Two of a kind: the con game and the musical

'Bounce' becomes the latest in a long song-and-dance partnership

Theater

October 19, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

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.

Good manipulators

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.

Adventurer brothers

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?

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