Vol. 4, No. 3, Winter 1998
At a little theater in London, the world premiere of the first show Sondheim wrote for Broadway
Photos from the production
What the critics had to say
An interview with the artistic director and the director
News & Notes
For Your Amusement
By Paul Salsini
LONDON -- It was surely the most improbable world premiere a Stephen Sondheim show has had. No bright lights or limousines. No showbiz types filling the theater. In fact, since this was also press night, the audience was more scruffy than celebrity.
Credit the plucky little Bridewell Theater in London with achieving a first: taking Saturday Night off the shelf, organizing the script, getting Sondheim to come over to give advice and finally, on a cold and damp Dec. 17, 1997, unveiling a loving production.
It was a long time coming. Saturday Night was written in the early 1950s, when Sondheim was in his early 20s, and it would have been his first score on Broadway. When the producer died, Saturday Night 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. (See TSR's Summer 1997 issue for a history of the show.)
To answer 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 forty years overdue.
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.)
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.
(Some offensive language has, however, been deleted: When Hank said he was saving money to have a baby, the original script had Ted reply: "My nest egg is for just the opposite." And at the Bridewell, the Chinks Restaurant became the China.)
Metcalfe and Paget trimmed the number of characters to work with a cast of twelve, some of them doubling or tripling in roles. They also devised some dialogue to introduce songs that were merely mentioned in the script. The score consisted of thirteen songs, with reprises of three of them.
Two others, "Delighted, I'm Sure" and "More Margin"--indicated in the 1959 script but not completed- -were not included. "The Gracious Living Ballet," a fantasy ballet planned for Gene's visit to a Sutton Place apartment, was reduced to a couple of fantasy scenes. However, a fantasy couple--a sort of Astaire/Rogers dancing pair--did weave in and out of the action throughout the play and brilliantly depicted Gene's dreams. Tim Flavin, who hails from Texas but has been steadily employed as an actor in England, did the choreography.
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 naiveté 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."
"It was kind of like a less-is-more feeling," Francolini said. "I have a very simple song, 'All for You,' which on the page is so simple, so direct. In rehearsal, I tried to explain, and he stressed that you don't have to explain."
Certainly, many in the audience came simply to hear Sondheim's first complete score in its entirety. Some thoughts about the songs:
In "Saturday Night," Sondheim showed how an opening song could set the scene for the entire show.
"Class" has class written all over it. Paget finds it the most interesting song in the show: "Its harmonic shifts and the feel of it is very advanced for 1952."
"Love's a Bond," crooned by a Rudy Vallee-like bandleader, lent just the right touch to the Plaza Hotel scene.
"Isn't It?" gave Francolini an opportunity to be a Brooklyn girl with a Southern accent--somehow, it worked.
"In the Movies" is one of Sondheim's funniest songs: "If a person treads the path of sin/So her daughter can eat quail/In the movies she's a heroine,/But in Brooklyn she'd go to jail."
"Exhibit A," the lessons-in-seduction song, could easily have been salacious if James Millard as Bobby hadn't given it an air of innocence.
"A Moment with You" is not only a brilliant example of Sondheim pastiche but also the show's sprightliest song.
When Francolini started to sing "So Many People" you could almost hear the gasps of recognition. The most famous song from the show because of numerous recordings, here it was a duet for Helen and Gene.
"One Wonderful Day" was the rousing Act One finale--the girls looking forward to Helen and Gene's wedding, the boys worried about losing their friend on that "one horrible day."
"I Remember That," the duet for Celeste and Hank as they recall their first date differently, is a nice turn for the supporting characters.
The lovely "All for You" is too fragile to follow the big confrontation scene.
"It's That Kind of a Neighborhood" included dancing that even allowed leaps on the tiny stage.
"What More Do I Need?" turned into another production number and followed "Neighborhood" too closely.
Saturday Night continues at the Bridewell until Jan. 24, 1998. After all these years, we need to say thank you--not only to Sondheim and Epstein, but especially to Carol Metcalfe.
Paul Salsini is the editor of The Sondheim Review.
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