London Hears Sondheim's Long-Lost Saturday Night

London Hears Sondheim's Long-Lost Saturday Night With favorable reviews from the London papers, the world premiere production of Stephen Sondheim's 1950s musical Saturday Night is selling out through its Jan. 24 closing date.

With favorable reviews from the London papers, the world premiere production of Stephen Sondheim's 1950s musical Saturday Night is selling out through its Jan. 24 closing date.

The musical opened at the tiny Bridewell Theater on Dec. 17, 1997. Saturday Night was written by Sondheim when he was in his early 20s, and it would have been his first score on Broadway. When the producer died, the show was abandoned, and Sondheim, who had moved on to other works, declined to have it produced. But he finally yielded to the requests of the Bridewell's artistic director, Carol Metcalfe.

Paul Salsini, editor of The Sondheim Review, was at the opening and in the Winter 1998 issue gives these answers to what he called the obvious questions:

"Was it worth being resurrected?
"Yes. The conventional score, heard complete and in context for the first time, reveals some of the lyric and musical innovations that would mark Sondheim's later work. Julius Epstein's book tells a surprisingly compelling, if ultimately melodramatic, story.

"Would the show work elsewhere?
"Saturday Night is very much of its time, and should be recognized as a period piece. Too intimate for the West End or Broadway, it could enjoy a limited run in another fringe theater in London, off-Broadway or in a small regional theater. It would more likely attract those interested in seeing Sondheim's early work than audiences for a period musical comedy. "Should the score be recorded?
"Definitely--and preferably with the Bridewell cast. Although some of the songs have been recorded individually by others over the years, this would be the first time that the entire score would be heard. The vocal quality of the Bridewell cast may vary, but there is a youthful energy that should be preserved. And, of course, show album collectors crave original cast recordings--even if they are more than 40 years overdue."

Actually, record producers are looking at the show for possible recording, Metcalfe told Salsini last week.

The Sondheim Review article continues:

"The Bridewell is a tiny theater, seating 133 for this production. Once a Victorian swimming pool, it is on a winding little alley off Fleet Street. The stage was at one end, the tiny band down in a corner of what had been the pool.

"Based on the play 'Front Porch in Flatbush' by Epstein and his brother Philip, Saturday Night is set in 1929 and tells the story of neighborhood boys in Brooklyn and their quest for dates. The main focus is Gene, a Wall Street runner, and his dreams of escaping to a high society life. In trying to do so, he spends the money his friends have given him to invest in the stock market, illegally sells his cousin's car and winds up running from the cops. It's only because of Helen, herself a dreamer but with her feet firmly planted in Brooklyn, that he realizes what he has.

"Because the show did not get past backers' auditions, the authors hadn't finished it in the '50s. Epstein, now close to 90 years old and living in California, had planned to revise and edit the script but was felled by a stroke only weeks before rehearsals were to begin.

"'He was so excited about it,' Metcalfe said. 'This was a play about his brother and he had the same affection for the whole piece that he had for his brother. He said, 'I can't believe it's happening after all these years.' He had booked a flight on the Concorde and would have been here all week. I feel very sad."

"Working from a 1959 script, Metcalfe and co-director Clive Paget did some editing, but the production still ran close to three hours including an intermission. (On the second night, the theater experimented with having two intermissions so the first act wouldn't be as long.)"

Salsini's article also said:

"Length, for this viewer, was only part of the problem. Getting a date for Saturday night does not seem to be a major issue for the '90s, so the show seemed grounded in a far more innocent era. More annoying, the constant bickering by the boys over who would pay for the dates got to be tedious, not to mention sexist. Who would want to go out with these guys anyway?

"The boys' brutal treatment of Gene's cousin Pinhead, crucial for the outcome of the plot, seemed baffling. The Act Two night club scene was especially long and introduced new and extraneous characters.

"Finally, for a musical comedy, Saturday Night needs to be funnier. On opening night, the audience found more laughs in Sondheim's lyrics than in the book."

"Working from a piano-vocal score, Peter Corrigan wrote the orchestrations, and music supervisor Mark Warman made the five-piece band sound bigger than it was.

"The simple basic set of the front porch in Brooklyn by Bridget Kimak opened up to a hotel lobby, the front of a movie theater, the Sutton Place apartment, a night club and a police station. Kimak also designed the costumes; if the characters were seen wearing the same outfits on three successive Saturday nights, the argument could be made that they wore their best clothes, not that the production budget was small.

"The show was cast with young London professionals. Perhaps best known was Tracie Bennett, who won an Olivier Award for her role in She Loves Me. Here, Bennett made Celeste more than the stock best-friend character. Anna Francolini, who was Marta in the Donmar Warehouse's recent Company, brought a harder edge to Helen than might have been expected from the script. If Sam Newman, as Gene, lacked that edge, he demonstrated a youthful naivete that made the audience care about his dreams.

"The week before the opening, Sondheim arrived for the first dress rehearsal, worked with the cast on the next day and attended the first preview.

"'He helped us get a balance between the play, which is a romantic comedy, and how you can carry the dramatic thrust through the songs,' Metcalfe said.

Paget added: 'He felt very strongly about having less movement in the songs, to have a stress on the words.'

The Sondheim Review also included comments from London critics:

Jeremy Kingston in The Times:
"At three hours the show is too long for its content, but presumably a feeling for its historical interest discouraged leaving anything out. Catching snatches of the later Sondheim in the twists of the music and the dapper rhymes is certainly fun. 'I was pouring coffee, you lit a cigarette. After that I forget.' The conversational tone is unmistakable, as is the skill at slipping everyday experiences into a song which will then be repeated from a second, tarter point of view. . .
"The lyrics sometimes show Sondheim putting an ironic take on this tale of the American's right to be ambitious, so long as he finally settles for love and the childhood neighborhood. One of the buddies sings 'All of us are for hoods!,' but he means motherhood, etc. The characters are a million blocks from the Jets and Sharks Sondheim would soon be giving voice to. . .
"The occasion is gently pleasant but one can see why Sondheim was content to turn his attention elsewhere all those years ago."

Michael Billington in The Guardian:
"Astonishing to find a Sondheim musical getting its world premiere in a disused swimming baths off Fleet Street. But Saturday Night, which he wrote in the early 1950s and later discarded, turns out to be much more than a piece of suppressed juvenilia: It is both enjoyable in itself and full of signs of the Sondheim to come.

"No one, least of all Sondheim himself, would claim that Saturday Night is a major work. But it has charm, freshness and wit, and it counters heedless pre-Depression innocence with a tart lyric irony. One particular number, 'A Moment With You,' is also as gaily melodic as anything in the later work. . .
"The show is a feather in the Bridewell's cap, and although a trifle long at three hours, deserves to draw more than dedicated Sondheimites."

Michael White in the Sunday Independent:
"I can see why Sondheim held back. It's a slight piece--a sort of 'Friends' in period flocks--about a group of 1920s Brooklyn housemates looking for love. Much of the music is standard '50s Broadway, with no distinctive Sondheim number until a love duet, 'So Many People,' near the end of Act One. But the shape of Sondheim's melody--the scooping-upward leaps and angular descents--is embryonically apparent.
"So is the shape of his storytelling, with fantasy commentaries intercut into the action. And so is the tone: detached, ironic, puncturing passion with sour harmonies and sawing (as opposed to soaring) lines. The central characters edge awkwardly toward true love through self-delusion and pretense: It could be Wagner on the cheap. And there are more Wagnerian comparisons in the length of the piece (three hours) and its pace (slow).
"But that said, Saturday Night comes with show-stoppable lyrics that pour out of the mouths of characters who would never have such verbal virtuosity in real life. There's one vintage Sondheim song, 'What More Do I Need?' And although this Bridewell premiere is modest, on a postage-stamp-sized stage that can't accommodate the fantasy effects and with cast members not long out of theater school, it captures the off-Broadway, workshop circumstances which the show seems to anticipate. It feels right. And beyond mere fascination, it's a joy to see and hear, with cute performances all round, especially from Tracie Bennett, Sam Newman and (cutest of all) James Millard."

-- Used Courtesy The Sondheim Review