Revisiting “A Little Night Music”

I didn’t have plans to revisit the revival of A Little Night Music before Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ departures, but much to my surprise I won a contest on BroadwaySpace for a pair of tickets to their final matinee on June 20. I’ve done a lot of final performances, from Bernadette’s Gypsy to The Norman Conquests, so it’s something with which I’m familiar. There is a huge fan base, the cheers are a little louder and longer and the general feeling in the theatre is that of good will. I met up with SarahB and Byrne at Sosa Borella before the show where we dubbed it “Angie Day – Summer Edition” and drank a toast to the star and her day. We headed down to the Walter Kerr, where we met up with fellow ITBA blogger (and Prettybelle enthusiast) Donald from Me2ism. We also had the opportunity to meet our delightful Twitter friend and fellow theatre fan Shari Zeck, who had flown in to see Ms. Lansbury.

Full disclosure: it was a pleasure to be in attendance on this particular performance and in spite of quibbles found myself enjoying the production more the second time, managing to focus on the text and action and mostly forgetting the bland sets, costumes and anemic orchestrations. Getting those quibbles out of the way: Trevor Nunn’s direction is hamfisted, lacking in nuance and full of far too much indicating. Act 1 and Act 2 feel like they were directed by two entirely different people, the former feels like a Lutheran penance, while things pick up considerably in the latter. Erin Davie is still humorless and ineffectual as Charlotte while Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent is still circling the airports of the world.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, fresh off a now notorious Tony performance, is much better than you’d remember based on that telecast but she also never, in my estimation, reached greatness in the part. There are moments when it seems that she’s playing the character of Desiree Armfeldt as the world’s greatest lush, with the idiosyncratic mannerisms of someone secretly taking a nip when no one is looking. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by it (those pregnant pauses – Trevor, how could you?); however, she really shone in the final scene, earning applause when Fredrik and Desiree finally connect (myself included). I think Night Music has one of the most flawless endings in musical theatre history, up there with She Loves Me. Now, mind you I mention these criticisms about her performance, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy her this time. At this point, I can only fault the director for the things that didn’t work.

Now onto the good: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and especially Ramona Mallory have grown in their parts, with more nuance and understanding. Aaron Lazar and Alexander Hanson are still excellent as ever. The Liebeslieders are in excellent voice, and make an impression in spite of the walkography thrust upon them. (What a shame they don’t get to sing the full overture, a glorious piece of music). Keaton Whittaker is still a welcome presence as Fredrika.

And then there’s Angela Lansbury. Lansbury has been the toast of Broadway for so many years and has rightfully earned the status of legend, from Hotel Paradiso onward (to say nothing of her five Tony Awards). I’ve been so fortunate to see her in Deuce and Blithe Spirit, each time amazed that she was returning to Broadway. With her stage renaissance, I had hoped she would play the role of Madame Armfeldt and I am so glad this production made that pipe dream a reality. Out of the three productions, this one outshone the other two. On this last performance, Ms. Lansbury gave the greatest performance I’ve seen from her. On her entrance, which is timed with the applause button for the overture, the ovation grew and grew and lasted what I think must have been between 45 seconds and a full minute. Adulation from everyone in the house; the mere sight of Lansbury in the wheelchair made my heart leap. Her final rendition of “Liaisons” was the most devastating I’ve ever heard in my life, with all respect to Hermione Gingold, Regina Resnik, etc. In the final section of the song, there was unexpected emotion from Ms. Lansbury, as tears came to her eyes. A testament to her unrelenting brilliance: it came from a personal place for her last show, but was also an exceptionally valid acting choice . “Send in the Clowns” got the ovation; but it was “Liaisons” that was the pinnacle of this afternoon’s performance.

At the curtain call, there was a huge ovation as Zeta-Jones and Lansbury stepped forward. It took a couple minutes for Catherine to get the audience to quiet down, finally getting the audience to shut up and sit down. In a moment of pure class, the star dedicated virtually the entire speech to Angela. It was unexpected, honest and a beautiful tribute as those in the house and onstage hopelessly fought back tears. Zeta-Jones got down her knees and bowed down to Angela, who in turn gave a sophisticated curtsy to her co-star. It was a beautiful moment, chock full of emotion. Suffice it to say, I think it was in the back everyone’s minds that this could potentially be the last time Ms. Lansbury, the Queen of Broadway, appears on stage. But the first thing I said to SarahB was “So what do you think Angie will appear in next season?”

Random Thoughts on the Tony Awards

Last night I was very fortunate to be watching the Tony Awards at SarahB‘s annual Tony party (which I lovingly call “Lady Iris’ Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza”). We were in a different suite this year, but the company was the same. While it rained on the NY, up inside 1820, the moon was the full, the gin was in the bathtub and a glorious time was had by all. There was a Twitter corner for those who wished to tweet during the ceremony, but we all had such a marvelous time with one another that no one left the couch!

The greatest acceptance speech of the night belonged to Marian Seldes. The beloved actress was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award which was presented on the pre-show telecast on NY1. There had been some conjecture wondering how long Ms. Seldes’ speech would run. However, she trumped all by merely walking to the microphone, taking several glances at the house and merely put her hand to her cheek in astonishment as she walked offstage. I think it will go down as one of the greatest Tony moments ever (and is that now officially the shortest acceptance speech on record…)

I’ve seen some speculation on web boards and twitter that Ms. Seldes’ speech was either disingenuous or indicative of failing health. But the truth of the matter that it is neither. Marian is an animal of the theatre, one who has a unique quality of eccentricity about her. But this eccentricity is pure sincerity. I don’t know that there is another person alive or dead who genuinely loves theatre like Marian Seldes, who recently sat through a three hour performance of A Little Night Music, backstage visit and dinner with a smashed shoulder (which would require surgery). She is wholly dedicated to her profession, and I for one say “Brava!”

Last July, the Tony Management Committee released a statement to the press to inform the world that members of the press were to lose their voting privileges in the awards. There was a huge backlash at the time because of the hypocritical statement that removing the press would make the awards more balanced and fair. Bullshit. It was a choice that removed the most impartial members (approx. 100 folks, accounting for 1/8 of the voters). The results of last night’s awards were indicative of that choice.

Producers were given far more influence in the voting results, which were reflective of the trends of this weary, underwhelming theatre season where the great financial successes were star driven limited engagements. Stars were given preference; not necessarily saying that their performances weren’t meritorious, but it seemed more like a plea on the producers’ part to entice other stars to come to Broadway. While I welcome any and all to give it a try onstage… I am weary at the unhealthy trend this could set as more and more producers look to shy away from artistic risks and pander to middling tastes.

There weren’t as many sound gaffes as last year, but that didn’t help much when it came to Tony performances. Once again they felt rushed and were at extremes. There was no balanced excerpt. Green Day was given two songs while Christiane Noll was given the bridge of “Back to Before.” Nominated revival, and the best reviewed show of the season Finian’s Rainbow wasn’t even represented in song. The television direction once again proved entirely incongruous, giving the audience very little feel for the shows in contention. Matthew Morrison needs to do another musical, but I’m not sold that Lea Michelle is ready for a revival of Funny Girl.

The trouble remains the need for CBS to draw ratings (which it always fails to do) so they limit the performance time for shows and make it impossible to get a sense of the shows currently playing. Also with the show being held in Radio City Music Hall, a cavernous barn fit only for a revival of Jumbo, much intimacy is lost. Radio City Music Hall is not Broadway, nor will it ever be. It’s unlikely to change unless the awards are given the boot from network television (and the way it’s going, it would probably be better off on PBS), but I wish the tradition of going to a different Broadway house each year would return.

Then there is the legend of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While I am not a big fan of the stage revival currently playing the Walter Kerr, I did think that the star could have been exceptional Desiree Armfeldt with a more nuanced director, such as Bartlett Sher. The performance of “Send in the Clowns” ranks as one of the worst renditions of the song I have ever seen/heard, whether it was the choice to remove Alexander Hanson (who should have been nominated for his exceptional Fredrik Egerman) from the moment so she would have someone to play to or nerves, or projecting to the house at Radio City Music Hall. It heightened what was problematic about her performance to me – the need to oversell, oversing and the overall lack of nuance and balance in her performance. Even folks I know who liked the performance found themselves screaming at the pregnant pauses, jerky head movements and crazy eyes. What seemed mediocre at the Kerr was downright terrifying in HD closeup. Barbara Cook introduced the number, but truth be told I think she should have been the one singing the Sondheim classic last night.

The Best Musical Tony should be renamed “Best Vehicle for Marketing on Tour.” It was a weak year for original musicals, very few properties were represented and there were only two eligible nominees for score (with Fences and Enron filling out the rest). Memphis won because it was the most wholly original and traditional musical in the bunch, a diluted and derivative hybrid of Dreamgirls and Hairspray. (I’d have voted for Fela!, one of the great experiences of the year).

Sean Hayes was an exceptional host. Funny, affable, self-deprecating. He was genuinely funny and his one liners and shtick worked very well. His quips as well as his numerous costume bits were very amusing and as the night progressed further and further into tedium, I looked forward to seeing what the Promises, Promises star would come up with next. Also, props on the classical piano skills – I was sort of hoping that he and David Hyde Pierce would engage in a round of dueling pianos.

Angela Lansbury did not break the record for most acting Tony wins last night, but she was still the epitome of class and grace as she was announced the first ever Honorary Chairman of the American Theatre Wing, an announcement which brought the entire crowd at Radio City Music Hall to its feet.

Oh – and one more thing. NY Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was on hand to present the Best Musical performance of Memphis. In his introduction he was touted as a theatre aficionado, to which I said, “That doesn’t look like me.” It was unexpected, but I think it’s nice to see someone from the world of sports taking an interest in Broadway.

Isn’t it rich…?

One of the worst kept secrets in recent months has been the casting of the first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler’s Tony winning A Little Night Music. Murmurs of Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt have been swirling since the beginning of the summer (if not before) and the rest of the actors’ names have been leaked out at one point or another. Then last week, Michael Douglas let it slip on Live with Regis and Kelly that his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones would headlining as Desiree Armfeldt. (He immediately mused whether or not he was supposed to say anything).

Well, it’s been announced that the musical will open at the Walter Kerr Theatre on December 13, with previews starting November 24. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury will indeed headline the revival, as well as Aaron Lazar as Carl-Magnus, Erin Davie as Charlotte, Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra and the sole holdout from the Menier revival, Alexander Hanson, will reprise his Olivier-nominated turn as Fredrik for NY audiences.

All due respect to the headlining divas, but the most interesting piece of casting is that of Anne Egerman. The role is being portrayed by Ramona Mallory, who is taking on the role created by her mother, Victoria Mallory, in the original Broadway company. It doesn’t stop there: her father is Mark Lambert, who originated the role of Henrik.

I’m always grateful for the chance to see A Little Night Music, but had hoped that the original orchestrations would be reconsidered. The Menier production featured new charts by Jason Carr, who was responsible for eviscerating Sunday in the Park with George to a tinhorn and kazoo. (Hyperbole, yes, but it was the major flaw in that revival). I am loathe to think that Jonathan Tunick’s sumptuous orchestrations will be streamlined by a lesser talent for the sake of cost and size. But beggars can’t be choosers (though I realize I’ve personally yet to see a Sondheim revival on Broadway that used the superlative original orchestration). I quibble, but you know I’ll be there and how!

Tickets go on sale online starting October 17, the Walter Kerr box office opens on October 19. (And of course those with Amex can get them starting September 30).