Sondheim's 'Night' Finally Sees Day

Broadway composers traditionally kept a song or two in their trunk, a number unused or deleted at one time or another that just might be useful later. Stephen Sondheim, obviously an overachiever, kept an entire musical in his trunk. It's "Saturday Night," dating from 1955, which had its successful New York premiere only last week at the Second Stage Theater.

It would have been Sondheim's first Broadway musical, but it was canceled when its producer died. All the same, it provided a steppingstone for Sondheim, who used it to audition for Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story."

After writing those lyrics (for Leonard Bernstein's music), Sondheim was on his way. In 1959, after he had written the lyrics for Jule Styne's "Gypsy," Styne tried to persuade Sondheim to let him put "Saturday Night" on the boards. By then, though, Sondheim was caught up in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" -- and "Saturday Night" languished in Sondheim's trunk.

Then, in 1997, the Bridewell Theater in London -- a theater specializing in chamber versions of old Broadway musicals -- got permission from Sondheim to stage its world premiere. A recording followed, and last year it was produced in Chicago --- and now, only 45 years late, in New York.

It's a fascinating piece that demands double vision in its consideration: What would it have seemed like in, say, 1956, and what is it like now, seen almost as a revival of something that was never, as it were, vived? On both counts, it emerges triumphant.

Set in 1929 immediately before the Wall Street crash, it was based on the play "Front Porch in Flatbush," by Julius J. and Philip Epstein, who'd also written "Casablanca."

The story is of a gang of blue-collar guys from Brooklyn, most of them constantly bereft of a date for a Saturday night, who are lured into a quick-get-rich investment scheme by Gene (David Campbell), a runner for a Wall Street company who believes he has an insider tip.

Gene also has social aspirations, and the white tie and tails to go with them. Trying to crash a ball at the Plaza Hotel, he meets Helen (Lauren Ward), who he takes to be a true Southern blueblood, until he discovers that she is just another Brooklynite on the make.

The whole plot collapses into a clumsily unconvincing happy ending, with Gene apparently reformed and all his friends reconciled to his peccadilloes.

But while the book is no masterpiece, the score, here deftly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, is delightful and innovative. First up, it dispenses with the customary musical comedy chorus, and relies entirely on an ensemble. This was, more or less, new.

Also, time and time again, "Saturday Night" uncannily pre-echoes, if you like, Sondheim's later work, in the sophistication of its pop style (here it rather resembles "Merrily We Roll Along") and the cunning and literate dexterity of its lyrics.

The Second Stage production, wonderfully directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, with adroit sets by Derek McLane and apt costumes by Catherine Zuber, is beautifully performed throughout. So despite trouble with the book, "Saturday Night," with its fine cast and staging, can carry all before it with its music and lyrics.

Oddly enough, the same can be said of the musical with which the City Center Encores opened its new series featuring Marshall wearing her other hat as artistic director for the Center: the 1965 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." Nothing is ever going to clarify or completely redeem Lerner's melange of extra-sensory perception and reincarnation, but Mark Brokaw's fluent, fear-nothing staging does its best.

With the radiant Kristin Chenoweth as its dual heroines, plus Peter Friedman, Brent Barrett (a glorious voice there) and the perky Roger Bart, Lerner's delicious lyrics and Lane's incandescent music can do no wrong. And doesn't. A banquet evening -- but forget the story.


Glimpse of Early Sondheim


STEPHEN Sondheim's 1955 musical "Saturday Night" was a might-have-been show, until recent revivals brought it to life in London, Chicago and here at the Second Stage Theater. The show is based on a play, "Front Porch in Brooklyn," by Julius J. Epstein -- who also wrote the book -- and his twin brother Philip G. Epstein, gifted wordsmiths who wrote "Casablanca" in 1942.

Sondheim -- then in his mid-20s and a recent graduate of Williams College -- was hired for the lyricist's job by producer Lemuel Ayers.

But after Sondheim and Epstein completed the show, the production was canceled in August 1955, when Ayers died of leukemia.

The revival here reveals a mixed bag.

"Saturday Night" shows a deft lyricist with a sharp eye for life in Brooklyn and the dreams that assail ambitious young Brooklynites with dreams of making it in Manhattan.

Many of the songs are in the tradition of Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town," but with a particular melancholy.

Both David Campbell as a Plaza-haunting Gene and Lauren Ward as a Manhattan-struck Helen are appealing performers.

And when the Brooklyn boys belt across a chorus of "Saturday Night" -- "So when I've got my mind on sex, who gives a damn for Francis X. Bushman," it's alive.

There's a brilliant comic love-song sung by the winning Clarke Thorell and Andrea Burns called "I Remember That,"

And that's about it. The plot -- some nonsense about money misdirected -- is trivial, the characters slender. The show would have benefited from a concert staging.

Which is in a sense what director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall has given it; the folk lineup typically on the porch of the dreary, slanted, two-story house.

Such a staging, which might have worked at, say, Encores, does not look right at the Second Stage, which demands a full presentation.

A strange uncertainty about what this show is supposed to be undermines the nature of the production.

A concert production would have given us all that is worth preserving -- namely, early Sondheim feeling his way around some folk in Brooklyn on a restless Saturday night -- and allowed the rest the decent obscurity it deserves.

New York Post Online 18, 20 February, 2000