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Saturday Night Fever Strikes Star David Campbell

Cabaret's boy wonder prepares to make his full-fledged musical theater debut in a much-anticipated Sondheim show. logo

He might as well be called David "The Rocket" Campbell, given his career trajectory. Campbell made his New York debut as a cabaret artist at Eighty Eight's in 1996, and that engagement was greeted with such enthusiasm that the immensely talented Australian was booked to play Rainbow & Stars within a year.

Since then, he's gone on to even greater things. He played Marius in a major Australian revival of Les Misérables. He participated in workshops of Don Juan deMarco, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and other shows in development. There have been some memorable TV appearances and two solo albums. And Campbell really made a splash when he starred in last season's concert version of Rodgers & Hart's Babes In Arms as part of the City Center Encores! series. Still, it is only now that he's preparing for his first New York appearance in a fully staged musical: Second Stage's production of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night. (The show was to have marked Sondheim's Broadway debut in 1955, but the death of producer Lemuel Ayers caused it to be canceled.)

Sondheim's latest work, Wise Guys, was also tentatively scheduled to hit Broadway this season, but those plans were scotched after a contentious workshop presentation at the New York Theatre Workshop last November. While audiences won't therefore have the opportunity to see and hear, within the same season, musicals from the earliest and latest stages of the great composer/lyricist's career, Saturday Night is creating lots of buzz on its own. The production is directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, with musical direction by Rob Fisher (of the Encores! series), brand new orchestrations by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick, sets by Derek McLane, and a fine cast including Christopher Fitzgerald, Kirk McDonald, Lauren Ward, and Clarke Thorell.

The show is set for a 10-week run through March 26, and no one is more thrilled about it than David Campbell. For our TheaterMania interview, I caught up with this bundle of energy about a week before Saturday Night's first preview on January 21.


TM: How's it going?

CAMPBELL: Fantastic. We did the orchestra run yesterday--the "sitzprobe," as they call it.

TM: How big is the orchestra?

CAMPBELL: About nine pieces. It's such a sweet score, and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations sound great. They really suit the period.

TM: I've been unable to find a full synopsis of the show.

CAMPBELL: It's based on a play by the two brothers who wrote Casablanca, Julius and Philip Epstein. It's set in 1929, in Flatbush, and it centers around a gang of guys who've been brought up together--born on the same street, practically. My character, Gene, is sort of the unspoken leader of the circle. And every Saturday night, the boys look for something to do. Gene works on Wall Street; nothing major, but he's working his way up the ladder. He hears a tip on a stock, and he gets all his friends to invest in it. But he also has these delusions of grandeur: He wants to live on the other side of the river, to be a Manhattanite, to be a part of the Roaring '20s. So he dresses up every week in top hat and tails, goes out, and crashes parties. He becomes whoever he wants to be for a night, then goes back to Brooklyn. But the fantasy becomes too much for him, and he starts getting into a lot of trouble--his investments go wrong, he over-stretches himself financially. He meets a girl, they fall in love, and she's the one who has to wake him up.

TM: The tone of the show is said to be mostly light and comedic, so I assume it doesn't go through the stock market crash.

CAMPBELL: It precedes the crash. What's really interesting is that the show has so many parallels today, when everybody is investing in the market. Gene is obsessed by the fact that this elevator boy in his building played the market and is now a millionaire. It's like, if you had AOL shares 15 years ago, you're in great shape now! People on the street are becoming millionaires within a few years and then reinvesting what they make. The Dow is fluctuating, but everyone seems to be throwing their money around. Everything's so decadent, especially in New York. It really is almost like the '20s again, in some ways. Everyone in our cast has noticed that during rehearsals.

TM: Let's hope it won't end the same way.

CAMPBELL: That would be kind of terrible.

TM: They say that a crash of such magnitude can't happen again.

CAMPBELL: But they always say that.

TM: I know that Saturday Night was produced recently in Chicago and London; that the book of the musical was adapted from the original play by Julius Epstein himself, after his brother's death; and that your character is based on a third Epstein brother. The score sounds wonderful on the London cast recording, but legend has it that the book is problematic.

CAMPBELL: The show is very much a piece of the '50s, when it was written, even though it's set in 1929. It does have a charm to it. I think the book is underestimated in its emotional capacity. But the strength of the piece is not the book; it's the story itself, and the score. And, in this production, it's Kathleen, Rob, and the company.

TM: Saturday Night seems to be unique in the Sondheim canon in that it's so "conventional" compared to later shows for which he wrote both music and lyrics.

CAMPBELL: It's by a young man who was writing a musical of that day, with all those influences around him. But, the more I listen to the score, I realize that it's so Sondheim. It's a beguiling piece. When we first read through it, after we'd learned the songs, we all felt it was great to be doing an old-fashioned Broadway musical that's not a revival! Even though we're doing it slightly Off-Broadway, at Second Stage, it's a genuine Broadway musical with a great story, characters, songs. The score is very "heart-on-the-sleeve." Chris Fitzgerald and I were saying yesterday that it's almost like doing Babes in Arms again. I think this type of musical is an element that's been missing from the new Giuliani-slash-Disney kind of Broadway that we have today.

TM: I've enjoyed your performances in so many different venues, but I wonder how you're able to work so freely in the U.S.?

CAMPBELL: I got a green card a couple of years ago. It was difficult getting all the stuff together, but I got accepted in, like, eight days. They've changed the process, and I got in just after the change. I think they accepted a whole bunch of people really quickly; my lawyer said he'd never seen an acceptance as quick as mine. Then I waited a year to actually get the card, but I was still able to work.

TM: You're getting your Equity card through Saturday Night?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I finally busted into Equity. Now I feel like I'm a real actor at last!

TM: I'm told that you're going to make a one-night return to cabaret, filling in for Karen Akers at The Oak Room for two performances on April 22.

CAMPBELL: It feels like I've been away from cabaret for too long. When Rainbow & Stars closed down, I sort of got scared. I hope to try some new things when I do a solo show again. That could mean taking on a character, doing different styles of music. But my focus right now is Saturday Night. I guess I've done a lot in New York and showed some potential, but I've been kind of worried about not following through. It's nice to have the chance to do a real run of a show, even if the run is short and sweet. And it will be nice not to have a book in my hands, after all those workshops...although part of me wants that security!

TM: There seems to be a huge amount of interest in Saturday Night.

CAMPBELL: We've started to sneak people into the rehearsals, and it's exciting. By the time we get onto the set--which is extravagant--it's gonna be great.

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