They are people who play roles for a living. So, in a very real sense, they're actors. Their job is to draw people in and put something over on them. Sometimes they even sing for their suppers.
No wonder con artists are such popular subjects for musicals. Think of The Music Man's "Professor" Harold Hill convincing the citizens of a small Iowa town that he can turn their miscreant sons into a melodious boys' band. Or The Producers' Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom hoodwinking scores of lovestruck little old ladies into investing in what the producers are convinced will be a surefire Broadway flop. Or the rainmaker in 110 in the Shade.
The latest addition to this flock of musicals about confidence men is Bounce, the new show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, which begins a monthlong run at Washington's Kennedy Center Tuesday. The musical, which premiered in Chicago last summer and may be headed for Broadway, is based on the real-life stories of the colorful, turn-of-the-20th-century Mizner brothers -- Addison, an architect, and Wilson, an out-and-out bunco artist.
Two other high-profile con-artist musicals are also in the works. Director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell and songwriter David Yazbek (the team behind The Full Monty) are adapting Frank Oz's 1988 movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are adapting Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie, Catch Me If You Can.
Just as con men manipulate their marks off stage, so do their onstage counterparts manipulate audiences. In fact, Martin Gottfried, author of several musical theater reference books as well as biographies of theater luminaries from Sondheim to Arthur Miller, argues that "musicals themselves are con jobs -- the whole idea of conning an audience that people who are singing are actually in a story."
Bounce's Weidman agrees. "Musical theater is an extension of what these American con artists are good at. ... It's not surprising that these kinds of stories are well told in this particular art form," he says.
"There's an ebullience that is added when the tools that are available to accomplish that involve music and dance. A foot starts tapping, and the next thing you know you've got your wallet out of your pocket. Even in The Producers, the sequence in the film when Zero Mostel runs around and hits up all those little old ladies is delightful, but to add ... the music and dance aspect of it lifted it to another level."
Characters in musicals need a reason to sing, and the over-the-top moxie of pitching a fraud can be an excellent reason. "In the con, there is bravura involved, saying, 'I'm smarter than you are, and I can make you think this and you'll buy this from me.' That in itself pushes it almost to song," says O'Brien, director of the forthcoming Dirty Rotten Scoundrels musical, which is expected to premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in the fall.
Con men and musical theater even share some of the same the lingo, Weidman points out. "Not for nothing is it that the cliched instruction from a choreographer to his chorus is: 'Sell it, girls.' Musical comedy traditionally has been about selling it to the audience, putting it over, drawing them in. Is that about conning them? I don't think so, but it is about the same impulse."
Gottfried recalls a similar analogy made by the late di- rector / choreographer Michael Bennett, who told him: "All you have to do is have your company start walking toward the audience and move up the music a half tone and you've got them."
"That," says Gottfried, "is the con." Or, to put it another way, musicals about con men quite literally give the audience the old song and dance.
O'Brien sees it differently. The theater can't be a complete con because "you [the audience] are a willing participant."
In other words, while the con artist's victim has to be an innocent dupe, theatergoers practice what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief." Theater, at its root, says O'Brien, "is an act of faith."
Musicals about con men take this to another level. Real-life con men -- like Frank Abagnale Jr., the subject of Catch Me If You Can -- would appear to be prime source material. In the case of the Mizner brothers, Sondheim and Weidman are hardly the first team to think so.
Back in the 1950s, when Sondheim's interest was piqued by a series of New Yorker profiles of the Mizners, the rights were already owned by producer David Merrick, who was planning to mount a musical with a score by Irving Berlin and a book by S.N. Berhman. Martin Gottfried himself wrote a Mizner musical called Palm Beach, with a score by Charles Strouse. Neither show was ever produced.
Who were these now mostly forgotten, but oddly inspirational brothers?
Addison, the architect, was largely responsible for the Spanish style that became the primary design motif in southern Florida. Wilson was a cardsharp, playwright and raconteur, whose wittiest remarks have become part of common parlance ("Be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet them on your way down." "If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."). Although the brothers had different temperaments, both were adventurers who saw their fortunes rise and fall in the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s and the Florida land boom in the 1920s.
One reason so many writers have tried to put the Mizners on stage, says Gottfried, is because "they were larger than life. We all like people who are flaky and aren't conventional, and Addison was so lovable. ... He was so quirky, and Wilson was such a scoundrel, they're naturals for a musical."
Weidman, who'd never heard of the Mizners before Sondheim approached him in 1994, was attracted partly by "the relationship between the brothers ... the way they worked their way through their lives helping each other, undermining each other, separating." He was also drawn to what he calls the "energy and flash" of the characters.
"There is a natural affinity between the subject matter and the art," he explains. "Musical comedies are about energy and flash, and what makes these characters appealing, what makes The Music Man's Harold Hill appealing, is that kind of energy and flash that is a total contrast to the Iowa people around him. I think the fact that these stories are well told in the musical theater is not surprising. Harold Hill never feels more like Harold Hill than he does when he's singing 'Trouble.' "
Eric Schaeffer, who directed a revival of the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones-N. Richard Nash musical 110 in the Shade last season at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., makes a similar point about the first number sung by the character of Star-buck, who arrives in drought-stricken Iowa promising to produce rain.
"In one number ['Rain Song'] he has won the whole town over and convinced them it's going to rain. He's come at them and thrown more things at them, and they don't have time to stop and think," Schaeffer says.
Starbuck -- or any successful con man -- gets away with this by capitalizing on personal charisma. "There's an attractiveness to him or her that you're so connected with, the magnetism, that you really can't take your eyes off them. Those con men use it to their advantage because they know it," Schaeffer explains.
Charisma is also an important quality for a musical's leading man. When he's portraying a con artist, that quality can take various forms -- just picture smooth Robert Preston in the original Music Man, or boyish Matthew Broderick in the recent TV version. Broderick traded on that same boyish quality as Leo Bloom in The Producers, opposite Nathan Lane's Bialystock, a character who may have seemed smarmy, but nonetheless managed to convince his geriatric female investors that he oozed savoir-faire.
Pick your scoundrel
In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, about a pair of competing and stylistically divergent con men, the audience will be able to choose which type of scoundrel they prefer -- "the low-rent version," as director O'Brien describes the character played by Steve Martin in the movie, or "Cary Grant," as he refers to the suave operator portrayed by Michael Caine.
Librettist Weidman finds Wilson Mizner's allure a little more difficult to grasp, but he recognizes the role it played in Wilson's life and the necessity of conveying it on stage. "It's funny, but when you look at pictures of him now, you wonder what that charm was about. He looks like a slightly ghoulish figure. But Howard McGillin [who portrays Wilson in Bounce] is a person with enormous charm and appeal, and that's something Wilson Mizner traded on his whole life."
Audiences need to root -- or get conned into rooting -- for the protagonist of a musical, but when that protagonist is a scam artist, we may find ourselves torn between wanting him to get away with his scam and wanting him to go straight. Those divided feelings provide built-in dramatic conflict.
"There's a real tension in this country between really enjoying the way rascals trim the corners and break the rules, and then wanting to make sure that they are punished in the end," says Weidman. "A musical like The Music Man gives people both -- you get to enjoy who Harold Hill is as a con man, then see him reform just enough by the end to make you feel good. The [true] story of the Mizner brothers does not have such a happy ending; the show does."
It remains to be seen whether Bounce will successfully draw theatergoers in and win them over. The show marks the reunion, after more than two decades, of Sondheim and director Harold Prince, the team behind such landmark musicals as Company, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.
For many musical theater fans, including chronicler Gottfried -- who believes that truly original musicals are becoming increasingly rare -- there's a lot riding on the outcome.
"Sondheim and Prince were really at the center of creativity," Gottfried says. "If they can't do it, I don't know what's left."
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: Oct. 21-Nov. 16. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays