A show called “Wise Guys” was announced with fanfare in 1995 as the Kennedy Center commissioned Stephen Sondheim to write a new musical to premiere the following year, opening the 1996-97 season as the august arts compound turned 25.


Left to right: Erin Driscoll, Angela Miller and Matthew Schleigh rehearsing the globe-trotting "Road Show" at Signature Theatre. (Amanda Voisard)

Since then it’s bounced around as the most heavily revised project of Sondheim’s career. Finally in a shape that makes Sondheim and librettist John Weidman happy, the musical — now called “Road Show” — is having its belated regional quasi-premiere at Signature Theatre, just down the river from the Kennedy Center, which this year turns 45.

Audiences with long memories will recall the musical as “Bounce” when it ran at the Kennedy Center in 2003. Back then it still had such Broadway dreams that it even reunited Sondheim with his longtime pal and director, Harold Prince. But the story about two very different brothers finding fame and misfortune all across early 20th-century America — a real-life saga that had tantalized Sondheim since he was in his early 20s — was still in such unsettled shape that it sank out of sight for five more years.

The 2008 production at New York’s Public Theater was stripped lean by Sondheim and Weidman and directed by John Doyle, and the writers declared themselves happy. But if that “fixed” it, why is “Road Show” still barely inching through the theatrical landscape eight years later?

When it comes to the legendary Sondheim, “we have unreasonable expectations,” suggests Gary Griffin, who directed “Road Show” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2014 and is expanding on that production at Signature.

Griffin liked “Bounce” when it ran at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre before it moved to the Kennedy Center, and was surprised at the tepid reaction back then. “The show was far better, I promise, than the responses I heard,” he says. “But the disappointment was extreme.”

The show’s plot is based on New Yorker magazine articles and Alva Johnston’s 1953 book “The Legendary Mizners,” which featured whimsical line drawings by Reginald Marsh. Wilson Mizner — the last name is pronounced with a long “i,” as in “wise guy” — was a con artist and womanizer who usually eclipsed his gay brother Addison, though Addison eventually found a niche (as he sings it) designing tony homes in the emerging 1920s Florida enclave of Boca Raton.

Sondheim has written that he wanted to compose something “jazzy and edgy,” and “Road Show” has some of the pep of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Americana of “Assassins,” even touches of “Sunday in the Park with George” as Addison explores his creative side. (Fans wanting chapter and verse on all the versions of this show are directed to Sondheim’s comprehensive retelling in “Finishing the Hat.”) The story’s sweep across the decades made Weidman a likely collaborator; together they had made “Pacific Overtures” and “Assassins.”

That original Kennedy Center announcement only slowly led to readings and to a 1999 public workshop with Nathan Lane as Addison and Victor Garber as Wilson, then to a new title (“Gold!”), a lawsuit with a producer, the broad “Bounce” and ultimately the compact “Road Show,” now so economical that the score is played by an onstage pianist, with actors occasionally playing instruments. Since Chicago Shakespeare and Signature are putting it in view, will “Road Show” finally begin to find a bigger constituency?


The latest cast of "Road Show" rehearsing Signature Theatre. (Amanda Voisard)

“I certainly am making a lot of calls and asking people to come,” Griffin says. “I’m sure they’re still waiting to hear what the reaction is.”

These were the stops along the way:

1999, “Wise Guys”: An informal but public three-week test at New York Theatre Workshop

The workshop followed a series of readings and was directed by Sam Mendes, a rising star at London’s Donmar Warehouse but also just then making his Hollywood name with “American Beauty.” Vaudeville was an influence because vaudeville’s rise and fall coincided with that of the Mizners.

“We’re gonna sing and dance our way right into your hearts,” Garber can be heard saying to the audience in bootleg YouTube clips from the performance. “Not bad for a couple of dead guys,” Lane quips. The story is a posthumous flashback of Wilson and Addison grappling with family dynamics and American ambition.

A Broadway date was announced and then scrapped. Still, Sondheim writes that the workshop “was not the mess the chatterati made it out to be.”

2003, “Bounce”: A full production in Chicago and Washington

WHAT’S NEW: The title, Harold Prince, and a girl.

Prince and Sondheim had not worked together since the stunning 1970s partnership that created “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd” snapped after the 1981 “Merrily We Roll Along.” With Richard Kind as Addison and Howard McGillin as Wilson, “Bounce” was big, featuring 19 actors and 35 musicians. The chief rewrite gave Wilson a gaudy romantic interest named Nellie, played by a sultry Michele Pawk.


Nellie (Michele Pawk), a saloon girl during the Alaskan Gold Rush, asks Wilson Mizner (Howard McGillin) "What's Your Rush?" in this scene from the 2003 Goodman Theatre's production of "Bounce," which transferred to the Kennedy Center. (Liz Lauren)

“We have taken the kind of liberty that you take in musical theater,” Weidman told The Washington Post at the time. “We feel that we’ve been absolutely true to who these guys were and the way they circled each other, supported each other, undermined each other and in a way ultimately destroyed each other.”

In scale the show felt like the kind of substantial old-fashioned musical comedy — if shorter on laughs and dancing than that suggests — that might somehow trundle to Broadway.

Postscript: Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer was approached later by Sondheim and Weidman, and though the collaboration was brief, he directed a reading at Public. “I loved the first version,” Schaeffer says from New York, where he is directing a workshop of the musical “King Kong.” “I thought that was the way to go.”

2008, “Road Show,” Public Theater

WHAT’S NEW: The title, director John Doyle . . . and that girl, she’s gone. The show is streamlined to 17 actors, 13 musicians, 90 minutes, no intermission. Changes include the new “Brotherly Love” in the Yukon and, going back to the earlier “Wise Guys,” “In Your Hands Now,” sung by Papa Mizner and in Griffin’s estimation setting up key themes about American success for his boys (Alexander ­Gemignani as Addison and Michael Cerveris as Wilson). A “Bounce” love song between Wilson and Nellie is now sung by Addison and his love interest, Hollis.


“Road Show” in 2008 at the Public Theater in New York, directed by John Doyle (Joan Marcus)

The writing is finished. Reviews were still mixed; The Post’s Peter Marks called it “sour and strained.” The show is little heard from in the United States for another six years.

2014, “Road Show,” Chicago Shakespeare Upstairs

WHAT’S NEW: This staging pared Doyle’s compressed version even further, featuring 11 actors. Griffin envisioned the score being played by a single piano; eventually he added several more instruments, mostly strings, played by some of the cast.


2014: Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s intimate “Road Show,” driven by a piano and with seating for 190 (Liz Lauren)

“They’re not trying to become an orchestra,” Griffin explains. “An instrument tells you we’re in the Yukon, or we’re in New York, or we’re in Florida.” He adds that there is a “Noises Off” backstage frenzy at times as the actors manage the costume logistics of a story sweeping across time, and also maybe playing a fiddle or percussion.

Scott Davis says the goal of his design in the small space was speedy transitions and creating an almost physical connection with the audience. The story may span the world in a song like “Addison’s Trip” (which alights in Hawaii and Guatemala, among other locales), yet the appeal boils down to something personal.

“It’s about these two guys,” Davis says, laughing at the simplicity of the description. Spare as it was, the look was a little show-bizzy, with lights around the frame of a world map.

But even in Chicago Shakespeare’s 190-seat second stage, Griffin says, “we didn’t want to leave it out there exposed.” “Road Show” was packaged with “Gypsy” (on the big main stage) as part of rep billed “Sondheim’s America.” The critical response was positive, and “Road Show” sold better than expected.

“Quietly profound,” pronounced the Chicago Tribune in an enthusiastic review.

2016, Signature Theatre

WHAT’S NEW: The scale, moderately bigger than in Chicago, where the audience was no more than two rows from the action. Davis’s set has added footlights around the stage and a good deal of height, with a pair of spiral staircases on either side of a two-level wooden structure.


Left to right: Sherri Edelen as Mama Mizner, Noah Racey as Wilson Mizner and Josh Lamon as Addison Mizner rehearsing at Signature. Scott Davis’s set design has more height at Signature than it did in Chicago. (Amanda Voisard)

Still, the audience is a mere five rows deep (with a two-row balcony) as the 319-seat Max stage is currently set up.

From “Bounce” to “Road Show,” Schaeffer says, “the scale and the tone are a lot different. It’s so focused on the brothers now. I find it much more emotional. And the writing is just so pinpointed.”

Schaeffer saw Griffin’s production and called Sondheim about it. “He said, ‘Nothing would make me happier than to see that production live on,’ ” Schaeffer says. Sondheim recently told Mark Horowitz (author of “Sondheim on Music”) that “Road Show” could be done big, “if someone wants to spend the money.” Griffin agrees.

“I absolutely think this show could be done fuller-scale in a Broadway house,” Griffin says. “It’s just that, right now, this is the scale that people are ready to say yes to.”

Road Show Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman. Through March 13 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets $40-$87, subject to change. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.