Librettist John Weidman gives an inside look at the new Sondheim musical
The Mizner brothers were cons–charismatic, but cons nonetheless
News & Notes
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Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Wise Guys to be ‘very much about America’
By Sean Patrick Flahaven
Why would anyone write a musical about Addison and Wilson Mizner? Because it’s a story about a fascinating relationship and because the brothers led quintessentially American lives and adventures, according to John Weidman, librettist for Stephen Sondheim’s new musical project, Wise Guys.
“The brothers lived with a kind of energy, irresponsibility and sloppiness,” Weidman said in an exclusive interview with The Sondheim Review. “They had qualities which are admirable and qualities which are appalling, but they seem to be peculiarly American as people are today.
“So it seems to me that writing about them is a way to write about who we are and what we’re up to in the 1990s. In that sense, the show has a larger political context and meaning. That’s political with a small ‘p’–it’s not about elections, but it’s very much about America.”
Weidman, who wrote the books for Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures and Assassins, was interviewed in his office at Children’s Television Workshop in Manhattan, where he has written for Sesame Street for the past ten years. Describing the Mizner brothers’ relationship, he said:
“One of the overly simplified things you could say about Wilson, although he often said something similar about himself, was that he went through life looking for suckers, and he was very successful at finding them. When he found one, he would take advantage of him, then move on to find another one. Really, the only person who was not fair game was his brother, Addison, whom he cared about.
“But Wilson hit the skids at a certain point, and when he was down and out, the only sucker left was his brother, he was the only one available, so in the end, he took advantage of him like he had taken advantage of everybody else.”
Asked if their different sexual orientations (Addison was gay) had something to do with it, Weidman said:
“One of the things that makes it interesting to write about them now, as opposed to forty years ago, is that dynamic and those issues can be part of the texture of the show. I think they loved each other in lots of different, very complicated ways. I think the only other person either of them ever really cared about was their mother. They were very, very attached to their mother, who was an interesting character in her own right.”
Sondheim has been considering adapting the story of Wilson and Addison Mizner since 1953, when he read Alva Johnston’s book, The Legendary Mizners, and wrote an outline for a proposed musical. That project didn’t resurface until forty years later.
“He called me when Passion was in previews and asked if I had ever heard of Wilson Mizner,” Weidman said. “I said that I had not, and he said that Wilson was a character he had always been interested in, and there was a book to read, and would I take the time to read it? I said, ‘Sure.’
“The book was, in fact, Johnston’s biography of the two brothers. I was immediately interested not only in Wilson, but in Addison and their relationship. In the end, the story is very much driven by the dynamic between the two men.”
The Mizners’ lives spanned sixty years. Weidman said that at present, the first act covers the sweep of their lives from their teenage years at home until their mother’s death. The second act focuses on their exploits during the land boom in Florida in the 1920’s, but goes until their deaths and even beyond.
In brief statements reported in The Sondheim Review last spring, Sondheim and Weidman said separately that vaudeville would play a large role in the show. Asked how much there will be, Weidman said:
“We are finding out as we go along. The largest answer is that the terseness, speed, recklessness and riskiness of their lives seem very much like the same qualities that one discovers in vaudeville. That’s how they lived, from one act to the next, from juggling acts, to melodrama, to comedy, to sentimental songs–you name it. It’s those changes in tone and color that make it possible to express what their lives were about in a vaudeville style appropriate to it.
“Coincidentally, their life span is approximately the life span of vaudeville in the United States. I think the Palace Theater started showing movies in 1933, the year they died, and people usually point to the 1870’s as the birth of vaudeville. Without being terribly self-conscious about it, we’re trying to make the show work that way.”
Weidman said that the show would be structured somewhat like Assassins, in that there will be scenes in which the characters are aware that they are singing and “breaking the fourth wall.” Assassins, however, was a revue-like collection of disparate characters, whereas Wise Guys tells a linear, and thus far in the process, a chronological story.
“At the same time, I feel that my work succeeds if I can accomplish both things simultaneously. Which means to tell it in chronological order but also to make each scene feel as though it had the individual style and color that Assassins had. There are sections of the script that exist now where that happens. The sections where it’s not happening, I feel, are the sections that need to be addressed. Right in the middle of the second act is a long, conventional scene, which is not to say it’s bad, but it’s wrong for this script, so I’ve been struggling, trying to do it differently.”
Both Pacific Overtures and Assassins have strong political elements. Weidman feels that it’s an important and inevitable aspect of his work with Sondheim:
“It’s what I’m drawn to. People do what they want to do in the end, it seems to me. That always seems to be an aspect of what I’m interested in. I know when I read Johnston’s book that’s what initially drew me to the material. I was fascinated by the relationship between the brothers, but I was most immediately interested in the context in which they operated. They started out as teenagers in the Yukon Gold Rush, as far northwest as they could go, and they ended up in Florida for another kind of ‘gold rush’–the land boom in the 1920’s–as far southeast as they could go. I like that. They covered the country, for better or worse.”
Wise Guys has been commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Weidman said the commission nature of the work has not changed his writing process with Sondheim.
“It’s nice to know that there’s a full-scale production waiting at the end of the road, but I don’t feel like I’m working on this any differently than we worked on Assassins, which was obviously much smaller and intended for a more modest production. Wise Guys right now is a bigger show than Assassins. I was working on the second act today, and it seems a little schizophrenic. It seems to require large numbers of people some of the time, and two or three people the rest of the time. I’m not sure how I feel about that. The sprawl of their lives and what they were involved in must be on stage, and that seems to mean lots of people.”
“What’s nice about the Kennedy Center is that they have the resources to pretty much produce it in whatever size or shape it ends up in. It’s possible that it will end up being a smaller show that we think it will be. I doubt it, but it’s possible. I think we’ll be able to do it the way it ought to be done or the way that it wants to be done. Then we can take a look at it.”
Weidman said that at present, the schedule is for a reading in February, a workshop production in late spring, and a full production in the fall of 1997. The ultimate goal, however, is to move the show to Broadway. Due to previous commitments to other projects, both Sondheim and Weidman have had to postpone the writing of Wise Guys for almost a year. Weidman wrote the book for the musical Big.
“Before Big really got cranked up, I wrote an elaborate outline of the show. In part, I did it because both Steve and I had all these other projects about to happen, and it seemed more manageable to have a model when we didn’t have time. In that sense, the shape of the show, the ends of the acts, are all there. We’re filling in the scenes.”
“It was different with Assassins because we had a lot of focused time to talk then. Here it’s gotten busted up. We had a lot of conversations about the characters, the show, and structure. But we’d get interrupted. A lot of that talking preceded the outline, and then the outline provoked more discussion.”
Sondheim has often said that he likes to have a completed draft of the book before he begins composing . Weidman says the score is in progress as well, even though the book is not yet finished.
“I’m finishing the second act, and then I have to go back and fill in the first act so I can get ahead of him in Act One. He’s still working within the boundaries of the part of the first act that I’ve written. When we did the first reading of Assassins, we had a draft of the book and two songs. We seem to be evolving in the same way with this show. A lot of what will happen in the score is already clear, as it was when we were writing Assassins: where the songs will be and how they’ll work. Steve has notes on all these things, and he’s certainly finished the opening number and into the second number.”
“There are a lot of areas where we are discovering how the music is going to work. I’m just doing whatever feels right. In the areas where we’re sure there’s going to be music, I might indicate it in the script, or I might write dialogue or a monologue for him to draw from. There’s no set procedure. I discussed that a month or so ago with Steve on the phone, and told him I wasn’t sure what to put in a place where a song might go, and he said, ‘Just do whatever you want.’ That was almost exactly the conversation.”
The lead characters of Wilson and Addison Mizner are huge parts, and will certainly require talented performers with large personalities. Weidman indicated that he and Sondheim have certain actors in mind, but declined to discuss it until the show is finished and a director is selected.
Weidman has said that the Kennedy assassination drew him particularly to write Assassins, but that Wise Guys isn’t quite the same:
“That was a piece of my own personal history that basically became clearer and clearer to me; that was what was responsible for what made the immediate connection with writing that show. I found the Mizners and the period fascinating, and the more I write, the more I’m drawn to these two guys and their time. I don’t want to say much more about it, because I often find that it’s dangerous to be too clear in talking about what I’m in the progress of writing. The clarity somehow takes the place of some kind of subconscious sloppiness where the ideas are working themselves out. It’s like having a topic sentence before you need one or should have one. That’s ‘high concept,’ then you’re stuck with what you’ve said, rather than what you want to do.”
“Steve and I had a really satisfying time writing Assassins, and we hope to have the same writing this show. What it ultimately expresses and how important it seems is something that we’ll continue to discover during the process. The material definitely feels like it’s worth the effort.”
[This is the first of a two-part interview. In the next issue, Weidman talks about Pacific Overtures, Assassins, the art and craft of bookwriting and his other projects.]
Sean Patrick Flahaven writes musicals in New York City and is the associate editor of The Sondheim Review.