The Long and Winding Road to ’Road Show’
If ever there was an apt title for a musical, it is "Road Show." Not only does it describe the transcontinental riches-to-rags-squared adventures of two real-life brothers at the start of the 20th century, it is also fitting for a show that had to creatively travel nearly 15 years before composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman could finally declare to themselves that their work was finished.
"Whatever the impulse that drew us to the material in the beginning never went away," Weidman said in a recent telephone interview. "We were frustrated that from our point of view, we hadn’t gotten it right. The show that you will be seeing in San Francisco was the show we were aiming for from the beginning, although we couldn’t have articulated that back then."
Theatre Rhino is among the first regional theaters to secure permission to stage Road Show following its 2008 off-Broadway run. Rhino Executive Director John Fisher had made frequent inquiries about the musical’s availability, both as a Sondheim fan and for the fact that the story contains a pivotal gay component that helped further a connection to the city’s long-running LGBT theater. Opening night is Jan. 4 at the Eureka Theatre.
As with the evolution of the musical itself, through four incarnations and evolving titles, the manner in which to acknowledge Addison Mizner’s closeted homosexuality took several turns before Sondheim and Weidman arrived at a solution that, in a way, turned the tables on brother Wilson’s raging heterosexuality. The score’s main romantic ballad, "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened," went from Wilson singing about a woman when the show was titled "Bounce to Addison" singing about another man in "Road Show." "Now it feels as if it was written just for Addison and Hollis, and it’s only a curiosity that it had actually been written for the other situation," Weidman said.
But before delving further into how the musical’s authors turned the dilemma of Addison’s homosexuality into an advantage, the Brothers Mizner may need further introduction. They were born in the 1870s to one of the most prominent families of Benicia (where the Benicia Historical Museum currently has an exhibit exploring the Mizner story), and from this Bay Area hamlet, Addison and Wilson developed resumes together and apart of astounding proportions that included digging at the earth during the Alaska gold rush, writing for Broadway and Hollywood, managing a champion prizefighter, designing mansions for millionaires in Palm Beach, and helping introduce the Florida land boom of the 1920s before bringing on its crash a few years later. The brothers’ bond could be loving or adversarial or enabling, but, finally, it was tragic.
Long before Sondheim and Weidman started their long journey to "Road Show," Sondheim first tried to option a biography about the Mizners in the 1950s, only to find that producer David Merrick had sewn up the rights for an Irving Berlin musical that never happened. After working together on "Pacific Overtures" and "Assassins," Sondheim suggested the Mizner story to Weidman as the source of a third musical collaboration on an American theme.
"I was interested in the relationship between the brothers independently of their historical period," Weidman said, "but I was particularly interested in them as emblematic of a particular period in American history, a particular kind of American behavior of irresponsibility, self-indulgence, and leaving behind the messes you’ve made. That really characterized the way Wilson made his way through life, and while Addison may have had more admirable ambitions, his brother’s ambitions trumped Addison’s in the end."
"Wise Guys" was the first title of the musical, which had a workshop run in 1999 under the estimable Sam Mendes’ direction. But the creators knew it was a misfire, and found their next director in Hal Prince, who had worked with Sondheim so brilliantly on "Company," "Sweeney Todd," "Follies," and the aforementioned "Pacific Overtures." Briefly known as "Gold," the show opened a commercial run as "Bounce" in Chicago in 2003 before moving to the Kennedy Center.
"The opening number of the show in Chicago and Washington was ’Bounce,’ a song about American resilience," Weidman said, "and that opening number became ’Waste’ in "Road Show," and it’s a more melancholy view of how people’s potential can be undermined by a certain kind of opportunistic ambition."
With "Bounce," Hal Prince convinced Weidman and Sondheim that the story needed a female character to represent the women in Wilson’s life, while remaining silent on Addison’s sexuality. The critical reaction to "Bounce" was poor, but more importantly, Sondheim and Weidman felt the story had lost its way. The script hit the desk of Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, who had ideas for another overhaul and a new director. John Doyle, who had devised stripped-down revivals of "Company" and "Sweeney Todd" with actors also serving as musicians, proposed a streamlined, intermissionless revision that finally gave open expression to Addison’s sexuality.
High-society architect Addison Mizner was a closeted homosexual of the 1920s who gained a lover in "Road Show" in the musical’s final iteration.
"Addison certainly never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality," Weidman said of the famed architect, "but he had a friend in Florida who wrote about him after his death and described his gay life in Palm Beach as kind of melancholy. There was no way for him to have an open relationship, but we created one for him. Our ambition was not to highlight the fact that he was gay, but to indicate that he finally was able to be separate from his brother and create a life of his own and a connection to another person. The most dramatic way we could represent that was by showing him with a gay lover. Then Wilson comes down to Florida and destroys not only Addison’s professional life, but undermines his personal life as well."
"Road Show" played its limited run at the Public Theater in 2008, and while the critics did not warm to it, Sondheim and Weidman felt their work on the show was finished. "We finally felt we had gotten it right," Weidman said, "and by right, I mean, right for us."
"Road Show" will run at the Eureka Theatre through Jan. 19. Tickets are $15-$30. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to therhino.org