Thursday, March 05, 2009

Sondheim on the Stock Exchange

From my blog at spearswms.com

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Given the long lead-in times for plays and musicals, it is rare that they can be as relevant as the credit-crunched characters of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night, now on at the Jermyn Street Theatre. What makes this relevance even more surprising is that the show was written in 1954 (tho' it is almost never performed).

Set in Brooklyn, the downtrodden, notoriously grey and grimy and crimey sister of Manhattan, the characters are young schlubs in the spring of 1929, when the bubble was still filling with hot air and cheap cash and the stock market was the ever-escalating path to eternal bliss.

The one who dreams bigger (and not coincidentally works on Wall Street) finds himself living the grand life on the money of others - and comedic complications ensue. With the love of an equally phoney dame and the inexplicable loyalty of his Brooklyn buddies (whose money he has stolen), he makes it through.

Sondheim's songs are enjoyable pastiches of 20s jazz, bouncily played by the actors (very much in the John Doyle mode), with some sparkling and inventive lyrics by Sondheim too. Take 'Love is a Bond' - amour is 'gilt-edged prefered'. Financial phrases are scattered throughout, just as today everyone who's read a newspaper can now explain why CDSs are the devil's lottery tickets.

The cockeyed optimism of the Brooklyn boys is frighteningly recognisable as they fork over their money. Worse is Gene, who takes their money, blows it on a Park Avenue rental, pawns a car that doesn't belong to him and ends up owing money to everyone and requiring a bailout. Sound familiar?

Even if the complexity of the shadow markets which exist today could not have been imagined in 1929, what is unchanged is human nature: the desire for a fast buck, the misplaced trust in immaterial money - but also human compassion and forgiveness.

If the show were just timely, it would be amusing, but its wit and warmth (tho' not without some typical Sondheim despair) and eminently enjoyable songs make it a rediscovered treasure.

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