHEIM: And found out, to my chagrin, that the option had been picked up a few weeks earlier by a producer named David Merrick and Irving Berlin. And they were going to do a musical of it, starring Bob Hope as Wilson.

LUNDEN: So Sondheim dropped the idea. And as it turns out, so did Irving Berlin. About 14 years ago, Sondheim approached John Weidman, with whom he wrote "Pacific Overtures and Assassins," about picking up the idea. Weidman says he was intrigued and not just by Wilson.

Mr. JOHN WEIDMAN (Librettist): I was interested in the relationship between the brothers and also the relationship between the brothers and the period life in America, you know, which they lived, the sort of raw, unregulated period in our history through which they careened for the several decades of their lives.

(Soundbite of musical "Road Show")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) You and me against the world, and you and me against the world. You and me together weathering the weather, fording up a basset, freezing off our assets. We'll never make our purchase by sitting on the porch and looking wistful when there are nuggets by the fistful.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Time for me for next time's venture. Time for...

LUNDEN: And much like the brothers, in writing the show, Sondheim and Weidman careened through a process that had some wild ups and downs, including lawsuits with a producer. But they kept on returning to the show and kept on writing and rewriting, says Sondheim.

Mr. SONDHEIM: I've written so many more songs for this show than any other show I've ever been connected with. Usually, there are two or three songs on the average that don't get into a show or get cut out or whatever that are finished songs. But this one, there are a couple of dozen.

(Soundbite of musical "Bounce")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) You were the best thing that ever had happened to me back then. Of course, not much very good ever happened to me back then.

LUDDEN: This song, for instance, was written as part of a love story between Wilson and a character named Nellie in the earlier version of the musical called "Bounce." In "Road Show," that plot has been completely discarded, and the song is now sung by Addison and his male lover, Hollace(ph).

(Soundbite of musical "Road Show")

Unidentified Man #3: You are the best thing that ever has happened to me. You are. Though right then, one of the best things that's happened to me. You are...

LUDDEN: John Doyle, who directed highly-celebrated revivals of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd and Company," is directing "Road Show." In collaboration with the authors, the two-act show has been pared down to one act. The Scottish-born director says Weidman and Sondheim have been flexible.

Mr. JOHN DOYLE (Director, "Road Show"): They've been living with it for a long time, and that's hard, you know? It's really hard, I think. And so, they were very open about, you know, let's see what else we can do, or do you have a production in your head that you can see when you read this material? Which I did actually quite early on.

LUDDEN: Doyle has also designed the set. It's a clutter of steam trunks, cabinets, and drawers. The actors climb all over it, pull out props. And as the play progresses, the stage gets littered with ripped up blueprints and lots of fake money.

(Soundbite of musical "Road Show")

Mr. MICHAEL CERVERIS: (As Wilson Mizer) The thing that really matters is the game. It's more than just the winning, it's the game. That moment when the card is turned, and nothing is the same...

LUDDEN: Michael Cerveris as the rakish Wilson Mizner. He says he loves playing that character so dark and so complex, and he knows there's a little bit of Wilson Mizner in all of us.

Mr. CERVERIS: The faces of the audience when they see money going in the air, it's an unconscious glee no matter what. And watching it fall on them and watching them deal with, you know, if they're going to pick it up. They know it's not real, but there's a part of them that thinks, maybe it could be. And so, they check out the dollars, and it's just great, and it says maybe more than anything else about us.

(Soundbite of musical "Road Show")

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Where we live, make the past an undefeating for the future, for the role you must explore. As a role that's...

LUDDEN: Sondheim and Weidman have continued to tinker with the show throughout previews, even adding a new number just one week before opening night. But if you ask John Weidman if the show is finished, he quotes a famous director.

Mr. WEIDMAN: I guess it was Jerry Robbins who said, you know, musicals are never finished, they're abandoned, you know? It reminds me of college exams, where you're writing furiously in the blue book until somebody says time! And then, you have to put your pencil down.

LUDDEN: But Stephen Sondheim says he and Weidman both agree that...

Mr. SONDHEIM: Whatever people think of it, this is the show we want. And we've never had that privilege before. We've never seen the show that we intended. Now, we do.

LUDDEN: "Road Show" opens tonight at the Public Theater. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sondheim had more to say about the unsavory allure of the Mizner brothers, particularly the bad boy Wilson Mizner, and about the making of a "Road Show." And you can hear more of this conversation with reporter Jeff Lunden at npr.org.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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