As I read through Kari and Sarah’s blogs about their field trip to Baltimore this weekend to see A Little Night Music, I’ve been thinking about their thoughts and reactions, but also on the phenomenal musical itself, one of the most emotionally satisfying musicals in the Sondheim canon (and a rare one with a “happy ending”).
It’s time. We need a full-scale revival of the show in NY. Given how every Sondheim musical appears to be receiving Broadway revivals, it’s almost predetermined that it must happen – and soon. Though it strikes me as bizarre that we are likely to see a revival of the red-headed step-child of the Prince-Sondheim collaborations, Merrily We Roll Along, from Roundabout before this superb critical and financial success. For the past ten years or so there’s been rumors of a revival featuring Glenn Close, but thankfully that ship seems to have sailed. (No offense to Close, but there are better choices for the role of Desiree). Aside from the NYCO production that has been seen in 1990 and 2004, Night Music, much like South Pacific, is one of those classics that is continually revived in London, but has yet to come back to Broadway.
Composed in derivatives of 3 (this piece is erroneously called the “Waltz musical”), the score is lush and sophisticated in both its melody and lyrics. I realize I’m talking about Sondheim and this may sound redundant to many of you. However, this specific score aspires to a wistfulness that combines the usual Sondheimian touches of irony and cynicism (especially from Charlotte) with a softer optimism that isn’t found in Company, Follies and more recently, Passion. You have the Chekhovian mini-opera between Fredrik, Henrik and Anne “Now/Later/Soon.” There’s the dragoon’s brash bragadaccio of “In Praise of Women”, Charlotte and Anne giving a discourse on marriage in “Every Day a Little Death.” Plus, there’s the breathtaking act one finale “A Weekend in the Country” with it’s operetta conventions and death-defying intricacy as well as “The Miller’s Son” with its practical look at romance and marriage from the lusty Petra, who’s spent most of the evening as a bemused observer at the farce going on around her.
However, there are two numbers which stand out not only as the best in this score, but also of anything Mr. Sondheim has ever written. The most obvious is “Send in the Clowns,” which is endlessly murdered by oh so many singers who don’t get the point of the song AT ALL. In fact, the more it’s “sung” the more I tend to dislike it. It’s a song of anger, frustration and embarrassment (and an attempt to cover for it). The phrases are purposefully terse and clipped, not just for the limited vocal range of Glynis Johns (the original Tony-winning Desiree), but also for the character’s emotional range at that particular moment. (See Kari for more indepth analysis on this song). But I want to focus on another song in the score.
One of the musical’s most beautiful and affecting moments comes in the middle of the first act. Desiree and Fredrik have just gone to bed after a rather hilarious musical scene in which he comes to tell her about his young bride – simultaneously praising her youthfulness and venting his frustrations over her continued virginity. As they go into the bedroom for their tryst, Madame Armfeldt enters for her solo, “Liaisons,” a flawlessly constructed musical monologue. You have Madame trying to tell a story about one of her former lovers. She keeps getting sidetracked when she thinks about how her daughter is going about her own romantic life. The tangential aspect keeps bringing her back to a reminiscence of a former love, only to be sidetracked yet again, eventually ending with her falling asleep.
In her more philosophical segues onto the current state of how the young carry out their affairs, she looks back on how she loved with her head, not necessarily her heart. Like many people who have gotten older, she remembers how things were better when she was younger. (In this particular aspect we find a parallel between “Liaisons” and the Old Lady’s stance on change in “Beautiful” from Sunday). It’s the perfect embodiment of the colorful and blunt opinions of the older generation. A dreamlike orchestration, with the celesta and harp arpeggiating while the strings and winds caress and complement the melodic line (in an atypical 3/2 time). The imagery of the lyrics is nothing short of poetic.
Madame offers her thoughts on the lack of taste she sees in these affairs with a series of rhetorical questions:
“Where is style?
Where is skill?
Where is forethought?
Where’s discretion of the heart?
Where’s passion in the art?
Those words tend to make me think of many contemporary musical theatre writers, who seem to fore go many of these traits while either padding out a film for stage just because it’s the thing to do, or forgetting that lyrics are supposed to serve character and the story. I’ll stop being a digressive and crotchety old dowager now.
Anyway, almost immediately following comes one of my favorite lyrics ever:
“Too many people muddle sex
With mere desire
And when emotion intercedes
The nets descend.
It should on no account perplex,
Or worse, inspire;
It’s but a pleasurable means
To a measurable end.
Why does no one comprehend?
Let us hope this lunacy is just a trend.”
Oh the sheer, sheer brilliance of that thought. If we had any innate ability to follow it, we’d probably be a lot happier, but unfortunately even when we recognize this in our lives, we tend to toss it off and get ensnared each time. It’s usually easier for us, when we’re in the position of Mme Armfeldt, observing the follies of others in love, or at least think they are, to have such rational thinking.
There is also a subtle, yet beautiful homage to the Bergman film in the following line:
“In the castle of the King of the Belgians
We would visit through a false chiffonier…”
From a NY Times profile on Regina Resnik in 1990 (by Eleanor Blau):
‘Miss Resnik, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 1988 for her portrayal of the landlady in a revival of ‘Cabaret, said she loved Hermione Gingold’s Mme. Armfeldt in the original Broadway cast of A Little Night Music in 1973. But her own delivery is very different. ”I think I play it more directly, with less eccentricity,” she said. And Miss Resnik sings the song ”Liaisons,” instead of talking it as Ms. Gingold and others have done. She said Mr. Sondheim asked her to do so, saying he had never heard it sung.
Mme. Armfeldt is ”taut and acid, not a lady of sentiment,” Miss Resnik said. ”She has memories, but they are not nostalgic. She thinks what is important is how clever you are and what you’ve gotten from experience. She was a clever courtesan.” Mme. Armfeldt tells her daughter (Sally Ann Howes), ”I don’t object to the immorality of your life; I object to its sloppiness.” ‘
So when we revive this, who could possible take on these two memorable roles? Desiree? I’d like to see Emma Thompson, a person with so many of the correct traits necessary for a successful characterization. Others have suggested Annette Bening, which I think stems more from her Oscar-nominated British variation on Desiree in Being Julia. (Those actresses who have played the part: Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons, Virginia McKenna, Elizabeth Taylor in the woeful film adaptation, Sally Ann Howes and Juliet Stevenson in the two NYCO productions, Betty Buckley for the BBC, Judi Dench in a London revival, Blair Brown at the Kennedy Center, Patti LuPone at Ravinia, Judith Ivey in the LA presentation of the NYCO production and currently Barbara Walsh in Baltimore).
Madame Armfeldt, a delicious part for an older actress was originated by Hermione Gingold on Broadway, in London (where she was replaced by Angela Baddeley) and on film. (A far departure from her usual grande dame comedienne routine). Margaret Hamilton played her in the original national tour, Lila Kedrova in the 1989 London revival, Glynis Johns herself in an early 90s production in LA, Regina Resnik and Claire Bloom for the NYCO, Barbara Bryne at the Kennedy Center and Zoe Caldwell at Ravinia and in LA. My money is on Angela Lansbury. She seems like the perfect choice and hopefully since it requires little in the way of movement (she spends almost the entire show in a wheelchair), it’s a role that wouldn’t be physically taxing. Though I would love it if they landed Patricia Routledge for the rumored Menier production. We’d be getting on a plane, kids.
Onto another sticking point for me: the orchestrations. It would be a disservice to the piece to give it the ol’ John Doyle pseudo-Brechtian One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band treatment. It would also be a disservice for Roundabout to revive it with their stock-in-trade reductions. The score demands a full-scale commercial revival with costumes and orchestration intact, or better yet, the Vivian Beaumont at LCT would be a perfect venue for the show. Their history of staging musicals, as evidenced by The Light in the Piazza and currently the smash hit revival of South Pacific, the organization seems to have the Midas touch these days. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations can never be bettered by anyone else, and it would foolish for anyone to try to reduce them. Exhibit A: the definitive original Broadway cast recording, as close to perfection as one will find with a music theatre album.
Whatever the case may be, we need A Little Night Music now. Thoughts?