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?
Meanwhile, Gene's coterie of friends, while no less dazzled by the wealth of the day (at least enough to fork over their meager monies), are far more content to tackle the immediate issues of their lives--like finding a date for a Saturday night. In fact, before we ever meet Gene, we meet this down-to-earth crowd, including Ted (Michael Benjamin McDonald), Artie (Kirk McDonald), Ray (Greg Zola), and Dino (Jim Stanek, filling in for Joey Sorge). Unable to financially compete with the cash-cowed captains of industry, they simply sing:
What can you do on a Saturday night, alone?
Who can be blue on a Saturday night, alone?
What can you do on a night when you are single?
Just sit with a paper and fight the urge to mingle.
Well, this petty pity-party ain't no proper place for Gene, who is as preternaturally good-looking as any grand dreamer ought to be (thereby making Campbell, at least physically, perfect for the part). So, this Saturday night, he heads for the Plaza, where he meets Helen (Lauren Ward), a fellow Brooklynite who at first also happens to be posing as someone rich, in this case a shy Southern belle. Following a plot turn or two, they naturally become an item.
Now, any of the guys in this group--even Bobby (Christopher Fitzgerald), the spunky one--would be perfectly satisfied with a pretty girl on his arm and a steady date for Saturday night, yet Gene is still too dazzled--seduced, really--by the idea of quick megabucks. He thinks that money buys happiness, as all young people who know not the value of love or family or health are invariably wont to do. Moreover, convinced that he, too, can play the market and win big, Gene impulsively splurges on a deposit for a fancy Manhattan apartment with the monies entrusted to him by his friends, and then, cocksure enough to create terrific audience suspense, hocks the car left in Gene's care by his Uncle Eugene, nicknamed Pinhead (Frank Vlastnik), and waits confidently for the market to rise. Assuming it will, as it always does, Gene sees himself quickly buying the car back, returning his friends' capital investment at a profit, getting the girl, and living the life of Riley. It's a Gatsby plot and a Gatsby moment and the results are as ghastly as Gatsby, as one might expect.
What one does not expect, frankly, is a score coming from the fertile imagination of a 24-year-old named Stephen Sondheim, a score pretty enough and clever enough that the intrinsic predictabilities of the storyline are somehow mitigated and transformed into genuinely moving, cathartic and theatrical experience. Bits and pieces of the score have been leaking onto the scene for at least 20 years, from the crinkly-twinkly title song to the gorgeous "So Many People" to Helen's first number, "Isn't It?," but one isn't quite prepared for the lesser-known tunes to activate the aural. From "Exhibit A," an early display of Sondheim's verbal virtuosity, to "I Remember That," an early display of Sondheim's gift for bittersweet tunesmithing, the score unfailingly entertains, diverts, cavorts and pushes the show along.
Under Kathleen Marshall's crisp, fluid direction, Saturday Night still smacks not of the many-splendored innovations to the musical form that Sondheim and his collaborators have instituted, but of an honesty of approach that is almost non-existent in all his subsequent work. For those who love concept musicals, this may feel like rain on the parade; for those who don't believe that concept musicals are the be-all and end-all of the musical form, there is no strain in vain found in this show. Indeed, the only concept behind Saturday Night exists to the extent that the show might unintentionally be resonant of our own, current moment in history.
And speaking of history, it may be just as well that the show never made it to fruition. After all, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway in 1962 and won the Tony for Best Musical, but Sondheim's score wasn't even nominated for an award that year. That would suggest that eight years prior to that time was hardly when a composer/lyricist possessed of Sondheim's artistry and ambition might go to the head of the class. Instead of a project merely dropped, Saturday Night might well have flopped, leading us, however many decades later, to a production rather like this one.
David Campbell, the cabaret world's favorite darling, plays Gene precisely like and is, as Ben Brantley of The New York Times described him, rather like an "Arrow Collar man come to life." Alas, it seems to be an apt comment: While his vocal chops are consistently in fine fettle, his acting seems disconnected from the goings-on, unlike Ward, who as Helen is far less eager to please the audience because she already knows that she can. Standing head and shoulders above everyone in the cast, including the very able, vocally fine ensemble, is Andrea Burns, who plays Celeste, the wife of Hank (Clarke Thorell), the only married guy of the group. She is one of those rare performers who can get a laugh without making Bessie moo, and who can land a one-liner with a Tiger Woods-like one-stroke.