Road Show

March 13

May 4, 2014

Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare

music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by John Weidman
directed by Gary Griffin

A Scholar's Perspective

American Roots
by Beatrice Bosco, Ph.D.

Director Gary Griffin helms two works of Sondheim in Chicago Shakespeare’s 2013/14 Season. Road Show and Gypsy as a pairing from the very beginning and the latest of Sondheim’s career, highlight visions of America in the 1920s, corrosive family relations, and the compromises necessary to pursue your dreams. Juxtaposed by Griffin, the two shows also share takes on what may be called the American pioneer spirit—the forging of new frontiers, whether they be physical or personal.

Road Show is based on the true story of brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, whose richly complex and peripatetic history is artfully rendered into the musical. Born in Northern California, the youngest sons of a large, prosperous family, they spent their teen years in Guatemala where their father served as a diplomat. Their adventures took them across America, from the Yukon to the Everglades via New York City society, reinventing themselves, repeatedly separating and reuniting.

According to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, “Addison Mizner and Wilson Mizner were brothers who, although they played only a minor role in the cultural history of this country, might well be seen to represent two divergent aspects of American energy: the builder and the squanderer.” They were polar opposites, sharing an intense and complicated relationship.

The story of Sondheim’s fascination with the brothers, which he describes as a “mild, if sporadic, obsession,” contains its own saga. Following a two-year, post-college music fellowship in New York, Sondheim found employment writing for television in Hollywood. Five months later, as soon as he had saved enough money to rent an apartment for a year, he flew back to New York. It was on that flight that he first encountered the brothers, in a New Yorker article by Alva Johnson, including excerpts from his book The Legendary Mizners. Taken by their story, Sondheim set to work writing songs and optioning the book—only to find that Broadway producer David Merrick had already acquired the rights, intending to turn the book into a vehicle for Bob Hope, with a score by Irving Berlin and book by S. N. Berman. That team lost interest in the undertaking, but it was only in 1993 that Sondheim returned to it, looking for a new project with librettist John Weidman, with whom he had collaborated on Pacific Overtures and Assassins.

In 1999, they staged a workshop production in New York, entitled Wise Guys. Four years later, reimagined and retitled Bounce, the show played in Chicago, at the Goodman Theatre, and subsequently in Washington D.C. In 2008, reworked once again, Road Show opened at the off Broadway Public Theatre. Finally, fifty-six years after reading the book, and fourteen years after beginning his work on it, Sondheim had the show that he wanted.

Sondheim was initially attracted to the character of the unscrupulous, colorful and charismatic Wilson.  A man of seemingly infinite gifts, Wilson had learned quickly that it was easier to fleece the miners of the Gold Rush than to pan for gold, and became a saloon keeper, a con man, a boxing manager and promoter, the manager of a New York hotel for underworld figures, an opium addict, and a successful Broadway playwright.  A notorious womanizer, he married and soon divorced one of the richest women in New York, Mary Adelaide Yerkes, almost twenty years his senior (and the widow of Chicago “L” magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes). His last career was as a writer in Hollywood, where about a dozen of his screenplays were actually filmed . He is perhaps best remembered for his witticisms, including “Be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet the same people on your way down," and “"Stealing from one is plagiarism, stealing from many is research."

His brother Addison was a rogue of a different sort, a grandiose social climber, whose dreamy ambitions were preyed upon by Wilson.  A self-trained architect, Addison landed in southern Florida during the boom and bust of the 1920s, and is largely responsible for the Spanish Revival style of that area. . The brothers promoted, developed and made millions in Boca Raton, but lost everything when their unscrupulous practices were exposed.

It is perhaps not surprising that the story of these larger-than-life con men, whose quest for fame and fortune reflect a uniquely American spirit, required of Sondheim and Weidman many years and multiple tries to get it right. Ideas about the difference between opportunity and opportunism, American resilience and reinvention, artistry versus promotion, all resonate in the telling. Ultimately, the core of the story is the bond between the vastly different brothers. Their story is told as a “road show,” a freewheeling adventure tale of two gifted, mismatched, inseparable, endearing charmers.


Beatrice Bosco, formerly the Associate Director of Education at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a Business Development Analyst at Chicago Public Media. She is an adjunct faculty member at the Theatre School at DePaul University and is the former Program Director and Faculty for the Chicago Arts Program. Recent directing projects include work for 2nd Story, Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre, and Collaboraction, where she is a Company Associate. She earned her PhD in Theatre and Drama at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation, Surviving Collectives, examines the practices of ensemble theater companies.

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