Road Show

Road ShowMore than one person mentoring me in the writing of music-theatre works has reminded me that they are not so much written as re-written. Stephen Sondheim, who has managed to dominate “the American musical” writing for the last half a century, has taken this much to heart. Not able to let this project of his go, he has returned to work on it time and again since he first thought of the subject way back before West Side Story. From big to small in cast and orchestra size, and titles from Wise Guys to Gold to Bounce to the show that is now called Road Show, the piece keeps changing. So my question is, according to what you see on stage, WHY might the piece have such a hold on Sondheim? And what is compelling for you?

10 comments on “Road Show”

  1. L

    Your question has really stumped me, especially because I didn’t particularly enjoy the show — I really can’t quite figure out why Sondheim keeps going with this one, but here’s my best guess:

    There’s a bit of something autobiographical in this show, an autobiography not literally of a Sondheim-like figure on stage, but more about the theatrical processes of creation and recreation / success and failure / making and breaking ties, made especially theatrical because of the personalities of the two main characters.

    Theater is all about starts and stops — if you’re an actor, for example, it’s about creating a character, performing it on stage, finishing the run of the show, and moving onto the next work. Or, you’re cast in a show, there’s much excitement, but the funding falls through and the project never takes off. There are hits, there are flops, some pieces have more personal meaning while others are seen just as jobs. There’s continuity, yes, but there are also many moments of letting go, of letting work be.

    I don’t think Sondheim has a problem with letting things go or letting work be (he often nonchalantly speaks of cutting songs, and in interviews about the Road Show process he is casual in discussing songs that didn’t make the cut), but with Road Show it’s almost as if he’s personally inspired by the Mizner brothers, of their drive. They’re theatrical too, really, and in Addie’s big musical number where he travels the world and re-re-reinvents himself I can’t help but feel like Sondheim was a little inspired by them, by their self-assuredness. (However, I can’t remember the title of said musical number because, like most of the songs in the show, it just kind of blended together with the rest of the music and sounded “Sondheim-y” and didn’t make an oomph impact or genuine emotional connection with the audience).

    The Mizner brothers kept chugging along, trying and retrying to find success and a semblance of personal satisfaction. And this play is like the little engine that could (or, in my opinion, is just trying to stay afloat), too — Sondheim’s inspired, you almost feel, by the Mizner brother’s vibrancy and ability to work around obstacles, inspired by the idea that if they can do it than so can Sondheim/Road Show.

    I applaud the creative dedication to the project, the willingness to work and rework the songs and script, but I still don’t think this iteration is “it.” The characters were stale and became caricatures (I think every. single. one. of Willy’s entrances were accompanied by him removing his hat and charmingly grinning while saying “Hello, Addie” — because he’s the sly brother, in case you didn’t know!!), and I didn’t buy Addie’s need to connect with his brother. The ensemble characters seemed prop-like (now we’re in India, now we’re in Guatemala) and sort of like afterthoughts thrown into the scene — I would have loved more ensemble moments of Boca Raton jingle singing, where they truly bolstered the direction of the story, less moments of ensemble standing on the spiral staircase and waiting. I really did love the floating Boca Raton houses, though.

  2. Susan

    I had such two very different reactions to the show during the evening then Sunday matinee performances. The first time, I agree with Bert, Kay, and Duane, I kept searching for why Sondheim lived so long with these two main characters in his head. They seemed to represent the worst of the American character, and there wasn’t enough there of a redeeming relationship to persuade me otherwise.
    What a difference a new audience makes, and truly when a cast seems to bring intensified focus! Sondheim is such a marvelous lyricist, and I could enjoy his clever playfulness. With a second viewing/hearing too, I actually did begin to hum some of the tunes, and not just the love duet between Addy and Hollis, but Willy’s “It’s the Game” and the mother’s heartbreaking, “Doesn’t he sparkle, doesn’t he glide…?”
    I still found the two “montage’s” (so says Maurice) that serve as exposition for how the two brothers fared on the road without each other to be a weak solution, not just musically but neither of them changed just became more the same. And I so wanted Hollis to return, even in a dream, for Addy to convince us with his remorse and self-disgust and that he had sent away his lover not to hurt him in the dizzying descent of drug use and dissipation he seemed to choose being with his brother.
    It is such a curious work, and I think that Ari echoed my feelings that the piece hit me most as an expression of an artist wrestling with process and his own works: never feeling perhaps they add up or are ever totally satisfactorily finished, but we are asked to move on in our own “road show.”

  3. anmt

    Talent and technical proficiency were abundant in this production, but none of the characters had any redeeming qualities. So the brothers both seemed opportunistic, especially the Small Fingered Vulgarian one, who dragged his brother down to his mean spirited level. So I think Sondheim kept playing with the script, looking for their soul – still looking.

  4. Heather

    For me, this is a story about brothers and family. Maybe about sibling rivalry? The brothers are very similar in their ultimate desires (to be wealthy, to be significant, to be enterprising) but they would argue that they are not like the other – or even, disdainful of the others’ tactics. It is the tug of war between success, commitment to father and the lure of money that drives the story forward. There are some good decisions, bad decisions, bad results , good results. To me, Sondheim is telling us that the ultimate destination is not as important as the ride – and there is lovely music along the way.

  5. Ari Jacobson

    The final moments of the play, focusing on “the road” which continues even after death, always seeking and perhaps never finding, seemed to be a meta-commentary on both the long and winding journey of this piece and the process of making theatre (or art) in general. Perhaps this central theme of the two personalities (or are they so different?) is what exerted such an unusually strong hold on the creator. Continually struggling to find the right words, the right patter, the right theme for them to grab hold of and sink their teeth into, these brothers may have resonated with Sondheim because they reminded him of his own roundabout journey, always working on such varied projects, chipping away, getting closer and closer to an unattainable artistic perfection.

  6. Kay

    The piece is challenging, and I puzzle over how to answer the question put out above.
    The “boys” in the show, brothers, are unlikeable characters, not equally so but ultimately both. Colorful yes, but what is the revelation or “pay off” for Sondheim?
    The story is a journey indeed, so the new title seems apt, but compressing the show into one act means a whole lot of story and character development gets indicated through two songs, one for each brother, to follow their journeys, geographical and emotional. Do we sympathize with how they become who they are?
    If it’s about the American dream, as Michael writes above, then it’s a portrayal of opportunity becoming a pseudonym for how quickly the “dream” gets destroyed by greed and addiction. (When we see not one but both brothers start snorting cocaine, we know the ending.)
    If it’s about finding and tweaking the music, it was interesting to see the show revised with such a small cadre of instruments, piano plus actors playing to various degrees. It did help us listen to the lyrics, and nothing got drowned out which can happen in Sondheim. But the almost through composition began to have the same chord pulsing sound.

  7. Catherine Lincoln

    Signature’s Road Show was at Signature’s usual high standard of musical productions with strong singing and acting performances by the principals and subsidiary characters and delightful musical accompaniment (especially the dauntless piano player who was on almost throughout the show). Road Show was well directed at a fast pace, with imaginative scene setting “in the round” and costumes evocative of the 20s period. Having stayed at the Boca Raton Club in the heart of Mizner-land, it was an added bonus to learn more about the rackety background of Addison and his brother Wilson. I can see now why the show was earlier named Bounce as the brothers careened through up and down careers in the Far East, Central America, Hawaii (Addy) and racetracks, revues, and Hollywood (Willy.) The show was terrific fun from start to finish!

  8. Bert Keidel

    To me, we can see this as either the story of two brothers or the story of two sides to a single person’s personality focused on financial success that ignores the needs for selfless affection and loyalty. Either way, as two brothers or as a complex psychology, instincts to work hard, follow creative dreams, focus on necessary details while planning and building long-term projects are confronted with impatient temptations to take short-cuts, hit it get-rich-quick lucky or cheat others to reach one’s goal. However Sondheim tries to rework the basic story, it lacks the fundamental component of providing a meaningful dimension to the story that would have established what was really lost by the protagonist(s) behavior – everyday links of affection and belonging. Without this more human dimension, which this version inadequately tries to insert through the character of Holly, the whole story remains flat and a bit boring – grubbing for financial success but foiling oneself because of the excesses of lazy greed. There is more to the story of American drive and success than that fabled juxtaposition, because America has also been built on caring and community and family support that lift up individuals rather than tearing them down. I was appalled at the way the script ended the romance with cruel denunciations claiming that what had seemed like genuine affection was instead manipulative betrayal. But then Holly was also portrayed as mostly if not entirely interested in using the brothers to achieve his dream of a city of artists, an accomplishment intended to vindicate him in his fight with his father. In that sense, the play offers no relief from the theme of selfishness as governing all behavior. Holly’s insertion indicates to me that Sondheim is aware of this shortcoming but doesn’t know how to correct it. In a related vein, right from the start, the two brothers misinterpreted their father’s deathbed request. He hadn’t just asked for financial success, but for contributions to the country, to America – to others in addition to themselves. The musical did nothing to convey what might have been an emotional struggle to attain that goal as well as financial goals – not to mention the natural goal of sharing unconditional human affection with another or with others. For these reasons, for my sensibilities, this version of the two brothers’ life story, despite the clever lines and strong voices, remains a flop.

    • Melinda

      Maybe Sondheim has revised it so many times, because he can’t figure out whether it is about the brothers and family, as Heather and to some extent, Bert suggest or about the American dream based on “get rich quick” schemes. I tend to agree with Ari that with the last scene, we are led to believe that the search for fulfillment of the dream through wealth is perpetual, regardless of what the father might say. I hadn’t appreciated what Bert noted above that the father asked for contributions to America, not just financial success. But this version suggests it is n the DNA. After the Addison song about picking up all the tchotchkes on his travels and making a business out of it, I admired his pluck and felt sorry for his always being left behind by Wilson. By the time Wilson has ridden the roller coaster of boom and bust and comes limping in to the happy Addison in Florida, I think you do have sympathetic portraits of two brothers who have made their ways along the bumpy road, one ultimately finding love and the other seeking fortune. And remember that Addison did take care of his mother. But Wilson ultimately corrupts Addison’s vision of happiness (though Addison does resist, saying he is happy how he is) and then they both crash. So Sondheim seems to be saying that looking for the quick buck is part of the American character, even grinding down the “nice” and “devoted” brother. Maybe Sondheim has also struggled with the question of how success is defined or maybe he feels addicted to the elusive next project that will really make him rich.

  9. @artsconnecteddc

    The tale of two brothers is a longstanding theme of works of art and literature. Also, the background of the American Dream and the dawn of a new Century are resonant themes for audiences in this country.

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