Six weeks ago, I saw Stephen Sondheim’s earliest stage work in a pocket West End theatre and was so excited by it that I concluded the review by saying it was worth seeing twice.
Needless to say, that observation went up in lights on the billboards and the show has since upgraded to a slightly less cramped space, the Arts Theatre. But the remark preyed on my consicence, so I decided to test whether the show was, indeed, worth seeing a second time.
First time round, I said it was based on a theatrical flop, Front Porch in Flatbush. Sondheim gently corrected me. It was not a flop, he mailed. It never even reached the stage.
You can see why. A play about Brooklyn singles in early 1929 has little relevance other than a pregnant connection to the subsequent market crash. That, on first sight, was its compelling contemporary attraction.
Second time round, I saw it as an important sketch for Sondheim’s Company – and something more. The show is built around charismatic Gene (David Ricardo-Pearce) who knows he is destined for greater things than Brooklyn and crashes Saturday night parties in the heart of Manhattan.
Gene is surrounded by envious, tolerant friends who bail him out of almost every kind of trouble. He is the light of their lives, but not their leader. He is chosen but not trusted, loved but not well liked.
What does that remind you of? If the President of the United States has a spare couple of hours in London, he ought to catch Saturday Night at the Arts Theare. Nothing personal to this particular president. It just stuck me that America chooses its leaders in much the same way that Sondheim characterises Gene – as the life and soul of the nation, hedged with checks and balances and not fully trusted to lead. I hope I am not reading too much into the work of a 24 year-old debutant but, yes, Saturday Night is worth seeing twice. It is a microcosm of American social and political mores.