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Making Sondheim Sing: Interview with Michael Mahler, Music Director of Chicago Shakespeare's Road Show

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Beginning March 13, Chicago Shakespeare Theater will debut a revised version of Road Show, a show that Chicago audiences first saw in 2003 at the Goodman Theatre, albeit with a very different book, a modified score and a different title.

I caught that production (then called Bounce), and felt it had big problems, but real promise. This musical, which celebrates the quest to achieve the American dream as told by the true story of the Mizner brothers, never quite found its narrative center, despite a pedigree of Stephen Sondheim as composer, John Weidman as bookwriter and Hal Prince as director. Bounce felt like a collection of songs and scenes (some of them quite brilliant) with no firm point of view.

Prior to Bounce, the show was workshopped as Wise Guys as well as Gold!, playing off the 1930s Gold Rush period the story centers around. Post Bounce, the show, which clearly became a quest for success unto itself by the creative team, emerged as Road Show, and received a respectable run Off-Broadway in 2008 under the streamlined guidance of director John Doyle. The show continues to be of great interest to musical theatre lovers, mostly as it's Sondheim's most recent effort, and we are rooting for its success.

Now the show returns, in yet another revised format, to Chicago, and I had the chance to speak with the production's Music Director, Michael Mahler, about the show's evolution and musical language.

Road Show, Bounce, Wise Guys, Gold!. What version of this show are we seeing? While Sondheim fans know the show changed considerably from when it was at the Goodman back in 2003 as Bounce, is CST's version different from the latest high-profile production of the material back in 2008 Off-Broadway?

The production at CST will be Road Show, the latest version from 2008 Off-Broadway. Our director, Gary Griffin has been talking with book writer John Weidman about places where he wants to explore restoring some cut material, so the show may undergo yet another rewrite on our watch, but the title will remain the same.

To me, when I saw the show back at the Goodman, the show resembled Into the Woods in that it was a quest musical -- and there were a few musical themes that seemed similar to the jaunty title tune. How do you feel this score fits into the overall Sondheim canon?

That's really interesting -- when I listen to Road Show I can't help but hear it as a culmination of all his scores up to that point. There are moments like that sound very Assassins to me, with an Aaron Copland-y Americana feel. There are moments that sound very Follies and Merrily We Roll Along with languid torch song or frenetic New York rhythms. And there are moments with the raw rhapsodic emotionality of the climax of Sunday in the Park with George. I think when you listen to this score, you can hear Sondheim having a lot of fun pulling from a vast grab-bag of influences to tell this story, which takes audiences all the way from the Yukon to Hawaii to Guatemala to Boca Raton.

Stephen Sondheim himself has mentioned his frustration and heartache getting this show "right." Why do you think this show has had such a winding path?

I think it's really difficult to structure a musical around two anti-heroes who do despicable things, because in the end you still need the audience to care about them. I also find it to be a very deeply personal show about family, the relationship between two brothers, and how that can define you and your path in life. Perhaps the deeply personal nature of the material resonated with the creators in a way that demanded they take great care in realizing it. Maybe it's because I, myself, am the oldest of four siblings, but I think their work has paid off in a show that strikes a truly resonant, emotional chord, while maintaining the buoyancy of the characters and the era they inhabited.

Have you re-orchestrated this show? What are you doing to, presumably, pare it down for CST's Upstairs space?

The show is structured around a wake -- people show up at the beginning to pay their respects and relate the ways in which they were variously duped and used by the main characters. We're taking that inspiration and running with it -- as the ensemble arrives to create this story, they will begin to pick up and use what they need to tell it, including musical instruments. For example, when we need to go to the Yukon, one of our cast members will grab a violin and play the bluegrass riff that immediately clues the ear in to where we're headed. Someone else will pick up a banjo. Ukuleles will help to establish when we're in Hawaii, guitars and maracas will help set the scene in Guatemala, etc.

The orchestrations will be pared down but feel full, and you will see the music being created by the ensemble in an ever-surprising, not-gimmicky way. In this manner we will also attempt to fulfill the theme of "talent" that runs through the show, as our cast members get to display their various instrumental talents as the show unfolds. It won't be exactly like John Doyle's Sweeny Todd and Company, in which everybody played instruments pretty much the whole time -- many moments will be just singers and a piano (and will still feel full and supported, because Sondheim puts everything you need into his piano parts). But the rough-and-ready feel of the orchestrations will support the rough magic of the storytelling, and the audience will delight in being able to watch this ensemble of performers create the tale of the Meisners before their very eyes.

You have a band -- The Lincoln Squares. How does that influence your musical style when it comes to working on project like this?

Being in a band has helped me think collaboratively and democratically about music. I am really excited to find ways to realize this score with this cast, utilizing their individual skills to the fullest in service to this music.

I see you're working on new lyrics for the highly anticipated London remounting on Miss Saigon. Tell me about how you landed that gig!

A director friend of mine, David H. Bell, wanted to bring La Revolution Francaise, the musical that Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil wrote before Les Miserables, to Northwestern University. He asked me to do the lyrics because it had never been translated into English. Through that project I met Claude-Michel and Alain. I guess they liked my work, because when they started looking for a lyricist to update the Miss Saigon libretto for the upcoming West End revival, I got a call from Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks like this is your first Sondheim musical you've music directed. What do you find particularly challenging/interesting/unique about working on Sondheim show -- especially considering you are a composer/musician yourself? What have you learned along the way?

I've never music directed a Sondheim musical before, but I've been lucky enough to perform as an actor in Assassins and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. With these scores, like with a Shakespeare script, all the work has been done for you. Every note and rhythm and accent and inflection have been meticulously thought and mapped out, and if the actor simply does her homework and honors what is on the page, the characters spring vividly to life. It makes the music directors job simultaneously hard and easy -- I have to be vigilant in keeping the actors and the band honest, but I also have to let go and let the score do its work, because my job is not to rewrite or improve (impossible) but to honor what is written. I will have succeeded if you don't notice I did anything.

"Road Show" plays through May 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Upstairs space. More info here >