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Putting it back together

Stephen Sondheim reunites with two former collaborators for 'Bounce,' a musical 50 years in the making.

June 25, 2003|Chris Jones | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — "Oy, oy, oy," kvetches Stephen Sondheim, the iconic composer whose name launched a thousand books and journals, and whose personal approval is more valuable and sought after in theatrical circles than the highest-priced therapist in Manhattan.

With his head cocked to one side, his arm in the air and a much-altered but freshly handwritten orchestral score to something called "Bounce" on the table in front of him, Sondheim is sitting in an office at the Goodman Theatre and explaining the curse of, well, being Stephen Sondheim, given the expectations there attached. "Bounce" is currently in previews, and officially opens at the Goodman on Monday.

All he wants to do is compose a whimsical, traditional little musical about a couple of minor but flamboyant entrepreneurs named Addison and Wilson Mizner who operated in the booming early years of the 20th century. The idea has been percolating in Sondheim's head since the early 1950s.

One brother was an illustrious and classy architect. The other was a boxing promoter and a huckster. They tickled a young composer-lyricist's fancy.

But that young composer went on to a Broadway career without any precedent, penning the likes of "Company," "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Sweeney Todd." In the eyes of his millions of fans, Sondheim was single-handedly responsible for maintaining the American musical theater's thematic and formative integrity through decades of assault: from television, rock music, MTV pap, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Numbers like "Marry Me a Little" or "Send in the Clowns" evoke the decisions and agonies of love and life with such emotional intensity that many of those who regularly perform them in countless cabarets risk cardiac arrest on a nightly basis.

So when a new Sondheim musical hits the boards for the first time in nine years, it's news. Big news. Far beyond Chicago. Add in the huge clout and personality of director Harold Prince (who hadn't worked with Sondheim for more than 20 years after a famous flap over their poorly received production of "Merrily We Roll Along") and a reunification with writer John Weidman -- who wrote the books for "Pacific Overtures" and "Assassins" -- and people expect not only dazzling creativity, but also a certain amount of thematic gravitas.

Look at the body of work of these three men and one doesn't see a collection of minor soupcons, but works that have a great deal to say about life. There are no guarantees of quality in the musical theater, but these names come closer than most.

"Those three," says Richard Kind, one of the actors in "Bounce," "are the Mt. Rushmore of the American musical theater." Over the years, Sondheim has come to feel the weight of such metaphors.

"It's strictly a musical that I like doing," Sondheim says of his latest project, with a palpable sigh. "And the only reason it took so long is it that it took a series of ... of ... vicissitudes." Did it ever.

Sondheim first heard about the Mizners, courtesy of the New Yorker magazine, in the early 1950s. But Sondheim didn't have all that much clout in 1952 (he was only a couple of years out of Williams College). To his chagrin, the legendary producer David Merrick had gotten there first, and optioned one of their biographies for the playwright S.N. Behrman and the composer Irving Berlin. The proposed title was "Sentimental Guy."

As it turned out, the musical was never made. But Sondheim put the idea on hold until the early 1990s, when he was talking with Weidman about a possible new project. He brought up the Mizners. Weidman did some reading, then talked the composer into changing the focus of the show. "Steve was interested in the personal psychology of Wilson Mizner," Weidman says. "I was more interested in how the two of them interrelated." Weidman had figured out that the story of these two men might make an interesting metaphor for the pluses and minuses of American business and exploration in general.

"These brothers," Weidman says, "were great at moving on to the next thing. But they never were very good at cleaning up after themselves."

At that point, the young British director Sam Mendes was brought into the picture as a potential director. Sondheim and Weidman roughed out the show -- or, at least, the first act of the show. And a public, three-week workshop of the piece, then called "Wise Guys," opened on Oct. 29, 1999, at the New York Theatre Workshop, produced by Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Dodger Theatricals and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Nathan Lane and Victor Garber played the brothers.

A Broadway opening was slated for the spring of 2000.

That was memorable casting. ("People still tell me," Kind said, more than three years later, "that I am playing the Nathan Lane part.") Reviewers were not invited, but the show had terrible buzz.

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