This is a little bonus notice, because it was a rare showing of Stephen Sondheim’s very first musical, written when he was in his early twenties. Twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, had delivered a comedy to Broadway, Chicken Every Sunday, in 1944 and had subsequently written “Casablanca” for the screen, for which they’d received an Oscar for Best Screenplay in the same year. Philip died in 1952 and the surviving brother Julius wanted to do the book for a musical to be based on their play Front Porch in Flatbush, and an established set and costume designer Lemuel Ayres wanted to produce it.
He took a chance on the young Sondheim, who was at the time just four years out of Williams West College, and the young composer won the assignment by writing three songs “on spec”. Through 1954 and half of 1955 he completed the score in New York and in California, where he was the house guest of Mr. and Mrs. Ayres. A group of talented Broadway performers, including Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley, Leila Martin, Joel Grey and Arte Johnson were engaged to play backers’ auditions and, as a baby agent at MCA,(I had just begun an agency career at the Music Corporation of America) I was lucky enough to be invited to one of them.
I remember it clearly; the buzz was on, this was a fresh and charming musical about a bunch of young people in Brooklyn, much more the Babes in Arms crowd than the one that emerged a year later in West Side Story. Charming, brash, the sort of youngsters Mickey and Judy played again and again in films at MGM.
The difference was Sondheim. Even at 24, he had an uncanny ability to match internal rhymes and other forms of verbal badinage with new rhythmic arrangements and some very accessible tunes. Songs like “Saturday Night”, “So Many People”, “I Remember That”, “It’s That Kind of a Neighborhood”, “Class” and others announced the arrival of a new Rodgers and Hart, Schwartz and Dietz, Martin and Blaine, this time all wrapped up in one fellow who looked more like an earnest CPA than a young and hip Broadway baby.
Unfortunately, the promise was not to be fulfilled – not yet. As the backers auditions inched their way to full capitalization for the musical, Lemuel Ayres’ health deteriorated and it finally took his life. The toe hold that the musical had, slipped, and the show was not produced. Visionaries are hard to come by in the producing community, and it took another year or two for Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Hal Prince and Jerome Robbins, to take a chance on the youngster and offer him the job of lyricist for their West Side Story. Believe it or not, it took Sondheim’s mentor and friend Oscar Hammerstein II, to convince him this was an opportunity for him to learn from the best, for Sondheim desperately wanted to arrive on the scene as a composer-lyricist. Wisely, he listened, and the rest is history.
In the sixty years since those more innocent 1950s, Saturday Night did show up off Broadway, courtesy of Second Stage, in February 2000. Perhaps because it arrived as scores were changing to include all the hip new sounds, it didn’t attract enough attention to permit a move to a larger venue. Now, after 14 more years of exposure to the new and the now, much of it awful, the very useful Musicals in Mufti series at the York Theatre has offered it a stage once more and I thought you should know about it, even though its brief run ended on November 17th.
It’s far more than a curiosity — it’s a charming musical with a young soul, probably too tame for the ever more ferocious world in which we now have to lurch along. It doesn’t have much on its mind. The leader of the neighborhood pals is a lad who thinks life can’t have any zing unless it’s lived across the bridge in “exciting Manhattan”, twinkling temptingly across the small East River. This sort of character appeared later in the movie Saturday Night Fever. He will learn there are lots of ingredients for a happy life right where he is, and the girl he discovered on one of his midadventures across that river, sticks with him long enough to knock some sense into his head. It’s all probably too tame to attract the youngsters of today, but it’s much more than a museum piece.
In the early days, it was assumed, because Sondheim’s lyrics were so original, his music must serve merely as a setting for them. Even in this first outing, that’s just not true. “So Many People” is a fine ballad, and “Saturday Night”
and “It’s That Kind of a Neighborhood” are light and airy novelty numbers. In actual fact, “I Remember That” is years ahead of “I Remember It Well” from Lerner and Loew’s Gigi, proves that often even the Masters borrow now and then from those who came before them.
By sheer chance, as I was leaving the theatre, I stepped into the crowded elevator to take me up from the underground space, and I noticed that the man squeezed up against my right arm was — Stephen Sondheim! We’d met before, but haven’t spoken in many years. “Stephen”, I said into his left ear, “I’m Dick Seff and the last time I heard your lovely score was at Lem Ayres’ apartment at a backer’s audition and what a happy reunion this was for me tonight.” And he said, without looking up from the floor, “Oh yes, I remember Dick Seff but that wasn’t Lem Ayres’ apartment, it belonged to a wealthy couple who were the inspiration for John Robin Baitz’ play Six Degrees of Separation”.
The elevator doors opened, and still without looking up from the floor, off he went into a waiting limo on the rainy November night. But there you are — if you venture out of the house, you can go on learning from the most unlikely sources.
The York Theatre’s production of Saturday Night, Musical in Mufti, ran for 4 performances, closing Nov 16, 2014.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.