Stephen Sondheim fans are sort of like Disney fans.
Disney fans spend an inordinate amount of time scanning blogs, engaging on message boards, and most importantly, wait for the next big Disney thing.
In the case of Sondheim, there is no big thing waiting around the corner. A composer who has written some of the most seminal works in the world theatre is produced ad nauseum around the country and the world, and his catalog is vast.
Director Ryan Weible considers himself something of a Sondheim nut. He’s directed more than his share of productions, including “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” and his favorite of all Sondheims – “Assassins.” And now, much like the aforementioned Disney fans, Weible has a brand-new piece to get excited about.
“Saturday Night” is a story that follows young Brooklyn bachelors who are looking for some fun times in the rollicking Manhattan of 1929. The character Gene is the low man on the totem poll in his Wall Street job, and schemes to gain wealth with a sweeping rapidity, but things don’t quite work out.
It’s a piece that was written very early in his career, ready for a premiere in 1954 – he was only 23 at the time – and a piece that is rarely produced. It has an interesting history, as it never saw a seminal production on Broadway, getting close in the mid-1950s. It’s not a play that has seen many productions, first getting its US premiere in 1999, and its New York off-Broadway premiere a year later.
The San Francisco company 42nd Street Moon specializes in pieces that are a bit off the beaten path, which makes “Saturday Night” a great choice. Now running through April 15th at the Gateway Theatre (formerly the Eureka Theatre), Weible was honored to be called in to direct a Sondheim piece that does not have the name recognition of others, mostly because he is quite the lover of the man and his music.
That love is rooted in Sondheim’s role as something of a musical theatre anti-hero, and his ferocity to compose works that have many layers of complexity.
“I feel like we have certain expectations of what musical theatre is. Everything is bright and happy and shiny, wrapped up in pretty little bows with an incredible, cathartic resolution,” said Weible. “I love that Sondheim shows us the darker side of musical theatre, which goes against those who don’t want to think and only want to be entertained.
“I so significantly appreciate that musical theatre can be intelligent, force you out of your comfort zone, and embrace the audience at a different level than a musical theatre presentation level. I love that his work is polarizing.”
Weible’s first experience with Sondheim was participating in a college production of “Company.” It’s a production that fueled his lifelong love and fascination with all things Sondheim, and what Sondheim’s work does for the exploration of humanity. Since then, Weible has directed seven of his productions along with a major highlight – working as a dramaturg on a Broadway production of “Assassins,” a project that put him directly into the room with his idol.
“The thing that jumps out almost immediately about his work is that it explores the human condition in a way that most musicals don’t,” said Weible. “His consistent themes are what it means to be a person and how we discover who we are.”
As is the case with any director, Weible loves interpreting, shaping and molding a show by building a vision to share. But for this show, he strived for an authenticity that really allowed Sondheim’s work to stand on its own merits.
“I’m generally the type of director to put a spin on something, but I didn’t with this piece,” said Weible. “It’s incredibly charming and I wanted to ground it with as much realism as I could. I wanted to draw some parallels to today with the storyline of the 1929 stock market crash, and the fact that the one percent are getting richer and richer by the day.
“We are trying to have this piece tell the story as authentically as it was in 1955. Because it didn’t have a preview process, we want to show everyone what it was in the best possible form. We are not trying to change anything but do it as authentically as it would have been done, and we hope we can do that. It feels like an opportunity not to be missed.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
42nd Street Moon presents “Saturday Night”
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Julius J. Epstein
The Gateway Theatre
215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes with an intermission
Tickets range from $25 – $76
For tickets, call (415) 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org