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Theater: Latecomer

2 minute read
Richard Zoglin

At a time when Broadway’s musical well has run so dry that recycled revues like It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues and Fosse compete for Tonys, it comes as a pleasant shock to realize that Stephen Sondheim has had an unproduced show in his trunk for more than 40 years. The young composer wrote Saturday Night in the mid-’50s, but a planned Broadway opening was scuttled when the producer died. It was mounted for the first time by a small company in London in 1997. Now Chicago’s Pegasus Players has given the musical (with two new songs added by Sondheim) a spirited, overdue U.S. premiere.

With a book by Julius Epstein (co-writer of the film classic Casablanca), the show revolves around a group of Brooklyn single guys in 1929 who pool their money so that Gene, the most ambitious of their band, can make a killing in the stock market. Despite piquant parallels to our own market mania, the story is a pretty standard boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-money trifle. But it’s a showcase for a fresh and winning Sondheim score, from the days when he wrote melodies meant to be enjoyed, not deciphered.

There are parodies of 1920s dance-band music that make you want to revive the genre, and sweetly simple ballads, like All for You, that in an alternate universe might have been standards by now. Sondheim’s wit is on engaging display in Exhibit A, a how-to guide to scoring with a girl, and What More Do I Need?, a cynical-sentimental tribute to New York City: “The dust is thick and it’s galling/ It simply can’t be excused/ In winter even the falling/ Snow feels used.” O.K., Broadway, your move.

–By Richard Zoglin

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