Saturday Night, Stephen Sondheim’s 1954 musical
by Nancy Salz, November, 2014
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Julius J Epstein
Directed by Stafford Arima
Music Supervision by Paul Gemignani.
With Matthew Bauman, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Ben Fankhauser, Jeremy Greenbaum, Olli Haaskivi, Michael Thomas Holmes, Greg Kamp, Jared Loftin, Lindsay Mendez, Kenita Miller, Lance Roberts, Matthew Scott, Margo Seibert, Jim Stanek, and Dana Steingold.
Stephen Sondheim was just 24 years old when he wrote three songs on spec for the Broadway-bound musical Saturday Night. It became his first post-collegiate musical. The show, based on the play Front Porch in Flatbush by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein never made it to Broadway – then or now. Death, disease, and lack of funding all got in its way. The late 1990s saw both a London and Chicago production. In February of 2000 the show finally had its New York premiere to celebrate Sondheim’s 70th birthday. By then he had written Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Into the Woods (1987) to name a few.
Now Saturday Night is being given a semi-staged revival by the acclaimed York Theatre Company to celebrate the 100th production of its “Musicals in Mufti” (street clothes) series in a small but superb bomb-shelter of a theatre two floors below street level in St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue.
With just a few benches, a slide show of 1929 Brooklyn as the backdrop, a telephone, music stands on wheels – plus a drummer and pianist – a simply superb cast of 15 brings Saturday Night to life. The performance is utterly charming and unmistakably Sondheim. And being Sondheim, who really needs scenery or an orchestra?
Saturday Night is Company-light by an obviously less-experienced and much younger Sondheim. The plot involves one newly married couple and seven young men looking for dates and love on a Saturday night. One young man, Gene, longs to be a Park Avenue dandy. He tries to crash a party at the Plaza only to meet and fall in love with Helen who pretends to be a Southern belle (a Calhoun, no less) but who is also from Brooklyn. While four of his buddies try to round up dates at 7 pm on a Saturday night (only one call is successful so each have, as they say, “one-quarter” of a girl), Gene spends all their stock-investment money on a deposit for an apartment to try to impress Helen. Then he hocks a car that isn’t his, gets into trouble with loan sharks, and almost goes to jail. Still he says “it’s so good to be alive,” foretelling the song “Being Alive” from Company.
A few members of this remarkable cast stand out. Margot Seibert as Helen has a powerful stage presence and a lovely, lyrical voice. Ben Fankhauser as Gene, too, has an excellent, compelling voice. Lindsay Mendez and Matthew Scott as the young married couple are both experienced attention-grabbers with charisma to spare. Andrew Keenan Bolger makes a wonderful, impish Bobby, and Kenita Miller in the small role of “Female vocalist” lights up the stage with both her smile and her singing.
The best (and most covered) songs are the title song, “Saturday Night,” “So Many People” and Sondheim’s first of many tributes to New York City called “What More Do I need.”
Once I hated this city,
Now it can’t get me down.
Slushy, humid and gritty,
What a pretty town.
What, thought I, could be duller,
More depressing, less gay.
Now my favourite colour
Saturday Night probably won’t ever get – nor does it need – a full Broadway production. But a new recording with this cast would be wonderful. If you can’t get to The York Theatre Company before the last performance of Saturday Night on November 16, try watching Anne Hathaway’s cover of “What More Do I need” on You Tube.
Saturday Night, at Musicals in Mufti, The York Theatre Company, St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street November 8-9, 12-16, 2014.