Review: Road Show, Sondheim

Well, I think I wrote this. A while ago to be fair. But it’s not awful and it’s a production I’d nearly entirely forgotten about. Fun times.

In Time Out: London in 2006, Sondheim is quoted as saying of his dwindling productivity, “It’s age. It’s a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas. It’s also an increasing lack of confidence. I’m not the only one. I’ve checked with other people. People expect more of you and you’re aware of it and you shouldn’t be.”

Stephen Sondheim celebrated his 80th birthday in 2010. It is understandable therefore that the man, winner of over 30 Tonys (including a special Lifetime Achievement Award), a Pulitzer Prize and one-time mentee of Oscar Hammerstein II, has felt able to take his foot off the piano pedal, especially in the last decade.

But, along with film versions of Sweeney Todd and Follies, music for a Broadway production of King Lear and special guest appearances in The Simpsons and South Park, and ‘increasing lack of confidence’, Sondheim has managed to produce Road Show. Or should we call it Bounce? Or Gold? Or Wise Guys?

Originally appearing at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1999 as Wise Guys, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, it was to take another four years before the show emerged again.

Then in 2003, hugely rewritten and directed this time by Sondheim’s long-time collaborator Hal Prince, the show was renamed Bounce, starring Sondheim-muse and Granddame of Broadway, Bernadette Peters. It spawned a lively cast recording and indifferent-to-sneering reviews, meaning the production never reached Broadway.

However the show bounced back, this time titled Road Show, at The Public Theater’s Newman Theater in 2008, lasting a little over a month but still garnering a host of awards, including an Obie and a Drama Desk award for Sondheim for the lyrics and music.

It’s therefore, given its chequered history, unsurprising that Road Show is often described by some as a ‘minor work’, along with Sondheim’s The Frogs or Candide. What is clear from the European premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory this summer, is that nothing by Sondheim can be described as ‘minor’.

Directed by John Doyle, who helmed the 2008 production in New York, with a book by John Weidman, Road Show is the epic tale of two Mizner brother’s tasked by a dying father to seek their fortune in turn-of-the-last-century America; “make of it what you will, but make me proud”.

The brother’s then precede each to tackle the opportunities provided by striking gold in Alaska and a rapidly evolving America. The younger, Addison, proceeds down the path of creativity, choosing to use his money to travel the world before finally becoming an architect, seeking to build the dream in Florida and finding love in the arms of another man. The other, Wilson, uses his gift of the gab to become an inveterate gambler, marries money, rigs prize-fights, writes theatrical flops and gets Addison involved in a disastrous real estate scheme. Ultimately both brother’s die penniless and alone. “God, what a waste.”

The Menier Theatre is a small space, and I suspect the show has been minimized to fit. It ran at 95 minutes without an interval. I was surprised, and delighted, to find the production staged in the traverse. Whilst this meant anyone sat in the front row had an experience akin to Wimbledon, heads flashing back and forth with the action, I found it an opportunity to watch the audience reaction and choose my own framing for the onstage action, performed on foothills of suitcases, iron bedsteads and dusty wooden packing crates, with a distinctly stripped-back, vintage feel to the piece as a whole, down to the bare brick walls of the theatre space.

Easiest described as a chamber piece, the musical relies on two strong central performances, here beautifully executed by Michael Jibson and David Badella, and a chorus, who both drive and comment on the action. This means that there are few standout solo numbers, making the cast recording of the 2008 show, a challenge to listen to.

Sondheim’s decision to concentrate on repetitive musical themes to deliver the blithe lyrics and dramatically significant clashing chords to emphasise the action, means that Road Show only really lives as a live audience experience.  But I would encourage people who missed this production to persist. The show is through-sung, which means that all the richness is there should you choose to listen. The music is a jauntily explicit exposition of the positivity engendered in the search for the American Dream, full of brass and pomp. However, there are moments when it ably swoops into more humanizing emotion, as with the yearning, romantic ballad “The Best Thing That Has Happened” or the impotent, defeated rage of “Get Out/Go”, which contrasts an upbeat orchestration with a minor-key, staccato melody. The lyrics are all you would expect from Sondheim – funny, thoughtful, precise – while conveying something of the poignancy of the roller-coasting fortunes of the Mizners, as well as the changing face of modern capitalism. Road Show is a starkly relevant reminder: what goes around, comes around.

The conclusion to the musical is a poignant mix of bitter-sweet. Wilson, always looking for the positive spin, says of the road to eternity ahead of the brothers, “sooner or later we are bound to get it right.” You can’t help feeling that this is what Sondheim and Weidman must have felt, since that first workshop in 1999 with Wise Guys. I can’t help but feel Road Show, in 2011, they finally got it right


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