A new recording of a Stephen Sondheim show is always a reason to, if not celebrate, at least pay attention. And when the show itself is new, or at least contains a significant amount of fresh material, even better. So, although Road Show could not, in the strictest sense of the word, be called new, it does represent a chance to witness the latest work by our greatest living composer and lyricist.
As you may know, Road Show is the most recent version of a musical that Sondheim and librettist John Weidman have been working on for years. In fact, the score has already been recorded, under the title Bounce. Which means that we musical-theater mavens now have a terrific opportunity to compare the two recordings and witness how the show has developed over time.
Of course, the experience would be that much better if the show itself were any good. Alas, it is not. In comparing the two recordings, it's clear that the show has improved greatly since its out-of-town tryouts in Chicago and Washington, DC. Most of the changes and cuts have been for the better. But ultimately Road Show will likely take its place alongside such fascinating Sondheim failures as Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along: musical works that have a tremendous amount going for them, but somehow never have, and never will, work as shows.
As is true with most Sondheim scores, repeated hearings of the Road Show recording have revealed a great deal of substance and subtext. I was particularly struck by Sondheim's use of leitmotif, or in this particular case contrafactum: the songs "Gold" and "Land Boom" share the same melody, as do a few other sections of the show that all connote some sort of persuasion or salesmanship. Although most of the show's ballads remain colorless and dull, Sondheim has tuned up considerably the show's uptempo musical sequences, including "Addison's Trip" and "I Love This Town," which here becomes the rousing "That Was a Year." There have also been a number of wisely excised numbers in the transition from Bounce to Road Show, including "Opportunity," "What's Your Rush," and "Next to You."
But I'm still left with the same overall impression I had when I saw the show at the Public Theater: that this is a show that must have seemed compelling on paper, but that fails to bring its characters and subject matter to sympathetic life. (Read my review) The key problem with Road Show is that we don't care about these people. I watched the show and listened to the CD with academic interest, but I never found myself actually feeling for anyone, despite the cast of theater pros, led by Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris.
Of course, Stephen Sondheim could stop working entirely and still be the most important figure in musical theater of the past 50 years. His contributions to the form have been immeasurable, both in terms of his own professional output and his influence on other creators. How fortunate we would be if he could someday create another show on par with his best. If not, his rich and ample body of work remains to satisfy and inspire for generations to come.