Saturday Night should have been Stephen Sondheim's Broadway debut.
Age 22 and unknown in 1952, Sondheim, at the wedding of a mutual friend, met the celebrated Broadway designer Lemuel Ayers—who’d created the sets for Oklahoma! when he was 28 and had branched out in 1948 to become a Broadway producer with Kiss Me Kate (while also designing that show’s sets and costumes). Ayers had a new project and was looking for a composer. Sondheim wound up auditioning three songs on spec for Ayers (paid $100 per). He got the job.
The project was inspired by the play Front Porch in Flatbush, written by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein. (The twin-brother, Academy Award-winning screenwriting team’s biggest credit was the screenplay to Casablanca, which they wrote with Howard E. Koch.) Ayers’ new musical was called Saturday Night, with a book crafted by Julius solo.
Set in 1929 just before the Crash, Saturday Night revolved around a pipe-dreaming, social climbing, 20-something Wall Street stock runner named Gene and his Flatbush pals, who chase a get-rich-quick market scam and various girls with insouciant innocence. Sondheim wrote a lovely score for the show, a score as traditional as his later work would be radical. He later described these songs as “his baby pictures.”
Saturday Night was performed eight times at backers auditions in swank apartments all around town. Then, tragically, in August 1955, Ayers died of leukemia at the age of 40, burying Saturday Night and, for the moment, the Broadway coming-out of its exceedingly promising young composer-lyricist.
Offers quickly ensued for Sondheim to write lyrics for West Side Story and then for Gypsy. In the wake of Gypsy’s 1959 success, composer Jule Styne—who, like Ayers, liked to moonlight as a producer—set out to bring Saturday Night to Broadway, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. The idea still sounds spectacular, but early on Sondheim realized that he “didn’t want to revisit old work,” and pulled the plug.
“Bobby got as far as one day of auditions,” Sondheim recalled recently, “mainly to audition a movie actor named Keefe Brasselle (at Julie Epstein’s request) for the lead, though Bobby wanted to play it himself. And yes, it was our only (brief) professional relationship.”
After productions in Chicago and London, Saturday Night finally made its New York debut in 2000, Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater, in a production directed by Kathleen Marshall. On March 11, Second Stage will revive Saturday Night for one night only, in concert, as part of its Musical Mondays series celebrating the theatre’s 40th Anniversary.