At the time that this score came out, a wave of vitriol erupted from Sondheim’s most devoted fans, many of them openly proclaiming that Sondheim had finally lost his touch. But flash forward less than a decade, and the show, somehow, without anyone really noticing, is being treated as a perfectly valid and admirable cult flop.
There’s really not a lot of dispute over the fact that the show itself, a picaresque retelling of the lives of famed historical brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, is an absolute train wreck, and none of the countless revisions it’s undergone have really changed that. The basic, self-defeating problem with the show, in all its incarnations, is that while Sondheim had two genuinely fascinating lead characters…one a sensitive architectural savant and one a sophisticated rogue somewhere between Jesse James and Dorothy Parker…he didn’t have an actual story to tell about them. The show just rambled interminably with a go-nowhere series of picaresque ‘adventures’ that were never really exciting or entertaining.
The show also had the mother of all dud openings—it tried to strike a tone of optimism and adventure, but the first two scenes featured three onstage deaths between them. I can see what drew Sondheim to this material…the colorful main characters and their important parts in American history must have made the show seem irresistible on paper…but ultimately, all we got were these two extremely interesting characters who never actually got to do anything interesting.
The only reason this show has actual fans is because it has a score by Sondheim, and while the truth is that this is probably Sondheim’s least interesting score, even third-rate Sondheim really does hold up surprisingly well. Granted, “Opportunity”, the inappropriate comedy number sung at the leads’ father’s deathbed, is pretty dire. True also, “What’s Your Rush?” is basically a recycled version of the song Michelle Pawk sang in Merrily We Roll Along, “Growing Up”, the busy but empty sequence “I Love This Town” seems to have been released half-finished, and the sweet ballad “You” does get sort of buried under a bunch of unnecessary dialogue.
But the title-song is quite catchy, and the leads also share the clever contrapuntal number “Gold”, and a soaring, moving final duet, “Get Out of My Life”. Wilson gets to express his personal philosophy in the stirring “The Game”, while “Addison’s Trip”, with its catchy “I’m on my way” refrain, details Addison’s personal journey of self-discovery. In this version of the material, Wilson and Michele Pawk’s Nellie also share the attractive duet “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened”.
The boys’ mother was played in the Broadway-bound production by famed Hollywood singing star Jane Powell, and Sondheim provided her with some of the best material, such as the beautiful waltz “My Two Young Men” and the exquisite “Isn’t He Something?” Addison’s love interest Hollis, played by Gavin Creel, also gets a strong number in the striking character piece “Talent”. The show also made impressive use of complex musical scenes, particularly in the climactic “Boca Raton” sequence.
And because the characters themselves were so interesting, the show gave marvelous performing opportunities to its leads. The original choices for the roles had been Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, but they could hardly have done a better job than Richard Kind, whose singing voice is iffy but who gave a beautifully honest and touching performance as Addison, or Howard McGillin, who played Wilson not as an opportunist, but a committed idealist whose ideal is seizing opportunity. I can think of any number of hits with weaker scores than this, and whatever the flaws of the actual show, the Bounce cast album is highly collectible and should be snapped up by any devoted Sondheim fan.
The revised edition of the show that played off-Broadway a few years later, entitled Road Show, took a much more bitter and negative overall approach. Apparently Sondheim thought embracing the show’s darker and more cynical qualities would fix all its problems, but while Road Show is tighter and neater than Bounce, it’s also gratuitously unpleasant, with the earlier version’s adventurous optimism replaced with depression and self-hatred. It also transformed Bounce’s title-song into the much more downbeat “Waste”, and in spite of its catchy melody, the fact remains that the show now opens and closes with the sentiment, “God, what a waste”, which is probably an unwise way to bookend your show.
On the other hand, it did make some improvements to the score, replacing its one outright dud, “Opportunity”, with the impressive “It’s In Your Hands Now”, adding a touching duet called “Brotherly Love”, and fleshing out the unfulfilled “I Love This Town” sequence into the much more satisfying “That Was a Year”. It also gave “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” to Addison and Hollis instead of Wilson and the no-longer-appearing-in-this-show Nellie, and the number somehow seemed to play better for it.
Road Show featured leads as strong as those in Bounce in Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, although their supporting cast was much less interesting. Still, the show was if anything even more unwatchable than before, and it’s rather unfortunate that Sondheim has concluded that he’s done all the re-writing he needs to, although frankly I have my doubts that the show is really fixable at this point. In any case, the score lives on, especially on the superior Bounce cast album, and if vindication as a cult flop is all that the show will ever receive, I for one can live with that.