Gracious Living: The Pursuit of Wealth and Happiness in SATURDAY NIGHT

Gracious Living: The Pursuit of Wealth and Happiness in SATURDAY NIGHT

Sondheim's first major work as a composer/lyricist was SATURDAY NIGHT, a traditional-style musical comedy set in 1929 Brooklyn.  Gene, a low-level worker on Wall Street, so longs to be one of the financial elite he sees every day that he regularly dresses in tails, crashes parties, and convinces his friends to invest with him in the stock market.  Since Gene's obsession being upper-class seems attainable and gets him into trouble, he is only happy once he decides to take a job that is even lower-class than his current one.

One reason Gene is unable to enjoy the things he does in fact have is that the things he doesn't have seem within his reach.  As an order clerk on Wall Street, Gene works alongside financial bigwigs; he knows the only difference between himself and the men he works for is money.  In fact, Gene relates more to them than to his own friends.  "The beautiful people are my people - it's them I belong with!" he declares in the song "Class."  Movies and the subway are too plebian for Gene - as is going out in anything less than a suit with tails.  "Don't sneer," he scolds his friends when they tease him for "bringing a whiff of elegance into [their] drab lives."  "This is my ticket to a whole beautiful world out there that you guys really ought to see."  Gene is not only convinced that he belongs with the elite; he's also confident he'll soon have the finances they do.  When one of his friends is skeptical of Gene's advice to invest in Montana Chem. Corp, Gene assures him:

"One of the junior partners has taken a liking to me...Name me one stock that's going down.  Look, all around us people are getting rich - making fortunes.  Even the lousy little elevator boy in our building. Do you want to be a shoe clerk all your life because you're afraid to invest five hundred bucks?  I tell you, by Sunday we'll have a profit of ten to eleven thousand dollars."

With riches seemingly just out of reach, it's impossible for Gene to be content with what he has.

Moreover, Gene has enough money to create the appearance of being wealthy, enabling him to have a taste of the lifestyle. "I've got two suits...but both of them came from Brooks," he points out.  "That's what I mean by 'class!'"  Gene uses quality to set himself apart from his friends, even if it means he has to borrow money for cab fare.  But Gene doesn't just look the part; in his own way, he lives it.  He refers to his cousin's car as a limousine, and brazenly drives it as though it were his own when his cousin is away in Florida.  While his friends get ready to go to the movies, Gene plans to sneak into a fancy party at the Plaza.  "I got into the Hunt Ball last week, didn't I?" he reminds a friend who's doubtful of Gene's success.  "And the Metropolitan Opera shindig the week before.  No trouble at all."  When he meets his soon-to-be girlfriend, Helen - who is also trying to crash the party - he responds to her elaborate (and false) story with one of his own.  Gene claims to be Eugene Goulding Gorman the Third, a Dartmouth alum with a Park Avenue apartment, a father doing business in California, and a yacht in the Mediterranean.  Because Gene can so readily envision himself as somebody rich - so much so that he frequently pretends to be rich - Gene can't be happy knowing that the status he claims is only an illusion.

Jermyn Street Theatre

Jermyn Street Theatre's 2009 production of SATURDAY NIGHT

Another reason Gene is unable to be happy with his social status is that his upper-class attitude consistently gets him into trouble.  His overconfidence and the exaggerated reliability of his stock tip causes his friends to lose money when Montana Chem. Corp stock goes down point after point.  Understandably, his friends become frustrated with Gene as they lose more and more money:

"But Gene says the market's mediocre,
Gene says the market's a cinch.
Gene says he heard it from some joker
Who's the nephew of a broker
Down at Merrill Lynch."

Once his friends start suffering consequences they literally can't afford, Gene's aspirations to wealth become increasingly irritating.  "Maybe we could afford to go to speakeasies if we didn't have to keep throwing margin down a rat hole," gibes one of Gene's friends.  "My Hank's no Einstein," adds the wife of another friend, "but at least he had brains enough to stay out of that mess."  Gene's get-rich-quick scheme is a disaster that Gene assumes responsibility for - a responsibility that includes finding a way to make things up to the friends he let down.

Gene's trouble with his friends, however, is nothing compared to the monetary trouble he creates for himself.  He gets so caught up pretending to be interested in a swanky Sutton Place apartment that he begins to believe the fantasy.  "Yes, I think I could be happy in an apartment like this," he muses:

"I can see myself of an evening coming back from the Exchange, where I've just cornered wheat...I seat myself by the fireplace in a Louis Quatorze chair - in my hand a tumbler of Napoleon Brandy - I open my copy of Town and Country -"

Helen abruptly brings Gene back to earth, insisting that he'll

"never have an apartment like this.  You'll marry Mildred or Celeste's sister and wind up in a two-family semi-attached stucco house on Avenue M someplace.  And me, I'll marry my father's C.P.A. or his head shipping clerk and you know what?  We'll probably wind up in the same two-family semi-attached stucco house that you do."

This is probably the closest Gene has ever gotten to gaining full access to the world of the elite - and Helen's chastisement is probably the most direct wake-up call he's had.  Faced with the realization that Helen may be right, Gene grabs onto his dream the most firm way he can: by putting a deposit down on the apartment and signing the lease.  Of course, Gene doesn't have that kind of money, so he uses the money his friends had given him to buy stock, and sells his cousin's car to replace the stock money.  Consequently, Gene is now saddled with an apartment he can't afford to keep and wanted for questioning by the police when Gene's cousin reports his car stolen.  Because Gene is unable to accept the reality of his social status, he finds himself in situations that push him even further from the elegant world he feels he belongs.

Jermyn Street Theatre

Jermyn Street Theatre's SATURDAY NIGHT

Luckily, the original owners of the apartment want it back, enabling Gene to get back his deposit, plus additional money for the inconvenience - just enough money to pay for his cousin's car.  Gene is shocked to discover that Helen knew about this fortuitous turn of events, but kept it secret.  Helen explains her reasoning:

"I just thought if you got out of this scrape so easily you'd just go on - there wouldn't be any hope you'd ever grow up.  When [the realtor] called...I said, dammit, I won't tell him yet...Let him do one decent thing on his own hook.  Just once, he's got to learn."

And learn Gene does.  At Helen's urging, he agrees to work for her father's company, even though he'd start out plucking chickens.  In such a low-level job that's worlds away from Wall Street, Gene would no longer be tempted by the daily sight of three-piece suits and elevator boys striking it rich, and he wouldn't be making enough money to pass as upper-class anymore.  Instead, he and Helen will live with "no Matisse.  No egg and dart moulding.  Just Brooklyn."  Only then will Gene be able to focus on what he has - not what he wishes he had - and only then will he be happy.

To license SATURDAY NIGHT, visit its MTI show page. Discuss this article or SATURDAY NIGHT in general on its MTI ShowSpace page.