Nathan Lane and Victor Garber again take the leads in the fourth reading of Wise Guys in New York
Finally, forty-five years after it was written, Saturday Night is seen in the U.S.
From callbacks to opening night, a journal of Saturday Night’s process
News & Notes
Miss America 1998 stars as The Witch in Illinois; George Hearn and Ruthie Henshall join the cast of Putting It Together
Passion is given its first performance in southern California in a concert version
An industrial setting for an intimate Sweeney Todd in Minneapolis
A new interpretation for Company, with Donna McKechnie as Joanne
Would you believe that Follies is now a spring musical for high schools?
A Sondheim Portfolio
We look back on five years of publishing by remembering Sondheim productions during that time
A Little Night Music in Japan, Into the Woods in Germany
Dance has a very specific role in Sondheim’s musicals
Julia McKenzie has been creating Sondheim roles in London for twenty-five years
A new songbook includes Sondheim’s music for film and television
For Your Amusement
Our traditional anniversary issue puzzle by Sondheim
Sunday in the Park with George
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
All the nights before Saturday Night
By John Olson
It’s August 1998, and director Gary Griffin and I at a restaurant on Chicago’s north side when I ask about his next Stephen Sondheim project. It will be Pegasus Players’ American premiere of Saturday Night, Sondheim’s first show intended for Broadway. Does the show have a rightful place with the rest of Sondheim’s work, or is it a museum piece for students and fans of the composer?
Griffin says he’s not sure yet exactly how he judges it. He surprises me with an offer to come along for the ride by sitting in on Saturday Night’s auditions and rehearsals, and publishing my observations
in The Sondheim Review.
January 4: Chicago is reeling from a blizzard of 21 inches of snow and a subzero cold snap, but a few actors make it in for callbacks. A cast of fourteen must be chosen from about 300 actors who asked to audition. I learn from Griffin and music director Tom Murray that Pegasus is commissioning new orchestrations for the entire score, and that Music Theater International has suggested Pegasus contact Sondheim’s lead orchestrator Jonathan Tunick to see if he might be interested.
January 19: Griffin and Murray hope to have the final callbacks for their cast. It’s a quiet scene, with Griffin, Murray and Arlene Crewdson, executive director of Pegasus, in the theater and those waiting to audition outside until stage manager Katie Klemme calls them in. It becomes obvious that the directors are becoming sold on Ian Brennan, a 20-year-old junior at Loyola University of Chicago, for the
central character of Gene. Brennan just played the leprechaun Og in a professional production of Finian’s Rainbow. “He’s so watchable,” Murray exclaims to Griffin and Crewdson. “He’s very honest. He doesn’t even have to do anything.” As Brennan reads with Elizabeth Yeats as Helen, it appears that they’ve cast their romantic leads. A bit later, the director and others are blown away by Loyola
freshman Philip Dawkins’ audition for the role of Bobby as he sings the show’s comedy number, “Exhibit A .” “Gary,” Crewdson tells Griffin, “I want to be his agent. I could retire on what he’ll make.” Griffin agrees. “He went back there for fifteen minutes (with the number) and made specific choices for every beat.” News from New York suggests that the project will be more than just a creditable production of a Sondheim show. Crewdson says Sondheim has written a new song, “Montana Chem,” and Sondheim’s edits of Julius Epstein’s original book are due to be typed next week. Pegasus has also confirmed that Jonathan Tunick will be creating the new orchestrations for this production.
January 21: I return for another night of callbacks and tell Crewdson, Murray and Griffin that The Sondheim Review has learned that Sondheim is also writing a second new song, “Delighted, I’m Sure.” Their
eyes widen at the news.
January 24: Griffin says he thinks Saturday Night is about young people asking themselves what kind of lives they want to live. Do they need to be wealthy and glamorous people who dance in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel or is it enough to be surrounded by loyal friends in Brooklyn? Referring to the show’s closing number, Griffin says, “‘What more do I need?’ is a really good question” and the audience wants Gene to make a wise choice. He has cast the production with young performers because actors playing characters younger than themselves sometimes overthink their performances and “comment” on their characters instead of simply playing them.
March 7: An invited audience arrives for the first public performance of the newly edited script as well as the two new songs. The cast, which has worked on the reading for the past week, is seated on stools downstage and reads from scripts on music stands. A few of the smaller parts remain to be cast and are taken by the substitutes. The audience is excited at the chance to be the first to hear two new Sondheim songs. “Delighted, I’m Sure” is a musicalized scene for which lyrics, but not music, had been written with the rest of the score in the ’50s. “Montana Chem” is an entirely new song describing the hopes and fears of the characters as they follow the stock prices of Montana Chemical Corp., in which Gene has invested all their savings. Although we hear two new songs, the show’s one near-standard, “So Many People,” is inexplicably not performed. At intermission, the audience’s consensus appears to be that the new songs blend in well with the rest of the score. Act Two is much shorter than Act One, and some in the audience think it is too short and ends abruptly. But, overall it appears to work for the crowd. After the reading, scenic designer Jeff Bauer shows his set sketches to Griffin.
April 21: After a week of rehearsals, some of the set elements are in place, though unpainted. There’s the front porch unit as well as a cutout skyline of the neighborhood that hangs upstage. The boys are running through a chorus of the title song and have struck a few false notes in Sondheim’s complex harmonies. Griffin offhandedly sighs, “Tom (Murray) is going to be so thrilled.” They’re working on a scene in Act One in which Gene decides to rent the Sutton Place apartment, using the money his friends have given him to invest in stocks. Griffin gives lots of specific information on the meaning of each line, sometimes reading it for the actors if they’re not giving back what he’s looking for. The cast seems to be taking direction quickly, though it’s apparent these Brooklyn friends have not yet begun to fully
inhabit their characters and figure out the subtext behind their somewhat underwritten parts. Griffin takes Brennan and Yeats aside to work on a scene while the rest of the cast lets their backstage conversation get loud enough to bother Griffin. He explains that the spirit of “play” is helpful, but “there will be more time to play later. We haven’t earned that yet.”
April 28: Choreographer Marc Robin is here to rehearse the movement for “One Wonderful Day,” which closes Act One. Gene has just told the gang that he and Helen are getting married in spite of the fact that he hasn’t actually asked her yet. Robin stages it like the traditional big musical comedy number it is. As the rehearsal is a model of time management, Murray works with the singers while Griffin and Robin discuss the dance. Bill Tisdale, playing Gene’s nonsinging, nondancing cousin Pinhead, uses the time to rehearse his blocking on the full set. The many levels of activity create a fugue-like scene that could inspire an Act One finale of its own. Griffin assembles the cast to put all these elements together and see how it works. When Philip sings Bobby’s section advising Gene not to get married, Griffin asks him to hit it harder and communicate his dread of the permanence of marriage. Invoking the words of another Sondheim Bobby, Griffin says, “Once you’ve been married ‘you can never not have been married
again.'” At the break, Patrick Sarb, who plays the buddy Ted, tells me Sondheim will be attending the last two days of rehearsals to see how the new version plays and to give notes.
May 1: Griffin takes the gang into another room to work on their scenes. When they return, Griffin says, “Let’s play the characters that we talked about back in the other room.” The difference in their characterizations is dramatic. The boys–particularly Dino and Ted, who are less developed in the script than Artie or Ray–are becoming real people. Griffin has asked the actors to think about their characters’ needs, and he’s asked the entire cast to write biographies for their characters to help shape their performances. The rehearsal has more intensity now, with Griffin onstage and in the actors’ faces more than in previous rehearsals when he tended to stay seated in the house.
May 6: The cast rehearses a new staging of “One Wonderful Day.” Griffin tells them the previous staging seemed to be fighting the character-driven tone they’re seeking for the piece. He says, “It’s hard to
choreograph a Sondheim show because the lyrics don’t support it. Your characters don’t dance. We need to find another way to express their joy.” The cast is getting a little frustrated at having to learn one
routine and then abandon it to learn another. Griffin reassures them: “Please understand you’re doing fine. We’re just trying to figure out what to do with this little plot and all this material.”
May 7: There’s still another new blocking of “Wonderful Day”–even less like musical comedy and more naturalistic than yesterday’s. Later, stage manager Katie Klemme announces, “O.K., places for the top of the show.” Afterward, Griffin says to the cast, “This is a much more complex show than it appears on the surface,” and that they must remember to play out their characters’ subtexts in their reactions and physical movements. He also complains that the performers aren’t remembering all of the direction they’ve been given, saying, “It’s frustrating to be giving the same notes. You have to remember this is a new piece and we’re trying to make it work. That sort of preparation is more important than usual.”
May 8: Crewdson and Pegasus’ Managing Director John Economos are reviewing the next day’s Sunday Chicago Tribune, in which the chief drama critic previews the show. Proofs of the show’s poster have just come in, but a FedEx shipment of orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick is delayed two days when the delivery person can’t find the theater. Tunick himself arrives on schedule that evening for a week-long stay.
May 9: Assistant musical director Amy Abler tells me that music changes have been coming in daily. Sometimes the changes are initiated by Griffin to cover action he’s blocked, sometimes requested by Robin to cover dance steps, and sometimes by Murray, Sondheim or Sean Patrick Flahaven, who’s writing all new dance, incidental, and vocal arrangements in New York. There’s an eerily quiet atmosphere for the tech rehearsal that evening. The intimacy of cast, stage and musical director has been replaced by a larger group at the rehearsal, which now includes set designer, costume designer, stage and lighting crew. Everyone’s speaking in hushed tones. The stakes have begun to feel much higher.
May 11: The cast is rehearsing with the orchestra for the first time, going through the score in sequence. Tunick and his copyists are sitting at a desk onstage, facing the orchestra, and making notes and
changes. The cast has sung “In the Movies,” first facing Tunick and the orchestra. They move downstage to sing out into the house when suddenly a set piece–a false proscenium arch framing the orchestra but now being flown out to allow for painting of the stage floor–falls to the stage and breaks into pieces. Murray and Sondheim’s copyist, Peggy Serra, are injured, apparently by pieces of the arch. Griffin calls an ambulance. The cast is excused early and retires to a Loyola-area pub to share some drinks and survivor guilt. Griffin arrives much later to tell them Murray and Serra are fine.
May 12: Sondheim was to arrive for this rehearsal but was advised to wait another day since rehearsals are behind schedule due to the accident. Flahaven arrives to see how his work has taken shape. Music rehearsal resumes at 8 p.m. as Murray, sporting a big bump and a bandage on his forehead, says, “Let’s pick up where we left off.” It’s a revelation hearing the Tunick orchestrations for the first time. Unlike the instrumentation heard on recordings, it’s a richer sound–with heavy use of woodwinds–more orchestral, less big-band. Murray says, “It sounds like a Sondheim show now.” I remember listening to “Isn’t It?” during auditions, and notice how much a simple flute trill adds to the piece. The cast grabs the just-delivered stagebills and, in spite of some mischosen head shots and several typos, seems pleased.
May 13: I call Pegasus to see if Sondheim has arrived, as there had been some discussion that maybe he wouldn’t because of the rehearsal delays. I learn that he’s there, but the rehearsal’s closed to the media
and I can’t observe. Over the next few days, I hear accounts of the day from the cast. Two complete runthroughs are performed, with a dinner break in between. Sondheim gives many specific notes to Griffin but is apparently pleased with his new version as performed and makes no major revisions that I could detect from seeing later performances. Sondheim joins the cast for a carryout Chinese dinner in the theater. They ask him questions about their characters and the history of the show. They also inform him of Pegasus’ plans to videotape a performance for Julius Epstein, the book writer now in his eighties who has never seen the show performed. Epstein had suffered a stroke just before the London production and is still too ill to attend this production. Sondheim is visibly touched by this gesture.
May 14: Sondheim has left town and the first preview is held for an audience of about 50, half of whom seem asleep. However, those who are awake are laughing at the right places. During the set change after “In the Movies,” there’s a “thud” and we see the false proscenium arch shaking. Those who know of the accident gasp, but the arch stays up. At the end of the next scene, an impromptu intermission is called. Over the next half-hour, the arch is partially dismantled to be sure it’ll be safe. Act One ends with still another new blocking for “One Wonderful Day,” rehearsed just an hour before the performance. It works beautifully, setting up the tension for Act Two and playing it against the irony of the song’s overly optimistic promise of bliss for Helen and Gene. After the performance, Tunick, Flahaven, and copyists Serra and Steve Alper say goodbye to the cast and company. Tunick expects to deliver an overture and entr’acte before the end of the run. Griffin hosts an after-performance cast party at which stories of Sondheim’s visit and the accident are prominent.
May 19: Sets are complete, with the Plaza Hotel looking elegant and the movie theater sporting a big marquee and two period posters. The false proscenium arch is firmly in place. There’s a full house and the audience responds throughout, laughing aconsistently at the lyrics. Following a reception at the theater, the cast retires to a less formal party at a neighborhood bar. Reviews appear online the next day and
in the daily newspapers on the 21st. They agree the show is a charming piece reflecting the youth and promising talent of its then-24-year-old composer and its now twenty-something cast.
Sondheim fans and directors from all over the country have ordered tickets for this production. There are rumors of interest in an off-Broadway production, and MTI is planning to make the piece available
for licensing. The show’s sense of innocence, optimism and hope has been evident throughout the process. It was an incredible intersection of young theater talents and a theater legend revisiting a work he created when he was at about the same stage of his career as they are now. It was a collaboration of New York theater professionals mixing with a Midwestern non-Equity company to bring another work to the literature of the musical theatre. I suspect a lot of “wonderful days” are ahead for them all.
In the last two issues of TSR, John Olson interviewed directors who make a habit of Sondheim shows.
Due to a typographical error, one of the letters to the editor in our current issue was printed incompletely. The correct version is below.
I read the Spring issue from cover to cover–even before picking up my New York Times. It’s truly one of the best issues. The one thing that I didn’t like was the letter from Rick Sandler of Boston. I totally disagreed with his comments. I saw the Paper Mill’s Follies four times and loved it. Saw Company in London and liked it much better than the Roundabout’s. Saw Putting it Together at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and liked it a lot. I can’t wait to see it in N.Y. later this year with George Hearn, one of my favorites. He didn’t mention A Little Night Music with Dame Judi Dench that I saw in London, also. That production at the National Theater was divine!
I’ll look forward to your next issue. I also look forward to the monthly updates on local performances on my e-mail. I plan to see Putting it Together in Hopewell, N.J., in July.
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