Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sondheim's Saturday Night

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sondheim's Saturday Night SATURDAY NIGHT (First Night)

SATURDAY NIGHT (First Night)

It's not every day that a previously unrecorded Stephen Sondheim score gets its first cast album. The saga of Saturday Night has been well documented elsewhere: Concerning the misadventures, romantic and otherwise, of some young denizens of Brooklyn in 1929, the show was to have marked Sondheim's Broadway debut in 1955, but was cancelled when producer Lemuel Ayers died. Instead of making his debut with both music and lyrics, as was to have been the case with Saturday Night, Sondheim wound up doing only the lyrics for his first Broadway shows, which turned out to be two of the greatest in history, West Side Story and Gypsy. And nothing became of plans announced in 1959 to resuscitate Saturday Night, with Bob Fosse as the potential director and lead, and Jule Styne and Joseph Kipness producing.

As even Sondheim's immature works reveal a talent of monumental proportions, it was inevitable that songs from Saturday Night would surface in various tributes and recordings. Many of them have been available for some time on such sets as Marry Me A Little, Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, A Stephen Sondheim Evening, and Unsung Sondheim. And the entire score has long been familiar to hard-core Sondheim fans in the form of two widely-circulated audio cassettes, one of Sondheim performing the songs, the other of an actual '50s backers audition, with Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley, Arte Johnson, Leila Martin, and Dick Kallman among the performers.

But it was not until last December that the show was given its world premiere, at London's Bridewell Theater, and the recently released cast album of that production is bound to be one of First Night Records' biggest sellers, as every Sondheim fan -- no matter how much of the score they already know -- will want to hear it. Saturday Night will receive its U.S. premiere this season by Chicago's Pegasus Players, and it's only a matter of time before New York sees it in some form; rumor has it that "Encores!" is thinking about it for Sondheim's 70th birthday in 2000.

The Bridewell production was small-scale, with just five musicians (augmented by one for the recording) and a youthful cast boasting no major West End names (although Tracie Bennett won an Olivier Award for her Ilona in the London She Loves Me revival, Anna Francolini was Marta in the Donmar Warehouse/Sam Mendes Company, and Simon Greiff is currently in Saturday Night Fever at the Palladium). While the Saturday Night score is far more conventional than anything Sondheim would ever do again, it's quality material all the way, with beguiling melodies and extremely sharp words. It's fascinating to hear him working within the parameters of standard, '50s-style material ("One Wonderful Day" could be the most straightforward, old-school Broadway song he ever composed), excelling at it, then tweaking those traditions and beginning to move beyond them.

The performance here is enthusiastic, pleasant, but undistinguished; compare Francolini's broad "Isn't It?" to Victoria Mallory's lovely rendition on A S.S. Evening, or Jack Cassidy and Susan Browning doing "So Many People" on the Musical Tribute to the rendition here (Cassidy's thrilling rendition of Saturday Night's "Class" at the latter event was unfortunately left off both the LP and CD releases). And the cast's Brooklyn accents tend to be shaky and/or overdone.

One can imagine a more exciting rendition of the score with a full orchestration and a hand-picked cast (the kind of thing it will no doubt get if "Encores!" does it). And it's surprising that the new set includes neither printed lyrics nor a synopsis of the (admittedly convoluted and less-than- riotous) plot. But recording this premiere production was to be expected, and the charm of the score compensates for any shortcomings of the performance at hand.


ROSEMARY ASHE: THE KILLER SOPRANO (Dress Circle)

In addition to creating the role of diva Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, Rosemary Ashe has been seen in London as Cunegonde in Candide and Manon in Bitter Sweet among others. Able to shift with ease from legit operatic soprano to conventional theatre sound, and known in the trade as a madcap, campy lady, Ashe shows off all voices and sides in an extremely wide- ranging program on her new solo CD.

The legit sound is evident in "What Good Would The Moon Be?" from Street Scene and an aria from Noel Coward's Conversation Piece. Her comic side is represented by a "Minute Waltz," Dolly Parton's "PMT Blues," and several pieces of raucous special material. There are such theatre numbers as "Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10" (cut from Sweet Charity), "He Had Refinement" (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), "Guess Who I Saw Today" (New Faces of '52), "Crossword Puzzle" (Starting Here, Starting Now), and two from Getting My Act Together. Dramatically illustrating her range in a single number, she performs both Anita and Maria on "A Boy Like That"/ "I Have A Love."

Ashe's U.S. counterpart would have to be Judy Kaye, who was the first Broadway Carlotta, and would be capable of handling a similar program. Ashe sometimes sounds a good deal like Kaye, although Ashe has a less attractive tone and may have lost some of the vocal bloom that Kaye retains. But Ashe is certainly a versatile talent and a presence.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com