To gauge the importance of "Road Show" to Stephen Sondheim, you need only look inside "Look, I Made a Hat," the second volume of the intensely annotated and assiduously edited collection of his incomparable writing for the American stage, or, as the great man put it, his collected lyrics with attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes and miscellany. Therein, the show variously known as "Wise Guys," "Bounce" and "Road Show" takes up over 100 pages — far more than such better known Sondheim shows as "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods" (the latter of which, incidentally, opens Tuesday at the Mercury Theater in a new production from The Hypocrites).
That's partly because there were so many versions of "Road Show," which Gary Griffin is staging at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in March — concurrent with his new production of "Gypsy," which opens on Navy Pier on Thursday. But Sondheim did not have to include all those versions or devote such space. Clearly, he cares deeply about "Road Show." You can read that in Sondheim's book, he said as much in a public program I did with Sondheim at the Chicago Humanities Festival a couple of years ago, and Griffin repeated that feeling over a drink last week.
"I've always been intrigued by 'Road Show' in part because of Steve's enormous interest in that show," Griffin said. "Attention must be paid, you know?"
Sondheim, who once told me unprompted how much he admires Griffin's productions of his work, certainly is paying attention to what will be one of the first licensed productions of the title since the New York premiere (which I saw) at the New York Public Theater. He and the book writer, John Weidman, are expected to head to Navy Pier to see the piece.
This work is the story of Wilson and Addison Mizner, two adventurous, eccentric and entrepreneurial brothers at their peak in the early years of the 20th century. The show follows their adventures from California to New York to the Florida of the 1920s, when the brothers, minor historical players and interesting for that very reason, were part and parcel of the property boom (and bust). If all of that sounds familiar, it's because "Road Show," then titled "Bounce," was seen at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2003, under the direction of Hal Prince. The score was very good, if not great. But it felt like a much larger case needed to be made for the metaphorical import of the Mizners, who came off as tawdry figures in a very vaudevillian production.
"Bounce" then went to Washington (mostly unchanged) and languished, before showing up as "Road Show" at the Public in 2008, under the direction of John Doyle, where it was much improved. The show never went to Broadway and not much has been heard of it. So Griffin's production is likely to get some national attention.
"I really think it is Steve's most personal show," Griffin said, noting that Sondheim was himself one of two brothers, and how the piece deals with the relationship between the brothers and their mother, not to mention its thematic interest in characters doggedly following their ambitions, at various costs, and picking themselves up when they fail.
Before dealing with "Road Show,' though, Griffin first has to open "Gypsy" on Thursday, in a new production featuring a 14-piece orchestra and the Canadian actress Louise Pitre as Rose. Griffin said he had become especially interested in the way this iconic musical charts the role forgiveness plays in our lives. He is hoping, he said, for "a raw, true show" celebrating two remarkable women, which would be Rose and her daughter, Louise, who became Gypsy Rose Lee.
Of course, when a director does two Sondheim musicals at once, it's inevitable that they will talk to one another, which is another tantalizing aspect of this double-barreled Griffin winter residency at Chicago Shakespeare. Although "Road Show" does not begin performances until March 13 (the press opening is March 20), "Gypsy" will still be playing at that point, at least through March 23. This will be the first time "Road Show" (in any of its versions) has been produced alongside another Sondheim show. "Gypsy" (which appeared on Broadway in 1959) came at the start of Sondheim's career. He wrote only the lyrics. "Bounce" came much later, of course. It will be interesting to revisit both.
Griffin then is headed to Stratford, where he will direct "Antony and Cleopatra." And then, assuming the all-powerful New York theater owners (who make Mama Rose look like an amateur) find an opening (and they will), he'll be involved in the expected Broadway transfer of his critically acclaimed production of the new Jason Robert Brown musical "Honeymoon in Vegas."