Nathan Lane, Victor Garber and Debra Monk head the cast of the reading of Wise Guys in New York
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Wise Guys receives its third reading
By Sean Patrick Flahaven
An assembly of nine casually dressed actors in a nondescript rehearsal room in midtown Manhattan would seem an ordinary occurrence. But when those actors are Broadway veterans under the guidance of one of today’s hottest directors and Broadway’s most renowned music director, one’s expectations might run higher.
On Nov. 1, 1998, this group presented the third reading of Wise Guys, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s long-awaited new musical. This was a longer, more comprehensive version of the show than in the previous two readings, and the audience consisted solely of the creative team and producers.
The reading, with the actors seated at music stands, featured Victor Garber (Anthony in Sweeney Todd, Booth in Assassins), Nathan Lane (Byck in the workshop of Assassins, Pseudolus in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Debra Monk (Moore in Assassins, Joanne in the Broadway revival of Company), and Howard McGillin (Soldier replacement in Sunday in the Park with George; Prince replacement in Into the Woods).
The ensemble consisted of Bill Parry (Boatman in Sunday in the Park with George, Proprietor in Assassins, Lieutenant Barri in Passion), Ray Wills (a revival of Side by Side by Sondheim), Randy Graff, Lauren Mitchell (Lucinda in Into the Woods), and Paula Newsome. None of the casting has been finalized for the production. Sam Mendes directed the reading, with longtime Sondheim associates Paul Gemignani as musical director and Paul Ford as accompanist. Jonathan Tunick, also present, is slated to orchestrate. Mo Gibson was the stage manager.
Lane played Addison Mizner, who wandered through various careers until heading to Florida to make a name for himself as an architect. Garber was Wilson Mizner, the con man, playwright, fight promoter and drug addict who finally joined his brother in real estate. Monk played their sweetly domineering mother and McGillin was Paris Singer, the Palm Beach millionaire socialite who financed Addison’s career.
The plot follows the Mizner brothers from young adulthood to their deaths in 1933. The first act focuses on their relationship with their mother and the second act on Addison’s career as an architect and Wilson’s life as a con man in Florida in the 1920s. The book is complete and the score nearly so. Both score and book stress the fast-paced, vaudeville-style humor of the brothers’ lives. The score now includes the songs “Vaudeville Sequence: Wise Guys,” “My Two Young Men,” “Sequence: Gold”, “Next to You,” “Sequence: Addison’s Trip Around the World,” “Sequence: What’s Next,” “Sequence: Dowagers,” “Sequence: Boca Raton” and “You Don’t Want Me to Go.”
The reading took place at a mid-sized space in the theater district following a week of intense but high -spirited rehearsals which, as with most readings, focused on learning the score. Fortunately, most of the cast had taken part in a previous reading. While Gemignani and Mendes worked with the performers on interpretation, no attempts were made at staging. The goal was for the authors and producers to hear the show as written. Sondheim and Weidman were present at several of the rehearsals, but mostly sat and observed.
Lane and Newsome flew in from Los Angeles during a hiatus from their respective television sitcoms. Mendes arrived from London. His production of David Hare’s The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman, opened on Broadway in December, and Wise Guys will mark his first Broadway production of a new musical.
The first reading of Wise Guys took place on March 27, 1997, the second on Nov. 1, 1997 (see TSR Summer 1997, Winter 1998). All of the readings have been produced by Ira Weitzman, who has worked on the development of every Sondheim show since Sunday in the Park with George. Weitzman is the former director of musical theatre at Playwrights Horizons and Lincoln Center Theater and is still associate producer of musicals at both theaters. The commercial producers are Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Dodger Endemol Theatricals and the Kennedy Center, which commissioned the show for its 25th anniversary season in 1996. Due to other commitments, Sondheim and Weidman had not been able to work consistently on the show until last year.
Everyone was very pleased with the progress made since the previous reading and excited about the future of the show. Sondheim, Weidman, Mendes and the producers are now in negotiations to schedule the premiere production. Tentative plans include a final reading in March–Mendes is directing a film, American Beauty, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening–then a tryout at the Kennedy Center and a Broadway premiere next season.
Sean Patrick Flahaven writes musicals in New York City and is associate editor of The Sondheim Review. He was the production assistant for the latest reading of Wise Guys.