Remembering A Little Night Music
By 1973, the combination of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince had revolutionized Broadway with two compelling musicals, both featuring non-linear storytelling and taking a brutally honest look at life, its trials and tribulations, and everything in-between. Those musicals were (of course) Company and Follies. For their next Broadway outing, Sondheim and Prince would venture into less groundbreaking territory structurally, but with no less artistry and impact.
Prince and Sondheim’s next venture would be A Little Night Music, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. To adapt the screenplay for the stage, they employ the talents of Hugh Wheeler who will also work with them on the book for Sweeney Todd a few years later. While Wheeler set to bringing the warmth and wit of Bergman’s screenplay to the stage, Sondheim began writing songs for a score that would be composed entirely in ¾ time (or variations of), giving the score the elegance of sweeping, hypnotic waltz.
A Little Night Music tells the story of a series of love triangles playing out during the “Perpetual Sunset” of a summer night in Sweden. Fredrik Egerman is a middle-aged lawyer who has taken for a wife, Anne, a virginal bride of seventeen who, after several months of marriage still hasn’t consummated the union. Fredrik takes her out for a night at the theatre wherein the star is his former mistress Desiree Armfeldt. Anne, meanwhile, is clearly enamored with Fredrik’s son, Henrik, who returns the affections but who is also highly influenced by the flirtations of the maid. Fredrik rekindles his relationship with Desiree, herself in a dalliance with the jealous dragoon Count Carl Magnus. Carl Magnus is married to the depressed, but caustic Charlotte who aches at his infidelities. All of these characters are brought together at the home of Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s suspicious mother, and before the eyes of Desiree’s genial daughter Fredrika, for a “Weekend in the Country.” There, the mismatched pairs sort themselves out and the triangles sort themselves out.
Wandering around the stage and commenting on the action were five lieder singers, two men and three women who commenced the show by entering to the stage and vocalizing. Weaving in and out of the action with their musical commentary, this quintet served as both a conscience and connective tissue for the show. Sometimes they served as nostalgic voices of memory, and other times they were urgent voices that helped propel the plot forward.
The musical’s most popular song proved to be a late addition to the score, Sondheim penning the number for actress Glynis Johns who played the aging actress Desiree Armfeldt. Added to the show just days before the out-of-town tryout, “Send in the Clowns” finds the character looking back on her life and her missed opportunities for love with just a touch of regret. Sondheim tailored the song to John’s voice, one he called “small and silvery,” keeping the phrasing short and not requiring the singing of sustained notes. That choice actually heightened the reticence and resignation in the number. “Send in the Clowns” was recorded by Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand, all having great success with their renditions.
A Little Night Music opened at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on February 25, 1973, running for 601 performances. The talented cast was made up of Glynis Johns as Desiree Armfeldt, Len Cariou as Fredrik Egerman, Patricia Elliott as Countess Charlotte Malcom, Laurence Guittard as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Hermione Gingold as Madame Armfeldt, Victoria Mallory as Anne Egerman, Mark Lambert as Henrik Egerman, Judith Kahan as Fredrika Armfeldt, and D. Jamin Bartlett as Petra. Patricia Birch staged the elegant choreography, gliding waltzes that moved in and out of Boris Aronson’s atmospheric scenery composed of gliding panels painted with pastoral imagery. Under Harold Prince’s deft direction, everything about the production was sumptuous and splendid.
A Little Night Music fared well at the Tony Awards where its chief competition wasPippin, which was its own uniquely stylized musical helmed by the great Bob Fosse. However, A Little Night Music had a triumphant night, taking home the prize for Best Musical, Best Actress (Johns), Best Featured Actress (Elliott), Best Book of a Musical, Best Score of a Musical, and Best Costume Design (Florence Klotz, who crafted elegantly grand costumes, a startling moment in the show dressing the entire cast in white for the Act I finale “A Weekend in the Country.”