Vol. 10, No. 3 Winter 2004
During previews of Bounce at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman and Jonathan Tunick gave separate audiotaped interviews to be added to the Library of Congress' collections as a historical record, and with the knowledge that the interviews would also be used as source material for this article. Hal Prince had also agreed to be interviewed, but after rescheduling twice, determined the demands of the show were too unpredictable to commit the time.
Each interview ran about forty-five minutes and, though the discussions were wide ranging, it was understood that this article would focus on the portions regarding how Bounce was finding its shape, particularly between Chicago and Washington. For this article, the transcribed quotes were edited for clarity and grammar, and sentences skipped, reordered and conflated to make the flow easier to follow and more specific to the topics at hand. The speakers were then given the opportunity to make edits to ensure that their extemporary comments best reflected their true thoughts.
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Sondheim first became interested in musicalizing the Mizners' story in the 1950s, but abandoned the idea when he learned that Alva Johnston's book The Legendary Mizners had been optioned, and S. N. Behrman and Irving Berlin had begun work on the project. David Merrick was the putative producer, and it was he who told Sondheim in 1959 that he had dropped the show. Sondheim's interest resurfaced in 1994, and he then invited John Weidman to collaborate as librettist. It was Weidman's participation that changed the direction the show would take. Sondheim: "When I first started the show--130 years ago--I was interested in Wilson, and Addison was part of the story. John was interested in the symbiotic relationship of the brothers."
Weidman: "When I read the first of the books that Steve suggested that I take a look at, which was the Alva Johnston book, I was immediately intrigued by the relationship between the brothers. But I think almost more than that, the first thing that captured my imagination was the background against which they operated-- this sort of sweep of American stuff from the Gold Rush in Alaska to the land boom in Florida and everything in between. And that particular period of American history which seemed--in terms of the abundant opportunities that were made available to these guys, and which they took advantage of one way or another--seemed like a very, very rich period against which to tell this particular story.
"And then Steve and I just started talking. Nothing is as terrifying as the moment where your realize you actually do have to go write something, you can't just keep yakking about it. We followed more or less the same process on this that we did on Assassins, which was to meet every week and talk, until we reached the point where we felt it was really irresponsible to keep talking, it was time to start writing something."
Tunick recalled when he first learned of the project: "...nine years ago, at the opening night party of Passion, which was in 1994, Steve said to me: 'Tomorrow I'm starting work on a new show--Wise Guys'; and he started telling me all about it. It is now 2003, and finally here it is."
But the last nine years have seen the show go through changes in title, style and director. Tunick: "I've lost count of the workshops that I attended over the years. Each time I saw it I thought it was a great show, and I couldn't wait to get started on it, but rewrites and further adjustments always seemed necessary."
Sondheim: "I've never written this many shows to get to one show. We've had four distinct scripts and scores for this show. Some of the songs were obviously retained and even some moments in the scenes--although I dare say if you went to John Weidman's first draft and then compared it to this draft, my guess is there's probably less than two or three pages that are in common. There are two or three, maybe four songs that have lasted. Oddly enough, the sequence of events has remained the same, because it's a historical piece. And the first draft, though it was interrupted by a number of vaudeville numbers, started out in Benecia, California, and went to the Gold Rush, and went to New York, and then went to Florida. That structure was always there. So even when a number would be replaced, it would be in a similar spot."
Early songs and drafts of the script envisioned the show presented in a vaudeville style. Sondheim: "John pointed out when we got the vaudeville idea, that coincidentally vaudeville started in the 1880s and died in the 1930s, and the Mizners started in the 1880s and died in the 1930s. And so it was curiously appropriate, although that wasn't the reason that we chose to do it that way."
Although that vision of the show changed, there are still vestiges in the design and score, notably the song "Bounce." Sondheim: "As it is now, there's only one vaudeville number in the show, which opens and closes the first act and closes the second act. It's the title number."
The final style of the show seems to have two inspirations--the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope "road pictures" and traditional musical comedy.
Tunick: "I think what Steve is trying to get here is an authentic Broadway musical sound. This is a score with a lot of energy and zap. In earlier versions Steve used to refer to it in terms of vaudeville. I think a lot of that quality has softened, both dramatically and musically, but it's very much a musical comedy score in the traditional sense...there are certain comparisons you could make with Addison being Bob Hope--the naive, well-meaning, good-hearted bumbler who always loses the girl and gets left holding the bag by his smarter brother who gets into a lot of trouble and skips town. There's a certain element of that still, but at one time, it was more overtly vaudevillian. The style has become much more modulated, and I've come to think of it as just a really good musical comedy score."
As Weidman put it: "One of Hal's initial impulses was that these guys lived their lives with a kind of musical comedy speed, style and color. And so, if you're going to tell their lives in the musical theatre, that's the way you need to do it. And he's completely correct. And that's still the case. But I think that we looked at it and thought: you know, we have to take the relationship more seriously, and we have to take the thematic ideas behind the relationship more seriously, and that really was the main task, it seemed to me, as we revisited the material on our way here."
Speaking more specifically about the style of the score, Sondheim said: "It's a 1950s score in the sense that it's primarily in eight, sixteen and thirty-two bar chunks. Many of the songs are in fact thirty-two bar songs, or variations thereof, in AABA or ABAB form.
"The harmonic language is, again, a kind of very tonal language with moderately simple key relationships that I was writing in the late' 50s (not on Broadway) and when I was writing things like Forum, which is early '60s--what I was recapturing when I did Merrily We Roll Along. It's that kind of a score--it's a Merrily We Roll Along kind of score. I wanted it to be crisp and bright and simple and direct, with primary colors, because we first started to write the show in a rather cartoony style, a Hope-Crosby kind of musical like the 'road pictures.' Swiftness is a major element--not that all songs are fast, but all the songs make their point and get off. At least that's the intention. There are very few extended pieces in it."
Bounce premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago during the summer. Reviews there were not stellar, but the creators were optimistic.
Sondheim: "The audiences enjoyed it in Chicago. And they particularly enjoyed it by the end of the run. We all left immediately after we opened. By the time John and I got back, two months later, at the end of the summer, the performances were sure-footed and the audience always smells that. The problem was we had no rehearsal time in Chicago after the opening because of the limitations of the budget. So there was no point in rewriting while we were in Chicago, because there was no time to rehearse it. All we could do is what we did, which is get it in as good shape as we could by opening night."
Sondheim and Weidman did receive some helpful input from friends and colleagues, such as the following said to Sondheim: "The problem is, you don't know where the train is going, and it makes too many stops."
In the interviews, Sondheim and Weidman both seemed confident in describing the changes they felt were needed, most of which focused on what they referred to as the New York sequence and the Boca Raton sequence.
But even before that, according to Sondheim: "I thought the most important scene to fix, or moment to fix, was the scene with Papa's death--the one that starts the show off. Because that's usually where a show gets in trouble, right at the beginning. The opening number worked fine, but as soon as the story started, you didn't know what the story was about. The way the first scene was written and, particularly, the way it was performed in Chicago, you didn't even know what kind of show you were in for, because the father was played as a completely comic-strip character, whereas the mother and the boys were not. So you're off on the wrong foot already.
"Now it's all of a piece, and it makes a huge difference. There has been a little rewriting of the scene, but very little. I cut about a quarter of the song and took out the silly things I had in there--the father saying 'tooneropity' when he meant 'opportunity,' because his mind is going, all that kind of stuff. It's all decoration. It's what George Kaufman said: 'Take out the improvements.' You know, take out everything that isn't necessary. And that's what we did. And as far as I'm concerned, that makes more difference to the show than anything else we did."
What looks to be the most popular ballad from the score is the song "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." While the music has stayed the same, its placement and its lyrics have changed significantly since Chicago. Regarding the change in placement, Sondheim said:
"We decided to restructure the first act and take the song and the 'morning after' portion out of the New York sequence. We wanted to shorten the first act and make the action swifter, but I said: If they sing that song in the Belmont sequence--which is where it is now--you're going to get increasingly bored with it. (We had another song in Belmont called 'Alaska'--which essentially is a song that's spoken to orchestral accompaniment. It was very elaborate and it took me a long time to write, but it never quite worked and it seemed long-winded.)
"The other problem was, if I threw out 'The Best Thing' entirely from the show, then I couldn't use it at the opening of the second act, where it's an important element. The whole idea of it there is that it's nostalgic--it's supposed to be a moment they've shared together. So it was a real dilemma. And then I got the notion of 'bullshit'--her not falling for his come-on--and as soon as I got that response, then I knew what I could do with the song--how to use the ballad in the Belmont spot by making it essentially a comic ballad."
(In Chicago when the song was first sung, Wilson began: "You are the best thing that ever has happened to me/You are." Now, Wilson sings: "You are the best thing that ever has happened to me." And Nellie replies "Bullshit.")
Sondheim continued: "And I knew it would get a straightforward statement at the opening of the second act--in the reprise--so I wasn't going to lose it as a straightforward ballad."
In response to a question about the two time periods that seem to be happening simultaneously in the New York sequence, Weidman said: "Some people have no problem with this, other people do. I don't know if it's stubbornness on my part, to me there's something nice-- theatrical-- about conflating these two time periods. As if, over the course of their wedding night, we are also living out the first three months of their marriage.
"In reality, Wilson and Myra Yerkes were married for six months, or something, and I'm sure they slept together a lot. But clearly, the fact that his attention was constantly being drawn to things that were more interesting to him than her is what did them in. To me (God help me), it's a metaphor. But it should work. And it's not right yet, and, in fact, Steve is upstairs working on it right now. The hope would be when the sequence is working the way we would like it to work, that confusion won't occur to people."
As for the Boca Raton sequence, when asked if the number focused on people's gullibility and crowd psychology instead of Wilson's manipulation, Sondheim responded:
"The whole point was to do both. What was wrong with it in Chicago was that it was about Wilson, but it wasn't about the crash. I said: We have to explain to the audience what happened down there. I wanted to have a visual representation. I talked with Hal about this a lot, even before we went to Chicago, and Hal couldn't figure out any kind of visual representation of the balloon...BALLOON...BALLOON...BURST! So it had to be done verbally. And then once we'd done that, as of last week, we realized that Wilson dominated it only up to a certain point and then the people took over. I've restructured it, and you'll see. So now we think we can eat our cake and have it too--we think. It certainly seemed that way last night. He became Elmer Gantry."
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As the three were about to open Bounce in Washington, how did they feel about the state of the show, the process and the collaboration?
Tunick: "Just the idea of Steve's writing a new show and his working with Hal Prince again alone make it a privilege to be here. That sounds pretty corny, but it's wonderful. Of the people that started out doing Company in 1970, there are three of us here: Steve, Hal and me, and it's great to be along for the ride. And to work with Hal again is more exciting than I ever remembered. To experience that life force coming at you...it's very hard to describe how inspiring this guy is. It goes without saying that any new project of Steve's is an occasion, and it's just great to be back in the saddle with these guys. It doesn't feel any different; I'm still sitting in a dark theater with Steve Sondheim and Hal Prince, thinking to myself: What am I doing here?"
Weidman: "I think that the show, in a funny way after all this time, has worked its way back to addressing the initial impulses that got me excited about the show in the first place. Hal came over to me in the theater during a rehearsal the other day, and he said: 'For the first time it feels like it's the show that we all talked about when we all sat in my office.' And I think that's true. And that's satisfying. I have no idea what other people will feel, but I think we all feel as though we're coming in for a landing- - you know, when you look out an airplane window and suddenly the houses, they're here instead of down there-- that it feels like the show that we were aiming for."
Sondheim: "We all looked at each other on Sunday after we put in most of the changes to the Boca Raton sequence, and thought: this is the show we mean. And we did our thing with the New York sequence last night, we're just an inch away from smug. But if the critics kill us they kill us. There's nothing we want to do to the show...except there are tiny details in some lyrics I want to change, but nobody knows them but me. But, as I say, this is the show we meant. After Chicago it was not--it was on its way, but it wasn't what we meant--yet. And now it is. And so we'll see on Saturday when they all tell us whether they like it or not."
Mark Eden Horowitz is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress and the author of Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions.
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