"Everyone is kicked around during his apprentice years and in fear and ignorance he makes silly blunders and does silly things of which he is ashamed later. If every successful man were to confess these past errors he could do a great service to those young people who are trying to follow in his footsteps."
Antonio was giving me a lift to Union Station in downtown L.A. after work. I asked about his kids; they're intent on joining the Boy Scouts, so he's going to be a Boy Scout Leader. The job should suit him well. He asked about our dogs, and I told him about how Marty the Pit Bull has adopted Mikey the baby Chihuahua as his own little puppy. Then, as he often does, Tony asked me about what CDs I was carrying in my briefcase. I had four with me that day, and they all connected together in a roundabout way.
The first two take some explanation. Stephen Sondheim's connection to Oscar Hammerstein II, who acted as his mentor and taught him everything he could about writing lyrics and structuring shows, is well known. And since Hammerstein's work is very well known, it is interesting to compare the work of the two writers the way Mandy Patinkin did on his album Oscar and Steve (Nonesuch) (not one of the discs in my briefcase, at least not that time).
Not as many people know of or show as much interest in Sondheim's musical mentor, the man with whom Sondheim studied as a private student and from whom he learned so much about musical composition and structure. So I decided to get a CD of his music, and see if there was any comparison between his writing and Sondheim's the way Hammerstein and Sondheim can be compared. Besides, I've always believed that, in order to find out if you'll like something, you sometimes just have to experiment.
"So what did you get?" Tony asked. I took out the first disc, The Music of Samuel Barber, with Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Telarc). Barber wrote some interesting music, modern yet very melodic. I'm particularly impressed with the vocal piece on the disc, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a beautifully lyric work for soprano and orchestra where Barber eloquently conveys a specific time and place, set to the writings of James Agee. And his Adagio for Strings is a remarkable piece that soars heavenward over a devastatingly bleak landscape. If you ever want to know what chronic depression feels like, just listen to the Adagio three times back to back and then try to imagine having that emotional impact running all day long in the background of your mind. Unfortunately, I got just one thing wrong. (At this, Tony looked at me from the corner of his eye, waiting for the punchline.) Sondheim's musical mentor wasn't Samuel Barber. His mentor was Milton Babbitt.
Tony started to chuckle. I tried to explain how it was an easy mistake to make: they're both American composers, both wrote in the twentieth century, and both names start with the letter "B." "Woody, I don't believe you did that! So, what's this other guy's music sound like?" I got out the second disc, Babbitt's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, paired with a vocal piece called The Head of the Bed (New World Records) and considered my answer. Finally, I told him that Babbitt's music is so avant-garde and complex that to an untrained ear it sounds like nothing less than a three year old child banging away on a piano. Two years old, if the child is a prodigy.
At this point, Tony was laughing hard enough that he almost drifted into the next lane. I was so embarrassed.
Tony finally recovered and asked "So what else do you have in there?" I pulled out the next disc, a copy of the World Premiere recording of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night (First Night). "He's written a new show? You never told me about that." Well, not exactly. Saturday Night was to have been Sondheim's first Broadway effort, back in 1955, but things fell through and the show didn't get produced. Some of the songs have been recorded before, but it wasn't until last year that it finally was staged. In London. (Tony gave me that waiting-for-the-punchline look again, so I took a deep breath and started explaining.)
O.K. Think back to 1954. ("That's before I was born," Tony grinned.) The hit shows at that time were Pajama Game, The Boy Friend, Fanny, Plain and Fancy (which was about the Amish), Cole Porter's Silk Stockings, Can Can, and Damn Yankees. These shows were all light and frothy stuff, nothing really heavy or super-literate, except perhaps for Fanny. Along comes this new kid, Steve Sondheim, trying to break into songwriting, and he gets this amazing gig, writing the songs for an adaptation of a play by twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein called Front Porch in Flatbush. You might know those guys from all the quotable lines they wrote for the film Casablanca. The whole thing was to be produced by Lemuel Ayers, who had first made his mark as a designer for shows like Oklahoma, and had later produced and designed Kiss Me Kate. Ayers had optioned the play, and Julius Epstein had written the book for the musical, which was now called Saturday Night. ("What happened to the other guy, the twin?" Philip? He'd already passed away. "Oh.")
The show was set to open in the spring of 1955, with Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostly, and Arte Johnson in the cast, and about half of the money needed to produce it had been raised. But the opening had to be postponed, and then Ayers died of leukemia. That was on August 14th. Seems Ayers had been ill for quite some time, but no one had admitted just how ill, even though he'd been getting weekly blood transfusions. Needless to say, his death put the kibosh on the whole project. There was another bid to produce the show in 1959, but by that time Sondheim didn't wish to continue with the show, so it fell to the wayside for a long time.
That's basically how things stayed for years. Songs from the show would pop up every now and then in concerts, but the show itself was never produced. But in either 1996 or '97, I'm not sure when, a group of students from the University of Birmingham presented a concert version of the show at the Bridewell Theatre in London. Sondheim himself was there, and everything went well enough that he agreed to let the Bridewell Theatre Company produce the show. Which they did, and Saturday Night finally had it's world premiere on December 17th, 1997.
(Not long after this column was posted, I received a gracious correction from Lynne Chapman, administrator for the Stephen Sondheim Society:
"What actually happened was that we organised one of our annual study days with the Birmingham students performing sections from Saturday Night. This was then repeated at another study day, in front of Mr. Sondheim, who is one of our patrons. One of our members asked him if he would consider allowing it to be staged, and the rest, as they say, is history."
I am grateful to Lynne and the Stephen Sondheim Society for the opportunity to make this correction. I highly recommend checking their web site, which can be reached at www.innotts.co.uk/~chapman/)
"So what's the show about?" Tony asked. Good question. The liner notes that come with the CD give almost no word about the plot. In fact, when Der Brucer looked them over, he roared with his disapproval, they're that skimpy. I've had to look to other sources like Meryle Secrest's biography of Sondheim to figure out what's supposed to be going on. The story is about a third Epstein brother, here called Gene, who dreams of leaving his lower-middle-class Brooklyn roots by investing in the stock market. This is in 1929, right before the market crashed. However, before he can invest the money his friends have given him, he uses it to pay the rent on an apartment because he's trying to impress this rich Southern girl he's fallen for. The complications keep mounting in clockwork fashion; she turns out to be just as big a fake as he is, he gets in trouble with the law, his friends come to his rescue, he gets the girl, and everyone ends up happy. Tony shook his head. "It sounds as contrived as my wife's TV novellas. Are you sure this was written by the same Sondheim you've told me about before?"
I suppose it's about time for me to review the disc. Please keep in mind, this is just a musical, not great art. Relax, enjoy yourself. You're with friends here. Welcome to Brooklyn, 1929.
For the record, the cast is listed as follows: James Millard (Bobby), Jeremy David (Artie), Simon Greiff (Ray), Maurice Yeoman (Dino), Sam Newman (Gene), Gavin Lee (Fantasy Man/Male Vocalist/Clune), Anna Francolini (Helen), Tracie Bennett (Celeste), Ashleigh Sendin (Mildred), Mark Haddigan (Hank), Ray Barker (Fantasy Woman/Miss Fletcher/Florence/Dakota Doran/Female Vocalist), and Paul Brereton (Pinhead/Doorman/Mr. Fisher/Head Waiter/Police Lieutenant/Fantasy Butler)
We open with four guys, sitting on the front porch of a house in Flatbush, at about 7 in the evening on a Saturday in 1929. One of them is noodling on a piano, another is trying to line up a date. They're all grousing about how no girl is going to go out with them, and blaming the girls because none of the guys had the brains to line up a date earlier. Sounds grim, doesn't it? Actually, it isn't. The melody is light and inviting, eventually breaking into four-part harmony and counterpoint. The lyrics do all right, too. Mind, the guys singing are all background characters from the neighborhood, none of them the lead. But, that's all right; these are guys anyone could be friends with.
I should point out right now, the Brooklyn accents throughout the CD are annoying as hell. Of course, some people find Brooklyn accents annoying to begin with, but these are British actors trying to imitate Brooklyn accents. Some of the translation doesn't come out too well, you know what I mean? Hey, this is going to happen any time you have an actor going for a voice he wasn't born with. I say, get over it! Have you ever heard a Yank fake a British accent? Like there's only one British accent, or only one Yank accent! One time, when Der Brucer and I were in London, this guy in the queue for theater tickets sneered at my Southern California accent, like his Boston accent was so great. If you want an authentic Brooklyn accent, go watch Ruggerio to Go on the T. V. Food Network. Jeesh! (I'll be contradicting myself further on, of course.)
Track Two: "Class"
Our lead character, Gene, is introduced with "Class". His great ambition is to join the beautiful people on the other side of the rainbow called the Brooklyn Bridge, the people who inhabit the Plaza Hotel. And he is convinced that, in order to join that privileged group, all he needs to do is dress and talk right. His friends think this is a mistake, telling him to be himself and teasing his affectations, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way.
Musically, Sondheim gives us a fairly upbeat, jazzy number. His melody line is a bit unusual, but it works well with the lyric, especially where Gene is listing the words he has learned to use, like "tumbler" and "cravat". While I don't think this is a great song on its own, it is a good second song for this show. It sets up what I perceive to be one of Saturday Night's themes, about the influence the popular media has on what we like, dislike, and want to be like. Gene believes that if he acts in a certain way and uses a certain vocabulary he will be accepted by the upper stratum of society. In many ways, Gene's problems continue today. How often are we told that we have to dress in certain brand-name clothes, like Nike or Tommy Hilfiger, if we are to be accepted in society? Is this any different from Gene owning just two suits, but they're from Brooks (as in Brooks Brothers)? This selling of our culture will be referred to again later in the score.
Track Three: "Love's a Bond"
To the backing sounds of a muted trumpet and twenties-style bandstand fiddle, an orchestra singer gives us one slick pun after another, comparing love with the stock market and world of finance. This is a fairly cute song, definitely the sort of thing one would have heard and danced to in the late '20s. I can easily imagine it being expanded into a very good dance number on stage, as Gene tries to crash an upscale party. In fact, since the action is what is important here, that the lyrics are simple and silly is a bonus.
Track Four: "Isn't It?"
We are now introduced to Helen, our leading lady. She, like Gene, is trying to crash the party, but her ploy is to pretend that she is a Southern belle. The music is a very pleasant waltz, and the lyrics continue some of the financial edge of "Love's a Bond" as Helen tentatively sounds out Gene as a possible partner. Unfortunately, Francolini's performance is terrible. Instead of a buttery-rich Southern accent, she uses a backwoods twang that resembles a ten-wheeler trying to come to a stop after the brake pads have worn away. That sort of accent might work if she was playing Sister Mary Amnesia in Nunsense, but it is completely out of place here. (See, I told you I'd be contradicting myself. For further accent irritation, Francolini can also be found playing Marta on the London Revival recording of Company (RCA Victor), impersonating Valerie Harper.)
Track Five: "In the Movies"
Somehow, three of the guys have rounded up a date to share, taking her to the movies. They are joined by a married friend and his wife. While the men argue over money, the two women hit it off immediately and compare notes on the differences between what is on the screen and what real life is like. Half of this number works, the other half is terrible. Does anyone like hearing people argue over money? Does singing about money woes make them less annoying? Hey, ladies, dump the guys and let's hear what you've got to say!
Celeste and Mildred are two witty dames, smart enough to know that Hollywood is selling them a dream and not reality, even in this era of silent pictures. (The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, came out in 1927, but it took a few years for the transition to sound to be complete.) In their first verse, they discuss the fantasy of Stella Dallas (the silent version of 1925 that starred Belle Bennett, not the remake of 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck), the classic tale of a vulgar woman who sacrifices everything for her daughter's chance to marry well. They agree that if they were to behave the way Stella does, they'd get arrested. Then they spot the coming attraction: Valentino! Well, Rudolph Valentino was dead already by this time, having succumbed to blood poisoning in 1926. But he'd made plenty of films before then, the most famous being The Sheik in 1921, and was still popular. That the two women are aware of how ridiculous the dreamland of the movies can be is both funny and insightful. They'll buy the tickets to see the movies, but they aren't buying much more than that. All and all, their half of this song is very good, and worth hearing.
Track Six: "Exhibit A"
Bobby, the buddy on the porch who doesn't join the gang at the movies, here shows off his apartment. He considers himself to be a lady's man, slick and smooth, with everything in the apartment set up to facilitate making the score. In fact, his display of the various elements of his trap (which includes a hammock instead of a bed, because a hammock doesn't squeak) ends up resembling a Rube Goldberg invention. Sondheim's lyric is sly and full of character. The melody, on the other hand, is awkward in its complexity, even though that complexity matches the subject matter. I have a hunch this number would be very difficult to stage well.
(I've done it again, haven't I? Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, specializing in devising wacky, complex ways of doing the easiest of jobs. A simple movement at the start would set a chain of events in motion, with bowling balls traveling down rickety chutes and cats getting their tails pulled, finally accomplishing a task that normally would have nothing at all to do with bowling balls or cats. A major award for cartoonists is named after him.)
Track Seven: "A Moment With You"
The romance between Helen and Gene seems to be blossoming, as they listen to a male vocalist and, presumably, dance a very nice foxtrot together. The song has one of Sondheim's most joyful melodies, light and fun. (My e-mail buddy Randy Detweiler has rightly compared it to "More" from Dick Tracy.) The lyric is all about how hard it was for the famous to have made it to the top, but that falling in love only takes a moment. Included in the list are Wilbur Wright, Fred Astaire, J. P. Morgan, and Sigmund Freud.
Sondheim may have come up with an anachronism here. While Fred Astaire was well known on stage in 1929, he was known as half of a team, opposite his sister Adele. The sort of fame that would make him an easily understood reference in a song didn't come until after Adele quit show business in 1932 to marry a British lord, which forced Fred to shift gears and head to Hollywood. He hit his stride when he was teamed with Ginger Rogers in Gay Divorcee, which came out in 1934, five years after the events of Saturday Night.
Track Eight: "Saturday Night (reprise)"
The boys are back on the porch, even Bobby turning up scoreless. They reprise the opening number, quietly and sweetly, as Bobby suggests that "In the meantime, we have these, the "Bachelor's Home Companion." Der Brucer and I aren't exactly sure, but we think he's referring to (and holding) copies of a gentleman's magazine. Think in terms of Esquire in the '50s. Or Playboy in the '70s. These days it's what NetNanny keeps you from viewing on the Internet. Got the idea?
Track Nine: "So Many People"
By this time Helen and Gene have discovered that they are both a couple of fakes, but that they are still attracted to each other. The result is this beautiful ballad. Once again, the notion of the media selling an image of what we should aspire to is referred to, this time in Helen admitting that what she wanted is what she was finding in the magazines. Gene counters with a proposition, that if others could see what he and Helen have found, those other people might discover something better than they have known. My only quibble is with the early placement of this song at the tail end of Act One. These sentiments are more generally found somewhere between the middle and end of Act Two. But, I'm working without a script or accurate synopsis here, so my instincts are probably off.
Track Ten: "One Wonderful Day"
The gang has found out about the new romantic couple and throws together a party, but there's some confusion as to what is going on. Are Helen and Gene supposed to be engaged at this point? Is this a conclusion the gang has jumped upon at the wrong time? No matter. Gene blurts out "Helen, I love you," and we're into a upbeat number led by Celeste, who thinks the matching of boy and girl is wonderful, countered by Bobby who thinks it's horrible and that marriage is a trap. Celeste wins the battle of wits, and the cast joins in for a repeat of Celeste's verse. This final verse, with some very interesting writing for the cast as a whole, brings the first act to a close.
Track Eleven: "Saturday Night (reprise)"
Act Two opens pretty much where we were at the start of Act One, but Bobby is off somewhere on his own. You would think that these guys would have learned by now to plan ahead. This time, the song is more pointedly about the search for loving. Personally, I think these guys have pretty well made their own beds.
Track Twelve: "I Remember That"
Married couple Hank and Celeste sing about their first real date. He sings first, supplying every detail that he remembers. She follows, filling in everything that he left out. It is a very charming song, very much like "I Remember It Well" from Lerner and Lowe's Gigi, and I'm surprised that it hasn't been included in the concert recordings by now.
But wait, let's check some dates here. This song was written in 1954 or 1955. The movie Gigi opened in 1958! Which raises the question: could Lerner and Lowe have heard "I Remember That" during the time Ayres was holding backers auditions? Could they have taken the idea behind the song, and given their own spin on that idea when it became clear that Saturday Night was not likely to be produced? The answer is obviously yes. Not that this is theft, because they were only taking the idea, and not copying the whole song. Still, I have to wonder if they would have written their song if Saturday Night had made it to Broadway on schedule. Gigi would have been left without one of its most charming moments. As it is, there's now room enough in the world for both songs (but you can guess which one I prefer).
(It turns out there is another song that predates "I Remember That"! Andrew posted on Finishing the Chat that Lerner had written another song called "I Remember It Well" with Kurt Weill on a show called Love Life. It, too, was about a wife gently correcting her husband's recollection of how they met, and a recent article in the Sondheim Review quoted him as saying, "Love Life has been a useful influence on my work." Regrettably, Love Life has never been recorded. I am grateful to Andrew for finding this connection.)
Track Thirteen: "All For You"
Helen sings a song of reconciliation. Frankly, I find this a very ordinary song, and Miss Francolini sings it that way. (Comments like these are going to get my passport confiscated next time Der Brucer and I head for London, but I find her voice highly displeasing.)
Track Fourteen: "It's That Kind of Neighborhood"
The song opens with everyone agreeing that they have to back Gene out of pride for their neighborhood. Suddenly, mid-song, they launch into something that is almost totally different, a section that has been called "Fair Brooklyn," an anthemic ode to their borough that has include some of the best comic lyric writing Sondheim has ever done. Then they swing back to their original melody, but now the wordplay lifts even higher. What I'm trying to say is, this song is genuinely funny! It's only flaw is the tag line, where too much of the final joke is given away through the repetition of the last line (several times) before the final word. Well, it came close to being a perfect comedy song.
Track Fifteen: "What More Do I Need?"
Are you familiar with the "Who Wants to Live in New York" section of "Opening Doors" in Merrily We Roll Along? Guess what it's based on! This song covers much of the territory of the later song, if in a more complete form. Plus, the song is deservedly upbeat, fresh and open. But again, I'm puzzled by the song's placement at the end of the show, rather that earlier. This is something that, for its time, would have been found towards the end of Act One, or the beginning of Act Two. It's not the sort of song that usually closes a show. Not having a script in hand to explain the full situation is very frustrating, but this is what we're given as the closing number here on the disc.
"So, do you think Saturday Night could have been a hit, if it had been produced back then?" Tony asked. I stop to consider before answering. So much depends on when the show would have opened. Ayers died on August 14th of 1955. If we presume that he had instead been healthy, that gives us a window of opportunity between August 14th and May 15th of the following year when yes, Saturday Night might have had a chance. Like I said, the hit shows on Broadway at that time were Pajama Game, Fanny, Plain and Fancy, Silk Stockings, and Damn Yankees, but they'd all been running for a while and Broadway is always looking for something fresh. During that window of opportunity both Can Can and The Boy Friend closed. Rodgers and Hammerstein opened Pipe Dream on November 30th, but it didn't last too long, less than 300 performances. And three really terrible-sounding shows called Ankles Aweigh, Catch a Star, and The Vamp opened and tanked fast. (Catch a Star, by the way, featured both David Burns and Jack Gilford in it's cast. They'd both show up later in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.) My hunch is that if Saturday Night had opened during that window, it could have had a run about the same as Pipe Dream's, maybe longer. It wouldn't have been a hit, but it would have had a respectable run for a first-time composer. But I think it's a good thing it didn't.
Again, Tony threw that quizzical eye in my direction. Look, if Sondheim had had any success with Saturday Night, he would have been asked to write another show just like it. He then would have been stuck writing show after show, all following a standardized blueprint. But what happened instead is that, after Saturday Night missed getting produced, Sondheim wrote lyrics for two shows with master composers. "West Side Story and Gypsy" Tony interjected. Yes, and therefor he got what was effectively two consecutive apprenticeships with two vastly different men, Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, writing two vastly different shows. They set a very high standard for him to follow. Saturday Night shows that Sondheim's talent was there, but the delay gave him a chance to hone that talent without it being dulled by mediocre product.
Tony shook his head. "I wouldn't have thought of that. Hey, wait a second, you said there was a window of opportunity?" Yes, August 14th to May 15th. "So what happened on May 15th that closed the window?" My Fair Lady opened, literate, sophisticated, and stylish. Overnight, the standard for what was acceptable on Broadway was raised to a much higher level. With the exception of The Most Happy Fellow which opened shortly after, everything else dimmed in comparison. My hunch is Pipe Dream failed because it couldn't compete. The next window of opportunity would have been the following fall, but that fall was packed with Bells Are Ringing, L'il Abner, and Candide. Well, Candide failed at the box office, but it got a lot of attention. With that much top quality product on Broadway, I don't think Saturday Night could have made it in 1956.
We rode in silence for a little while. Then Tony got a little smile on his face and said "You said you had four discs in your briefcase. What's the last one?" And I smiled, too. You remember how Sondheim studied with Milton Babbitt? That was a very unusual thing for him to do, to actually pursue a classical education in composition with the intention of applying it to writing for Broadway. Leonard Bernstein had that classical training, but he was also writing classical music and conducting. I don't know of any other Broadway composers of that time who had that kind of musical background. But today there's a whole group of new composers who are starting with that kind of training. In effect, they're following in Sondheim's footsteps. Audra McDonald's first solo CD, "Way Back to Paradise" (Nonesuch), features songs by a bunch of them. "Think it's something I might enjoy?" he asked. I smiled back, and handed it over. Sometimes, in order to find out if you'll like something, you just have to experiment. And right about then, we arrived at Union Station, and our ride and conversation were over.
The problem is that Petula's voice is not what it was. It has gotten ragged, cracks at unfortunate moments, and is a little flat. Aggravating these problems was the recording schedule, less than a week to perform fourteen tracks. The end result is a showcase that highlights Petula's flaws rather than her strengths.
Rather than review the entire disc, let me briefly focus on the four Sondheim songs that are included. "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along (track 4) has an interesting arrangement, the first time I've ever heard anyone put both the up and downer versions together. Petula seems to be singing the song by rote, almost as if she had been directed to go soft here, build there, crescendo at this bar, bring her voice down again at that bar. I didn't get the feeling that she had lived with the song for very long and therefor missed its power. That, and there's a few scooped and flatted notes, just enough to be a distraction.
On the other hand, on "I Never Do Anything Twice" from The Seven-Percent Solution (track 7), Petula's voice faults actually come to the song's advantage. Most of the arrangement is good too, bringing a Randy Newman-esque humor with its lushness, although I did find the underlining of many of the jokes with percussion a bit much. Unfortunately, on "Losing My Mind" from Follies (track 12) Petula goes wildly off course, taking the classic, tragic torch song and turning it into a sultry and swingy song of triumph! It is so bad that it hurts.
The big puzzle lies in her rendition of "Children Will Listen," from Into the Woods (track 8). She has some trouble with the high notes, and gets a little reedy in places, but that's not the problem. There is a snatch of music that I don't remember hearing before. It is sung with the following lyric:
How do you say to a child in the night
How do you say to a child who's in flight
Careful what you say
So is this disc really that bad? Based on these four songs, not really, but it could have and should have been better. Elsewhere, she treats "Pinball Wizard" as if she were from Nashville, with a country accent that would have Dolly Parton crying in embarrassment. (There we go again!) On the other hand, she does a fairly good job with "Seasons of Love," with an interesting interpolation from "Easy to be Hard" breaking in from time to time. Let's put it this way: if you really love Sondheim and Petula Clark both, and are willing to forgive anything just to hear her sing his work, go ahead and buy this disc. But don't say I didn't warn you.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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