Institute for Studies In American Music
Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
NEWSLETTER


Volume XXXIII

 


No. 1       Fall 2003

Inside This Issue:

Music of Williamsburg by Carol J. Oja

The Germania Musical Society by Nancy Newman

Music of Carl Ruggles by Stephen Slottow

Scorsese's Narratives of Blues Discovery: Review by Ray Allen

Eric Porter's What is This Thing Called Jazz?: Review by Salim Washington

Roger Sessions and Arthur Berger: Review by Anton Vishio

Sondheim's Bounce: Review by Gayle Sherwood and Jeffrey Magee

Home

 

 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway
By Gayle Sherwood and Jeffrey Magee

It has been nine years since Stephen Sondheim finished Passion, and the chief musical-theater project of the intervening years finally made it to the stage.  Created with librettist John Weidman and director Harold Prince, Bounce opened on 30 June at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where we caught it eight days earlier during previews. The story dramatizes the real-life adventures of the peripatetic brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner as they travel the world in search of fame and fortune. Bouncing from the turn-of-the-century Yukon Gold Rush to the 1920s Florida real-estate boom, the brothers discover two disparate but compatible talents as Addison finds his gift as an architect and Wilson becomes a con man. Along the way they face an escalating cycle of boom and bust, always moving on with the same motto: “Find a new road, forge a new trail—Bounce.”

The title song, heard three times, not only voices the show’s theme; it also sums up a key impulse behind Sondheim’s musical-theater writing.  Whether they succeed or fail, Sondheim’s shows always represent a fresh and often startling response to the challenge of creating musical theater in the post-Rodgers and Hammerstein era.  Sondheim identified A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum of 1962 as “the antithesis of the Rodgers and Hammerstein school.”1  With a vaudeville-inflected script, the show began by telling audiences exactly what they were getting (“Comedy Tonight”) and proceeded to offer a sequence of whimsical songs easily extracted from their plot context.  Since then, none of Sondheim’s shows has returned so completely to the light musical comedy vein he revived in Forum. 

Until now. Almost everything about Bounce aims to revive musical comedy and vaudeville of the pre-R&H era. The difference lies in a distinctively Sondheim-esque self-consciousness about it.  The show relishes its artifice:  the conventional medley-of-tunes overture, the quaint postcard backdrops, the song-and-dance routines, the follow spots, the carry-on props and furniture, the deaths (like punchlines) punctuated by a percussive boom. The songs, too, have the vamp-and-patter spirit of early musical comedy and vaudeville, and their titles are positively telegraphic:  “Bounce,” “Gold!,” “What’s Your Rush?,” “Next to You,” “The Game,” “Talent,” and “You,” to name a few. All of which makes a swooning love ballad stand out as the musical centerpiece of the show:  “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.” But even this song echoes the old days.  The long melody on the title phrase, capped by a two-note codetta “you are,” recalls that Jimmy  McHugh and Dorothy Fields hit from The Blackbirds of 1928, with its opening line “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.” Finally, like early musical comedy, this show counts on star power.  Addison was created by Richard Kind, from TV’s “Spin City” and “Mad About You”; Wilson was Howard McGillin, fresh from his Broadway run as the Phantom; his on-again-off-again love Nellie was the recent Tony-award-winning Michele Pawk; and Mama Mizner was Jane Powell, a veteran of more than twenty
MGM musicals.

The show has another pre-R&H model, of course, one that Sondheim has openly claimed:  the Hope and Crosby “Road movies” that began in 1940 with The Road to Singapore. “The Mizners, or at least our Mizners,” Sondheim has written, “were in many ways the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby of the Road movies—Wilson as Crosby the manipulator, Addison as Hope the patsy, two conniving rivals who would stop at nothing to ruin each other, but partners and soul mates in the face of the world.  And vaudeville to the core.”2 Both Bounce and the Road movies feature the duets, the two-guys-and-a-girl scenario, the travelogue motif, the situation comedy, and even—for anyone who remembers The Road to Morocco—a gay kiss.

Bounce could, however, never be mistaken for a show from the Hope and Crosby years.  While the gay subtext in The Road to Morocco is treated as no more than a passing heterosexual joke, in Bounce it grows into an explicit and sincere love interest between one of the brothers and a wealthy patron.  More than that, the show lays bare the psychological roots of the brothers’ conflicts and drives. On his deathbed, their father charges them to grasp at “Opportunity” when it comes along. Later, a soft ballad called “Next to You” evolves into a chilling site of fraternal competition as Wilson and Addison jockey for position as Mama’s favorite.  In the song’s final moments, Prince’s staging confirms Mama’s choice.  All of this gives the show a once-removed quality from the Road movies and early musical comedy, but none of it will surprise Sondheim aficionados.

Since we saw it on 22 June, the show apparently underwent some revision, especially focused on Nellie, the Yukon bargirl turned millionairess, and her relationship to Wilson.3 The amount of hand-wringing over the book itself marks yet another departure from early musical comedy, where stories often depended more on stars, songs, and dances, than narrative integrity.  In fact, the show’s tortuous road to production parallels the Mizner’s vicissitudes:  Sondheim conceived it back in the early 1950s, but shelved the idea when he discovered that Irving Berlin was working on a Mizner show, which was never finished. Sondheim picked up the trail in the mid-1990s and the show has undergone many changes, not least in its title: from Wise Guys to Gold! to Bounce.  The reviewers were respectfully unimpressed by this latest version.  In the punning style that few could resist, a Chicago Tribune headline of
2 July read “Sondheim Doesn’t ‘Bounce’ High Enough.”  After a brief run at the Kennedy Center in the fall, Ben Brantley of the New York Times extended the metaphor into the basketball arena:  “The bounce in ‘Bounce’ is never very high,” he wrote.  “It’s more like a close-to-the-floor dribble.”4 Nineteen days later, the Times confirmed “No Bounce to Broadway.” It’s too bad Broadway audiences won’t get a chance to see Sondheim reinventing his style in a lighter vein. It takes discipline, and even courage, to scale back in this way.  But true to the show’s spirit, Roger Berlind, co-holder of the commercial rights to the show, insisted that “The show will not die. There’s going to be many productions of this show. It’s part of the canon.”5

Whether or not Bounce can be termed a “flop,” the consolation for its demise is at least built into the show:  you forget the past and go on to the next thing.  What’s the next thing for Sondheim?  No one knows for sure, but at a pre-show talk at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival in late August, he mentioned his
interest in doing a “theme and variations” piece, possibly a musical version of the 1993 film Groundhog Day.6  In any case, we can be sure that, unlike the film’s characters, Sondheim will not
repeat himself.

— Gayle Sherwood and Jeffrey Magee

Indiana University

Notes

1 Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co, 2nd ed. (Da Capo Press, 1994), 68.

2 Stephen Sondheim, “A Musical Isn't Built in a Day, but This Took 47 Years,” New York Times (12 September 1999); www.nytimes.com.

3 Bruce Weber, “Adding a Sexy Spring to Levitate ‘Bounce’,” New York Times (30 July  2003); www.nytimes.com.

4 Ben Brantley, “Sondheim Guides Two Brothers on a Tour of Life,” New York Times (1 November  2003); www.nytimes.com.

5 Jesse McKinley, “Confirmed: No Bounce to Broadway This Season,” New York Times (19 November  2003); www.nytimes.com. 

6 Hedy Weiss, “Sondheim Plans Changes to ‘Bounce’,” Chicago Sun-Times (25 August 2003): 38.