Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman have collaborated on three of the most unusual musicals—Pacific Overtures, Assassins, and Road Show—all of which deal with the negative impact of elements of the American Dream, a theme Sondheim has interwoven into many of his shows. Sondheim and Weidman and their directors also have experimented with techniques unusual for the commercial musical stage, including Brechtian alienation and traditional Japanese theatre conventions. Pacific Overtures explores the effect on Japan when the United States demanded access to trade. Featuring two Japanese characters influenced by American culture, it allows the audience some of the traditional pleasures of emotional identification. Assassins, a meditation on the dark side of the American Dream, examines the motivations of presidential assassins. The main characters reveal their passionate and intellectual underpinnings, thus giving the show surprising moments of emotional resonance. A few group numbers delve into the societal conditions the motley characters share, but the beauty of the individual solos is more chilling. When John Wilkes Booth sings his magnificently evil thoughts, the moments create a weird dissonance between his passionate commitment (and the beautiful music) and his horrific acts. Unusual in its subject material, Assassins is one of the more successful uses of Verfremdungseffekt in the American musical theatre: enticing audiences into identifying with the passions of the characters, and then being utterly repelled by that identification.
Road Show tells the story of two antagonistic brothers at the turn of the last century as each pursues his own version of the American Dream. Road Show has had three major incarnations with three different directors. In 2000, the show (then known as Wise Guys and directed by Sam Mendes) applied a light touch; Nathan Lane and Victor Garber sparkled with vaudevillian humor and witty repartee. The various issues relating to the dark side of the American Dream percolated without a particularly didactic edge, while humor, wit, and charisma drove the show. The second act had not been finished by the beginning of the run, leaving only delicious possibilities. With a phenomenal cast in an unusually small theatre, Wise Guys allowed Garber and Lane to pull the audience into their camaraderie. Their charisma may have overshadowed the work itself, but, to my mind, it remains the most successful version of the show.
In 2003, Harold Prince collaborated with Sondheim on Bounce, for which a cast album is available. In the post-9/11 environment, the show became larger, with more focus on the broad scope of the brothers’ lives without focusing on a specific theme. Strongly plot-based with little character introspection, the Mizner brothers had more romance (heterosexual for Wilson, homosexual for Addison) and more of a happy ending. The show touched on a variety of themes: sibling rivalry, dueling visions of the American Dream, artistic passions, and the interplay of various forms of capitalism with art and con games, but it never explored any single theme to satisfaction.
In 2008, John Doyle directed a sparse production of the piece, now titled Road Show, tightly focused on the economic themes. Serendipitously timed, the show premiered in the midst of the economic meltdown. Early in the show, the boys’ father tells his sons that their choices will be “determining what kind of nation we’ll be,” forging a life from the riches of nature and their own determination. Wilson (Michael Cerveris) embodies the “cocaine-fueled con game” of unregulated capitalism under the Bush administration, dabbling in anything that could gain him wealth or notoriety, feeding his drug habit and ego. The Boca Raton housing crisis, a major plot point in the show, comments on our recent disastrous economic bubbles.
In sharp contrast, Addison Mizner (Alexander Gemignani) serves as an archetype for what many see as the upside of capitalism; his round-the-world tour is a subtle history of Western colonialism, for he visits only former colonies. Unlike his country, Addison is interested primarily in benign capitalism. His attempts to invest in local businesses fall apart; only his hodgepodge of cultural knickknacks has any worth, and that collection inspires his architectural career back in the states. Addison...