REMEMBERING SONDHEIM’S EARLY CHAMPION By Peter Filichia
Oscar Hammerstein II isn’t the only one we must thank for starting Stephen Sondheim on the musical theater path.
Let’s remember Lemuel Ayers who was born on Jan. 22nd 104 years ago.
Alas, little more than forty years later, he died on Aug. 14, 1955.
And yet, how much he’d accomplished in his short lifetime!
When he was only twenty-four, Ayers designed his first Broadway set (for JOURNEY’S END); in 1941, only two years later, he saw his design help ANGEL STREET become Broadway’s fifth-longest-running play. Two years later, he designed the sets for a show that would run almost 1,000
performances longer, one that became the longest-running
musical of all time: OKLAHOMA!
Seven Broadway assignments followed, some of which had Ayers doing costume and lighting designs as well. But in 1948, he took the biggest chance of his career.
Cole Porter was considered washed-up by many, what with two recent high-profile bombs that had averaged a paltry 129 performances. But once Ayers was enlisted to do the sets for KISS ME, KATE, he was so confident of its success that he started raising money and co-produced it, too.
Ayers also took on both assignments for Porter’s next show OUT OF THIS WORLD, which wasn’t a financial success – following a smash-hit is always hard and rarely lucrative –but has a magnificent score.
During the time when Ayers was doing set designs for two shows that would become back-to-back Best Musical Tony- winners – KISMET and THE PAJAMA GAME – FRONT PORCH IN BROKLYN came into his life.
He liked this little comedy by Julius J. Epstein (no less than one of CASABLANCA’s writers) and optioned it for a Broadway production.
It told of Gene, who’s coming of age and wants to be going from dull ol’ Brooklyn to always-exciting Manhattan. So while his friends are content to hang around on the front porch on Saturday night, Gene has rented a tux with tails and will wangle his way into a Plaza Hotel cotillion.
That’s a far cry from the way he dresses when he works as a mere stock market runner. Being around the big investors, though, makes him think that one day he’ll get a hot stock market tip and be in tuxes and Manhattan now and forever.
At the Plaza he meets Manhattanite Helen Forrester, but she’s a phony, too. Now usually in shows such as this, the two pretenders learn the truth about each other just before the Act Two curtain comes down. Not here – both ’fess up halfway through the first act.
Helen believes in his future, though, as will his friends when he tells them to invest in a stock called Montana Chem. They do, but Gene really takes a chance: Eugene, his well-to-do cousin, has entrusted him with his swank car while he winters in Florida. That’ll do to buy the stock and rent plush digs on Sutton Place.
That FRONT PORCH IN FLATBUSH is set in 1929 makes us assume that the stock market crash will impact Gene’s fortune (or lack of it). No, Epstein was more clever than that; Montana Chem suffers on its own and turns out to be
just about as successful as CHU CHEM was on Broadway.
The play had more problems than Gene. Epstein had the lad shoot himself, not realizing that the gun in his hand was actually a water pistol. Equally hard to believe is that the police would let Gene go scot-free for a weekend after he’d committed a genuine crime.
Who knows if those problems were reasons why Ayers started thinking the play would be better served as a musical where theatergoers tend to suspend more disbelief.
Ayers approached Frank Loesser who passed, which led to his taking a chance on budding composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim whom he met when both were ushers at a buddy’s wedding.
And thus SATURDAY NIGHT was born – and orphaned once Ayers had died of leukemia.
As Ethan Mordden wittily noted in his book THE HAPPIEST CORPSE I’VE EVER SEEN, “However, that unbearably familiar little tale never explain why no one else wanted to give SATURDAY NIGHT an airing.”
A program I have from a backer’s audition – where Epstein’s brother Philip is listed as co-librettist (the only time I’ve seen that) – has Ayers’ name followed by “and John B. Ryan III present.” To paraphrase a future Sondheim lyric, “Whatever happened to him?” – and why didn’t he continue with the project?
Actually, composer Jule Styne did offer to option the show some time in 1960 after he’d worked with lyricist-only Sondheim on GYPSY. Styne was an occasional producer – and the one who cemented PAL JOEY’s reputation with that record-breaking 1952 revival.
Some say that Sondheim himself nixed the resuscitation of SATURDAY NIGHT, saying he was embarrassed by its naïveté and his as a writer.
If that were indeed the case, some had to be surprised in 1996. The Sondheim Society in Nottingham, England asked if it could stage a concert version at the University of Birmingham – and Sondheim said yes.
If he had reservations decades earlier, he’d mellowed; now Sondheim was willing to show the world who he was artistically when he was in his early twenties. As he told Frank Rich, SATURDAY NIGHT is “my baby pictures.”
The concert led to a production the following year at The Bridewell Theatre Company in London.
What’s so intriguing is comparing the song list on the album to the one in the backer’s audition program. Although some songs are in different spots – “I Remember That,” a charming when-we-met duet for Gene’s friends Celeste and Hank, came earlier. “Love’s a Bond,” simply a faux pop tune played at the Plaza, was slotted for late in Act Two. “In the Movies,” a dose of reality to counter what the silver screen tried to make us believe, was then the 11 o’clock number led by Celeste.
The only addition we see in the Bridewell recording is “What More Do I Need?” Gene and Helen’s late-in-the show duet anticipates the “There’s Not a Tune You Can Hum” sequence in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG’s “Opening Doors.”
(Many of us have known “What More Do I Need?” since 1983 when it made its recording debut on the album known as A STEPHEN SONDHEIM EVENING.)
SATURDAY NIGHT also includes “So Many People” which had its official debut in 1973 at the Shubert thanks to SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE. (The live recording made that memorable March 11 th night is arguably better known by the chummier “Scrabble album” because of its cover
Alas, SATURDAY NIGHT has never made it to Broadway. The closest it came was an also-recorded off-Broadway production at Second Stage Theatre in 2000. Maybe there’s another Lemuel Ayers on the horizon who’ll stay alive to see SATURDAY NIGHT come alive somewhere between 41st and 65th Streets.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com . He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com .