Dear Stephen Sondheim, Ouch!

I don’t know what happened. I wanted to love the new musical based on the real lives of Addison and Wilson Mizner (two brothers, one was the architect responsible for Mediterranean Revival-style resort homes of Palm Beach and Boca, and the other a cardsharp, boxing manager, Broadway playwright, investor in the Brown Derby and all-around con artist, respectively). The premise was interesting: the brothers each follow their own roads: Addison’s is met with what seems like a never-ending string of failures, Wilson’s with a sugarmama who bankrolled his every whim. The roles soon reverse when Addison gains his footing as an architect in south Florida (and a sugarboy), while Wilson’s wife kicks him to the curb.

The two brothers eventually reconnect when a poor, sickly Wilson shows up at healthy, wealthy Addison’s door, and they team up to build/create their own city, Boca Raton (mouth of the rat), with Addison designing and Wilson selling. Given Wilson’s history and penchant for weaving a good yarn, one can guess where this is all leading.

The score was, well, even if I don’t like a musical, chances are I’ll still leave the theater humming a tune or remembering a few words from a song. Unfortunately I only remember one word from the “big” number: gold. And, I think, appropriately enough, the song is actually titled “Gold.”

On a positive note, the costumes are quite inventive. Each member of the chorus wears something specific to the period (1918-1920’s) but printed on the cream-colored fabric are blueprints of actual Mizner homes. It’s a really cool look and a nice detail.rs_slide

But why doesn’t this musical work, exactly? That’s a question I’ve kept turning over in my mind for the past 24 hours and I think I’ve figured out the answer. The autobiographical quality of two brothers gaining and losing everything is fascinating, as is their relationship. But it’s also the story of two brothers that gain and then lose everything. People like rooting for the underdog, so once Addison succeeds, we’re done rooting for him and Wilson’s not like able enough to want to root for at all. And, once they start to lose money because of their greed, we don’t like either of them and aren’t invested or interested in them enough to care.

When you work on a musical for 30 years, like Sondheim did with this one, and I truly admire his passion and sticktuitiveness, sometimes it’s just better to stick it back in the drawer.  It’s no longer the earnest work of a 25-year-old, rather it’s the over thought, overly earnest work of a 78-year-old man. The worst part is, the failure of this production isn’t just in the writing, it’s in the directing, acting from the chorus, and perhaps even a little bit of the fault of the Public Theater. Due to the architecture of the theater space, there really aren’t any wings to the stage, so everyone is onstage at all times and they look bored. You, as the audience, are completely aware of how bored they are. It seems like every member of the chorus can’t wait to go home and go to bed. And soon enough, the audience starts to feel the same way.

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