Stephen Sondheim, Saturday Night, “What More Do I Need?”
Broadway was deep into a very exciting decade for musicals — the 1950s — when an extraordinarily talented young composer-lyricist took his first major professional steps. This was Stephen Sondheim, who at the age of only twenty-four wrote both music and lyrics for what he thought would be his debut show on Broadway. Saturday Night was supposed to premiere in 1955, but all of Sondheim’s hard work fell by the wayside after the tragic death of Lemuel Ayers, the show’s brilliant lead producer. The show went unseen until 1997, when a production was mounted in London. Two years later the U.S. premiere was given by Chicago’s Pegasus Players, after Sondheim had revised the script and the score had been reorchestrated by his frequent colleague, Jonathan Tunick. Given the predominance of characters we assume are in their twenties, Saturday Night has proven to be an excellent choice for college theater departments. Being in all respects a chamber-scale work, it has also been successful in smaller theater companies nationwide.
It’s clear at first hearing that Saturday Night is definitely the work of someone still finding his own path in musical theater, but Sondheim’s brilliance is already obvious. Perhaps what has kept the show from attracting greater attention is the unappealing — even disreputable — behavior of the main character. Gene Gorman, a runner on Wall Street, is a would-be big-time operator, eager to profit from an underhanded get-rich-quick scheme he instigates with clueless investors. He cleans up his act at the very end of the show, but it’s too late for the audience to care. He’s charming enough, however, for another Brooklynite, Helen Fogel, to fall in love with him. In the show’s final scenes, Gene forsakes Wall Street and agrees to go to work for Helen’s father, who has a chicken-plucking business (!). That decision inspires the delighted Helen to sing Saturday Night’s best-known song, “What More Do I Need?” This vigorous declaration of satisfaction in life gives a strong hint of Sondheim’s matchless gift for inventive lyrics which, within just a few years would contribute memorably to two Broadway triumphs, West Side Story and Gypsy.