Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sondheim's ROAD SHOW Arrives at Last

(Reflections on the original cast recording of ROAD SHOW, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, production directed by John Doyle.)
Photo by Joan Marcus,

Small changes make a big difference in ROAD SHOW. What a relief!

Three times I saw an earlier version of this show in Chicago, back when it was called BOUNCE. I wrote then that the fault was in our expectations. Couldn’t Sondheim and Weidman be allowed to write the kind of integrated story - and - song musical comedy that Sondheim’s contemporaries were writing in the 50s when he wrote his first draft -- shows like BELLS ARE RINGING, MR. PRESIDENT, LITTLE ME, and WILDCAT? Considering the techniques that Sondheim has developed in the interim, and considering all the shows in which he and his collaborators integrated story and song with theme and form, the honest answer is – Sorry, Steve, no.

The new version, judging by the recording and pictures, is much tighter. Gone is the peppy overture, gone is the cheesy "afterlife" that framed the show. Instead, we see Addison Mizner at the moment of his death, surrounded by stacks of crates containing the possessions he piled up and discarded in his life -- and people are stacked up on those boxes, too, the people of his life that he discarded. Naturally, he would be thinking back on what his life meant, and all the voices from his past sing a witty and light number about "Waste," as in, his life was such a waste of potential.

The next scene takes us, without a change of scenery, to his father's deathbed. The father imagines a "road" of opportunity (with many other cliches all treated straight in music that's solemn Americana, a la Aaron Copeland), advising his boys to go forth and achieve. That means, of course, to pile up all those crates. So, we're two songs into the score, and plot, character, theme, and visual presentation are all connected. Now this is the Sondheim we love.

For the rest of the recording, we detect the influence of director John Doyle, who tends to blur lines where Hal Prince, director of BOUNCE, sought high contrast and sudden shifts. Wilson’s choices seem less capricious, more calculating. Events told in the present tense for BOUNCE are recast as memories in ROAD SHOW, most happily in “That Was A Year,” a retrospective on Wilson’s New York career that was originally staged as a cross between the Marx Brothers’ stateroom scene and a Keystone Cops’ chase. Because director John Doyle seats the entire cast on stage throughout the show, characters sing to each other across the years and appear in each others’ songs.

One totally new song deserves close attention, “Brotherly Love.” All of us who saw BOUNCE complained of one essential question unanswered, "Why does Addison keep allowing Wilson to take advantage of him?"  At the end of BOUNCE, Wilson demands that Addison admit “I love you,” and he finally does – but even singing fortissimo, with violins rising behind him, the actor couldn't make us believe it. For ROAD SHOW, could Sondheim write a song to make us believe it?

Sondheim is at his best in tight corners such as this. SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’s second act was flopping with audiences and frustrating the actors until, following a long interview with “George” actor Mandy Patinkin, Sondheim wrote a heart – breaking and lovely song called “Lesson Number 8” that pulls together elements from Act One, everything the character feels about himself, the themes of the entire show, making a religious statement about the art and the purpose of life – all in a basic AABA form, around sixteen lines long. PASSION’s audiences laughed when they were supposed to be crying, and even someone so sympathetic as I wasn’t convinced by the handsome young man’s sudden realization that “no one has loved me as deeply as” the disturbed woman who has stalked him for the last ninety minutes. Then I saw the play with a new introductory verse to the song that begins, “Don’t you see what she’s endured?” and it all made sense. There are famous stories of how he brought entire shows into sharp focus by adding “Comedy Tonight,” “Send in the Clowns” and “Rose’s Turn” (with Arthur Laurents).

So here, he has to write a song that expresses the brothers’ relationship. I’d heard that the two sing it, uncomfortably wrapped together in a single sleeping bag in a freezing tent. I expected a long song about relationships, and brothers, and how their identities are wrapped up in each other… etc. Sondheim goes exactly the other direction. He never sings about the relationship, but only describes vividly a single moment in memory. I’m guessing that John Weidman wrote a bit of dialogue, something like, “Remember that time when I was sick, and everyone else left, and you took me up to the roof to see fireworks?” While younger brother Addison gets a bit sentimental, older brother Wilson claims he doesn’t even remember the incident. They have a meeting of minds near the end, and Wilson, uncomfortable, makes a joke of it – “brotherly love,” he says, and backs off. It’s done quietly, with just a few rhymes to mark the progress of the story. It’s very satisfying, and it does suggest, finally, an emotional reason for Addison to follow his brother through life. (I am reminded of a very different song that Sondheim brought to the wider world’s attention, “Riddle Song,” by Adam Guettel, in which two adult brothers also sing about a boyhood memory instead of singing about their love for each other.)

This show leans heavily on Sondheim for the kind of number that might be trademarked as “a Sondheim Sequence.” These are numbers like “A Weekend in the Country” in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, or the opening sequence of INTO THE WOODS that run through scads of plot in just a few funny verses. Here, Sondheim’s songs “Addison’s Trip” and “That Was A Year” and “Boca Raton” cover years of time, get laughs, and build to big finishes.

Many critics have cited standout ballads, but not the one that I love most. They like the love song “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” which I admire for how much Sondheim gets from so little – making only minor changes in that title phrase, sung all on one note while the harmony shifts. They like Isn’t He Something?” the elegant, eloquent expression of the mother’s preference for her elder boy – sung to the younger brother. But it’s “Talent” that I’m crazy about. The young man Hollis sings of his boyhood, and how he wowed his elders with drawing, writing, and composing:

So many talents.
Wasn’t I blessed?
All of them good,
A few of them better,
None of them best.
Just enough talent to know
That I hadn’t the talent.
So I put my dream
And my self – esteem
To rest.

Has Sondheim, or anyone, ever captured an entire life so wittily? But that's just the introduction. Great song, good show, now worth seeing again in its new form.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful review, thanks! I've only managed to hear the musical, don't think I'd ever get to watch it unless bits and pieces of it ended up on youtube. It's indeed worthy to be counted among Sondheim's masterpieces, whatever the "kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus" say (we all know what happened to MWRA!). Let me end with this line from Road Show that had me laughing for hours the first time I heard it: "Yes but theirs has a floating gazebo!"