FINISHING THE HAT by Stephen Sondheim

Saturday Night


Above: The Playbill for SATURDAY NIGHT

The first show that Stephen Sondheim discusses in full is a show that was written in the 1950s, but which remained unproduced until 1997 and about which Sondheim has previously said in “Conversations with Sondheim”:

I don’t have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all except fondness. It’s not bad stuff for a 23-year-old. 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!

I have always felt that Saturday Night is a pleasant 1950s show. In fact, I find it so typical of the 1950s – it is basically a companion piece to Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, with more than a nod to Guys and Dolls – that I often have to remind myself that it is set just prior to the Depression. There are three numbers in the show that immediately resonated with me: the title song, “A Moment with You” and “So Many People”, the last of which is something of a favourite of mine, all the more so after having the opportunity to perform it in Marry Me a Little. But like Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, the show is one that I struggle to carry with me, although all three probably fall within the Top 20 shows of that decade for me. I know – Saturday Night can technically be considered a musical of the 1990s if we are to go by opening dates, but Sondheim is clearly content to locate it within the context of the 1950s, as am I; in fact, I find it difficult to divorce the show from the context of that decade.

The chapter begins with some general comment on the making of the show as well as a discussion about the by now well-known Oscar Hammerstein course for learning how to write musicals. One of the first things that jumped out at me is Sondheim’s comment on Mary Poppins, which which he says that he ‘couldn’t figure out how to make disparate episodes hang together dramatically’ and that ‘neither could Disney’. With all due respect, I disagree with this: the firming up of the framework of the story, that Mary Poppins comes in and fixes the Banks family, does make the film hang together dramatically. Sorry, Mr Sondheim, but it really does.

Sondheim goes onto discuss the nature of Saturday Night as a chamber piece in the Rodgers and Hammerstein form, which I think it is a pretty accurate way of describing it. I wonder what audiences in the 1950s would have made of it. I also smiled at his mention of William Faulkner’s two-out-of-three rule for what a writer needs, at least two of experience, observation and imagination. Sondheim says that observation and its result, mimicry, is one of his strongest suits and I would tend to agree, though one of the things that I find about Saturday Night is that it perhaps doesn’t mimic the spirit of the 1920s in any real way, despite a couple of nods to the era by means of pastiche. As I have mentioned above, Saturday Night evokes, for me, the 1950s – in no uncertain terms.

Above: Performing “Class” from SATURDAY NIGHT

Now, onto Saturday Night. The show starts off with a rousing “Overture” before swinging into a title tune (“Saturday Night”) that tells us where we are and immediately endears us to the guys we see messing around on stage. Sondheim points out the use of the Brooklynese accents – a setup that will later turn into one of his sins, when he does not follow through on the choice in other songs in the show.

Next up is a rather complicated number, “Class”, which Sondheim uses to outline the majority of the “sins” of lyric writing, as he calls them. These include:

  1. Verbosity;
  2. Substituting Rhyme for Character;
  3. Sonic Ambiguity;
  4. Redundant Adjectival Padding;
  5. Architectural Laziness;
  6. Inconsistency;
  7. Strained Jokes
  8. Anachronisms;
  9. Substituting Rhyme for Thought; and
  10. Adding Needed Syllables.

If this book consisted of nothing more than these 10 rules, it would be worth the price for anyone with an interest in lyric writing! Sondheim only identifies the first half dozen or so in “Class” and provides an exegesis on each as they appear. I’ve always felt, at best, ambiguous about “Class” myself. It seems to be too many things at the same time, without making the most of its hybridism and becoming something new in the way that, say, “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” (from Follies or “Someone in a Tree” (from “Pacific Overtures”) do. “Class” starts off, as Sondheim says, as an “I am” or “I want” song for Gene. So far, so good – although it certainly does exhibit the flaws that Sondheim identifies, the ones bothering me the most being verbosity, the sonic ambiguity and the architectural laziness. The song then segues into a middle section about ‘the beautiful people”, during which Gene’s friends tease him a little, bridging the song into a repeat of what we heard before it, during which Gene’s friends use his own setup to tease him. The idea seems brilliant. For me, it gets lost somewhere in the mid-section. For what it achieves, it feels too long, but at the same time it feels like it could achieve more. One can feel the song wrestling with its form and it never quite breaks free or makes peace with it.

Sondheim skips over “Delighted, I’m Sure” – why the exclusion? – and moves right onto “Love’s a Bond”, which he calls ‘the most fully realized (lyric) in the show’. It’s also the first time the music really reflects the period in which the show is set in any way; it has to, because it’s a diegetic song being sung by a vocalist with a dance band at a debutantes’ party. The number creates a clear image of the economic milieu of the pre-Depression setting, but it does all feel a little obviously shoehorned into place. I wonder how it plays in the context of the show as a whole.

More to follow….!

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