ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's New Saturday Night and Two Reissues

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's New Saturday Night and Two Reissues SATURDAY NIGHT (Nonesuch 79609-2)

SATURDAY NIGHT (Nonesuch 79609-2)

Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night, after languishing unperformed for four decades, has now received its second full recording in less than two years. As welcome as the semi-professional world premiere album from London's Bridewell Theatre was, this new recording is the real thing. With a first class New York cast and a full set of Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, this new Saturday Night CD is a breezy delight.

This is the show with which young Sondheim hoped to storm Broadway back during the first Eisenhower administration. Producer, Lem Ayers of Kiss Me, Kate, was unable to raise the backing. When he died unexpectedly in 1955, Saturday Night was consigned to oblivion. This winter's off-Broadway production by the Second Stage Theatre Company demonstrated that the material displayed such good-natured charm, you were impelled to overlook the show's flaws. Saturday Night is perfect for stock & amateur and high school productions, what with its perky music, exceedingly clever lyrics, good-natured story, easy-to-cast roles, and modest physical demands. This new disc, in addition to pleasing Sondheim fans here and there and everywhere, will no doubt encourage numerous productions.

The score is pleasant, although understandably on the lower end of the Sondheim scale. The title song, a nifty quartet, is impressive by 1955 or even 1999 standards; and "So Many People" is the earliest of those bittersweet Sondheimesque ballads. Two songs have been added which are not on the London album, "Montana Chem." -- a new, well-fashioned concerted number less in the style of Saturday Nightthan Sunday in the Park -- and the incidental "Delighted, I'm Sure." The cast is first-rate, led by David Campbell as the class-conscious Gene and Lauren Ward as the Southern Belle who turns out to be from Brooklyn as well (and who does such a swell job on "So Many People"). Andrea Burns and Christopher Fitzgerald stand out amongst the others.

Not the least of Saturday Night's charms are Tunick's orchestrations (under the musical direction of Rob Fisher). Tunick has been allowed to expand his Second Stage charts to twenty-six pieces, including fifteen strings, and he has a field day. These are probably his happiest set of chart's since Smith in 1973. Typically, he undertakes intellectual, progressive musicals, and nobody does it better. Here, for once, Tunick just seems to want to have fun -- and he does. (If I'm not mistaken, his Overture pays homage to his mentor, Robert Ginzler.) So Sondheim fans will surely want to get this disc. The finest "new" score heard in New York last season wasn't Saturday Night, though; nor was it heard on Broadway at all. It was way downtown on East Fourth Street, where Sondheim's Wise Guys played a month of workshops. Wise Guys was presented in an unfinished state, and one assumes much of it will be different by the time it goes back into production. But the score had some exceptional work, folks. While it is impossible to judge such a thing on one or two incomplete hearings, Sondheim seems to have come up with a new method of musical theatre storytelling-through song. I suppose it's too late to hope for a pre-Broadway cast-album-in progress, but it's the sort of thing Nonesuch's Bob Hurwitz and Tommy Krasker could surely do very well. (Whether it is worth Mr. Sondheim's while to lavish his time on this is another question.) Yes, we would all rather wait for the final, finished, Broadway version of Wise Guys to be recorded; but that could easily take a couple of years or more. A Sondheim song, in my view, is not unlike a Cezanne painting. Especially some of the songs in Wise Guys! It would be a shame for us to lose these portraits in words and music just because the show itself is unfinished.

SARATOGA (RCA Victor 09026-63690-2)

A lazy New Orleans trumpet solo is heard at the top of Saratoga, with the first track on the album ("One Step, Two Step") really cooking in hot Harold Arlen style. Don't get your hopes up, though. Saratoga -- much of which takes place in New Orleans, actually -- was an enormous mess of a musical, which is quite evident from the recording.

Now, I don't suppose there are many stauncher fans of the Messrs. Arlen and Mercer than myself. Many of their songs, written together or individually, are among my all-time favorites, with two of their collaborations -- "Blues in the Night" and "One for My Baby" -- near the very top of my list. But the 1959 Saratoga came at a bad time for Mercer and an awful time for Arlen. The latter, especially, couldn't cope with the troubles. When the Philadelphia tryout proved a disaster, Arlen simply returned to New York, checked himself into Mt. Sinai, and effectively ended his thirty-year Broadway career. He soon retired altogether, spending his remaining years in a sometimes severe depression until his death in 1986.

Saratoga was meant to be another Show Boat, no less, complete with novelist Edna Ferber in attendance. Imagine Julie LaVerne (the mulatto torch singer) joining forces with Gaylord Ravenal (the roaming riverboat gambler) and heading north to dig up a fortune, and you'll get an idea of what they were aiming for.

What was needed was an Oscar Hammerstein; what they got was Morton Da Costa. DaCosta had directed four impressive hits in a row, including Auntie Mame and The Music Man. He apparently felt he wasn't getting enough credit as merely the director, so he determined to prove the point. (Saratoga is billed above the title as "The MORTON DaCOSTA Production"; the final credit, in a box, is "Dramatized and Directed by MR. DaCOSTA.) DaCosta, who had such a phenomenal run in the late 1950s, never again had a Broadway hit. As for the songwriters, it was like asking the world's best pastry chef to whip up some bouillabaisse without any seafood or even a recipe on hand. They came up with something presentable, but an integrated, dramatic score was clearly beyond their capacities.

The score did include one exquisite moment, the last (of many) great Arlen songs. "Goose Never Be a Peacock" it's called, a free-form, bluesy lament that might be seen as the reverse of Arlen's earlier "The Eagle and Me." It is sung by Carol Brice, one of the finest contraltos ever to grace the Broadway stage, and the song is simply breathtaking. Otherwise, there is a fairly pleasant contrapuntal trio, combining "Love Held Lightly" and "Love Is a Game of Poker," performed by Harold Keel, Carol Lawrence, and 1920s musical comedy star Odette Myrtil. There are also two adequate comedy numbers written solely by Mercer after Arlen left town, including one -- "The Men Who Run the Country" -- showing the lyricist in his Li'l Abner vein. One can only imagine how somber Saratoga was before they added Mercer's "Men Who Run the Country" and "Gettin' a Man." He also provided a not-so-good knockoff of South Pacific's "Twin Soliloquies," but at least Mercer stayed with the show, trying to fix things. (The album credits Arlen with music for these three songs, even though the correct authorship is well documented.) I have had several e-mails regarding comments in my last column about the tendency on some recent reissues to restore the original song sequence to match that of the show. Saratoga is a case where the order has not been restored, and for good reason. By reversing the first two songs, the album starts with a lively production number instead of a negligible solo for Lawrence. (A Parisian prologue was cut in Philadelphia, leaving the show with no true opening number. The Overture -- despite rumors to the contrary -- appears not to have been recorded.) Keel's entrance has been moved ahead on the album, introducing him earlier and breaking up two consecutive Keel/Lawrence duets. Revising song order in this manner can make for a much more satisfying album. With a good show, that is.

All in all, Saratoga was a total loss. Arlen and/or Mercer fans will want the disc anyway, and they'll be rewarded by one great song, at least.

HALF A SIXPENCE (RCA Victor 09026-63691-2)

What is there to be said for a show in which the star comes out and says he'd like to buy a banjo, and then goes into a ridiculously overblown production number about playing a banjo? That's Half a Sixpence, and the point is: It's a great banjo songs, with the star -- Tommy Steele - playing a banjo solo to end all star banjo solos, and the number building and building and building until you, too, dear listener, want to strum a banjo, too. There's an even better number, in which the hero -- who has just made a date for next Sunday -- hopes that it doesn't rain next Sunday. That's it; he hopes it doesn't rain, and they go into something called "If the Rain's Got to Fall" which is a big, old-fashioned cream puff and simply delectable. Not well-made integrated modern musical theatre, exactly, but it works like magic. [Disclaimer: I wrote the liner notes for this CD.]

A fellow named David Heneker -- one of the authors of Irma La Douce -- wrote the show as a vehicle for Tommy Steele, who had already moved from rock and roll stardom to music hall stardom. Half a Sixpence made him a stage star, first in London and then in New York, and then took him on to Hollywood. Steele sings nine of the ten songs on the relatively short cast album of the 1965 Broadway version -- it clocks in at only thirty-seven minutes -- but the show was pretty much all Tommy Steele. Unlike the London production, the Broadway version was supplemented by a brace of ecstatically-received dances choreographed by Onna White. These directly resulted in her assignments on Mame and the film version of Oliver! Half a Sixpence pretty much started and ended with Tommy Steele, though.

The show is decidedly minor. Based on the H. G. Wells novel Kipps, it's one of those British tales of a lower class bloke who comes into money, becomes uppity, but ends up happily back in his place with his girl. If you like musical comedy trifle, though, you may well want to give it a try. There are a couple of other enjoyable numbers -- the charming title song and a pretty enough ballad called "Long Ago" -- but "Money to Burn (Buy Me a Banjo)" and "If the Rain's Got to Fall" make the slightly clunky Half a Sixpence fun to listen to.

Those of you familiar with Broadway artwork will easily identify the cover art as the work of illustrator Hilary Knight. Sixpence had alternate covers, as producers Lewis Allen and Roger Stevens removed Harry Rigby's co-producer billing just before the Broadway opening (but after the first printing of the cover art). The final cover credits Knight but not Rigby, but the file copy in the RCA archives -- which was reproduced for the CD -- unaccountably has no credit for Knight. The typical cast album has one and only one cover, so nobody caught the omission until after the CD booklet was printed. Knight's style, though, is unmistakable -- and his artwork perfectly captures the bursting-out-of his-skin exuberance of Tommy Steele's performance.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer Trade Books). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com