Latest Sondheim creation bouncing right along

Audience reaction affecting 'Bounce,' a musical with built-in flexibility

Theater

November 09, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Arts Writer

You, ma'am, in the second row, wearing the powder blue suit and the bemused expression. And you, sir, the gentleman in the balcony with the nose ring who is trying to stifle a guffaw.

You are more powerful than you may realize. Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, and John Weidman -- who make up the creative team for the new musical, Bounce -- are watching you watch their show. They know when you are sleeping; they know when you're awake.

Not only will your reaction decide whether the musical moves to Broadway, it will determine what the show looks and sounds like when it gets there.

"How the audience responds to the material has an enormous impact on how the director and writer decide what needs changing and what doesn't," says Weidman, who wrote the script for Bounce.

Audiences tend to assume that a show is cooked in the kitchen and presented to them with a flourish, like a waiter lifting the cover off a gourmet meal.

In reality, theater and concertgoers actively help to form the show that they see by participating in a wordless conversation with the performers. That is the difference between attending a live performance and a film, which is fixed and doesn't change. And never is that more true, Weidman says, than when, as is the case with Bounce, the work is new.

"The audience response is tremendously helpful," he says. "You get a feeling as to when people are alert and when they're restless."

The musical tells the story of two legendary real-life brothers, Addison and Wilson Mizner. The former was an architect who built mansions in Palm Beach and Boca Raton in the 1920s. The latter was a highly quotable swindler and cardsharp who wrote Broadway plays, married an heiress, managed prizefighters and who, among other bon mots, once compared Hollywood to "a trip through a sewer in a glass-bottom boat."

The brothers roamed the country from San Francisco to the Yukon of the Gold Rush years, from the Big Apple to the big peninsula.

"The country was like a canvas that these guys filled up," Weidman says, relaxing at the Watergate Hotel the day before the first Washington preview.

Listen to the crowd

The musical, Sondheim's first in nine years, had its premiere in June at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The audience response in the Windy City resulted in several alterations before Bounce opened in Washington on Oct. 30.

Weidman attended two performances after the show opened in Chicago, and he said his collaborators attended others, in part to eavesdrop on the audience. But he stops short of following talkative theatergoers into the men's room during intermission.

"The conventional wisdom is that you are better off listening to the audience as a group than to any one individual member of it," he says.

As far as critics' responses, because each review reflects the opinion of just one person, the show's collaborators tend to discount them. In the case of Bounce, most notices have sounded disappointed. It's not that critics dislike the musical; it's more that they think it's a minor work. Some, though, have added that even below-average Sondheim is better than almost everything else.

"I get a package of reviews, and I read them," Weidman says. "Some criticism feels accurate and helpful, and some does not. The reviews are most helpful when they confirm or articulate what I already have been feeling."

Upon leaving Chicago, Weidman says, the creative team's combined impression was that the existing show was too sunny.

"After the Chicago premiere, we decided that we wanted to take the story of their lives, and the relationship between the brothers, a bit more seriously," Weidman says. "We wanted it to be deeper and richer. These are two American lives that have weight and significance. We hope that people will leave the theater and have discussions about the issues the show brings up."

Weidman estimates that perhaps 90 percent of the original Chicago script was changed for the Washington performances. "There probably was not a single song that was not touched or re-tooled," he says.

New rewrites were issued every day, testing the adaptability and memories of the actors. Some changes were minor: a reshaped lyric here, a discarded prop there. Others were more significant. They include a 15-minute cut in the first act and a new song ("Get Rich Quick") for the second act.

"The plot and the ideas remain essentially the same," Weidman says. "But we re-examined the show from beginning to end. We picked up each scene, reworked it, and put it back down. Only the opening scenes of the second act are playing as they did in Chicago."

Elusive material

In a sense, the journey that Bounce has undertaken, and continues on, illustrates the dangers of writing about real life. The harder you try to pin it down, the more slippery it gets.

Sondheim has been contemplating doing a musical about the brothers since 1952, when he read a series of articles about their lives in The New Yorker magazine.

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