Stephen Sondheim's baby steps

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday March 14, 2018
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Stephen Sondheim's "Saturday Night" arrived in New York, at the Second Stage Theatre in 2000, nearly a half-century late (above). 42nd Street Moon is presenting its Bay Area premiere. Photo: Joan Marcus
Stephen Sondheim's "Saturday Night" arrived in New York, at the Second Stage Theatre in 2000, nearly a half-century late (above). 42nd Street Moon is presenting its Bay Area premiere. Photo: Joan Marcus

"Saturday Night" was supposed to be Stephen Sondheim's first Broadway musical, and the 66-year journey to its San Francisco premiere as part of 42nd Street Moon's season has been one filled with bumps and detours along the way.

The young Stephen Sondheim didn't arrive in New York with doubts about his abilities and where those abilities should quickly take him; Oscar Hammerstein II was his mentor and surrogate father, after all. Sondheim's plan was to make his Broadway debut by age 25, and when he was tapped to write the songs for a Broadway musical, it didn't seem as much astonishing good fortune as a right and proper career trajectory. But "Saturday Night" never made it to Broadway, the planned production collapsing with its lead producer's death in 1955.

Sondheim was disappointed, of course, but he saw it as evidence that he was Broadway-ready, and now he had a complete show featuring his songs in his portfolio. Before long he was providing the words to music written by Leonard Bernstein for "West Side Story," and by Jule Styne for "Gypsy." These were assignments taken reluctantly, for he considered himself a composer first and a lyricist second, but when the chance came again to have both his music and lyrics on Broadway, it was Sondheim who scuttled the project.

Styne thought "Saturday Night" deserved another shot at Broadway, and was helping usher it onto the Main Stem in 1959. Bob Fosse had been signed to direct, choreograph, and even play the lead when Sondheim decided to pull the plug. "When we started auditioning people, I got a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn't want to regress," he is quoted as saying in Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Co." "It was a small, charming show, but I couldn't go ahead with it."

Brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, screenwriters who won an Oscar for "Casablanca," had written a play inspired by their brother's exploits in the 1920s. It's the story of a group of Brooklyn boys trying to get rich quick in the stock market, and the series of comic and dramatic complications that ensue. Gene, the central character, is so eager to climb the social ladder and impress his sweetheart, a Southern debutante type who is just another pretender from Brooklyn, that he invests his friends' money in a fancy apartment and sells the gang's precious automobile as things take plenty of turns for the worse before righting themselves at the end.

"Saturday Night" was in the traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein form, Sondheim wrote in "Finishing the Hat," except that it did away with the traditional chorus that usually arrive in different guises to provide backup. "It turned out, unintentionally, to be a chamber musical in an era when there was no such thing," Sondheim wrote. "We didn't recognize it at the time, because in 1952 nobody was taking musicals seriously enough to label them 'chamber,' 'metamusical,' or anything like that."

As Sondheim's stature grew over the years with such musicals as "Company," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd," "A Little Night Music," and "Into the Woods," he received repeated requests from theater companies for permission to stage "Saturday Night." His answer was always no, at least until 1997, when he granted the Stephen Sondheim Society of Birmingham, England, his blessing.

He saw the society's concert version in London the following year, which led to its U.S. debut in 1999 at a small theater in Chicago, and finally to its belated New York premiere in 2000 at the Second Stage Theatre. By this time, Sondheim had written two new songs, edited the book, and brought in longtime collaborator Jonathan Tunick to provide new orchestrations. Tempting as it may have been, he did not alter his original songs.

Marga Gomez is offering an encore run of  

"It's not bad stuff for a 23-year-old," he told The New York Times in 2007. "There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics - the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, leave it. It's my baby pictures. You don't touch up a baby picture - you're a baby."

Ryan Weible is directing 42nd Street Moon's production of "Saturday Night," which will run March 28-April 15 at the Gateway Theatre. Tickets are available at 42ndstmoon.org.

More Marga

We haven't seen the last of "Latin Standards," even if Marga Gomez claims it is her last one-woman play. Her tale of growing up with ambitious showbiz parents is returning to Brava Theatre Center Cabaret, where it had its SF debut in January. The new solo show, her 12th, focuses on her showman father's songwriting ambitions that culminate in actually selling a song heard in elevators.

The encore run will take place March 16-April 1. Tickets are at brava.org.