Without question, Stephen Sondheim is the most sophisticated Broadway composer and lyricist alive. Who else could have penned that darkest of black comedies, Sweeney Todd, or written an elegant musical about painter Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George? Or set Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night to exquisite music in A Little Night Music? Only Sondheim, that personification of urbanity, of course.
But even Sondheim was young once, just 24, when he wrote Saturday Night in 1955. The musical was set to open on Broadway when the producer up and died, so the piece, based on Julius J. Epstein’s book, Front Porch in Flatbush, languished for decades until Sondheim agreed to revise it for a run in London in 1997 and earlier this year in New York. This cast album, supervised by Sondheim, was recorded just after the show closed last spring.
Saturday Night has all the earmarks of an early work. For all its exuberance, it is formulaic. The lyrics are often witty (rhyming appeal with schlemiel, for instance), but there are moments when they’re labored and strained. But all told, this is a breezy, bracing work and there are places when the lyrics foreshadow the impudence of West Side Story, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics in 1957.
The story, set in Brooklyn in the late 1920s, concerns a group of bored young folks who are looking for ways to enliven their drab Saturday night. The musty boy-meets-girl story unfolds predictably, but the bouncy melodies and infectious lyrics keep this work sailing along. “What More Do I Need?” brims with youthful sprightliness, as does the title song. But Sondheim’s sweetly melancholic side existed even when he was 24, as evidenced in the lovely “So Many People.”
Superbly orchestrated by Sondheim’s longtime colleague Jonathan Tunick and enthusiastically performed by a lively young cast, Saturday Night is a refreshing lark. The 70-year-old Sondheim likened the work to his “baby pictures.” Maybe so. But this baby shows far more maturity and poise than the usual dreck on Broadway.
George Bulanda writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].