In that bible of all sources Sondheim, Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co., there's a quote from choreographer Patricia Birch regarding the role of Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music: "It's not the kind of show where you suddenly go crazy and some old lady gets up and looks adorable." While Madame Armfeldt might indeed have looked odd if she had magically risen from her wheelchair to gambol or gavotte, many Sondheim musicals nibble at the edges of what is real on stage and what is not.
For example, consider Anyone Can Whistle, with its assortment of crazy "cookies" wandering about, pondering "who is sane and who isn't." Or Company, in which the action takes place during the single moment in which Bobby, the central character, blows out the candles on his birthday cake. Or Sweeney Todd and that musical's sanity-blowing number, "Epiphany." Or Assassins, in which John Wilkes Booth, a 19th century assassin, speaks directly to Lee Harvey Oswald, a 20th century assassin while various other Presidential assailants watch and wait in silence.
By contrast, there is only one such reality-busting moment in Saturday Night, which is finally receiving its New York premiere at the Second Stage some 46 years after the death of producer Lemuel Ayers forced a scrapping of what would have been Sondheim's first Broadway musical.
The moment comes deep into Act Two, when the ensemble forgets the quaint, occasionally plaintive plot and sings, directly to the audience, a glorious paean to Kings County:
Pride of the Port of New York.
There's a friendly golf course with greens,
And a friendly hash house with beans.
There's a friendly clink whence
Come juvenile delinquents,
But they were born in Queens.
Though self-referencing and meta-theatrical, the number nevertheless sticks out of Saturday Night like a sore, if charming, thumb; the show is instead almost indefatigably rooted in real characters buzzing about, in slightly unreal situations.
Based on Front Porch in Flatbush, a play written by the Oscar-winning author-brothers of Casablanca, Julius J. and Philip Epstein, Saturday Night is the story of Gene (David Campbell), an ambitious young man from Flatbush Avenue who stands, eyes wide and wallet empty, at the twilight of the Roaring '20s. A low-level toiler at an investment firm, Gene is more than beguiled and bedazzled by the easy wealth that surrounds him: he perceives the ability of others to create wealth for themselves as a challenge to his sense of self and masculinity. He begins to seethe, especially when he thinks about an elevator man he knows who struck it rich by playing the market, and uses that boiling anger as the fuse that lit the last straw.
The question is how to even the score. For one thing, he collects the savings of his friends and promises to invest the loot in the market, a place where quick, skyrocketing returns is the everyday norm. At the same time, as the musical begins, he plans weekly forays into Manhattan, dressed as always in his fanciest duds, hoping to quick-talk his way into some fancy party where he can hobnob with the rich and famous while looking like the rich and famous and thereby feel like the rich and famous. Who's to know?