Perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing. Well yes, I expect it is. Its often said that Scandinavia’s long summer days can drive people mad with there being so few hours of darkness. Not necessarily the most obvious choice of subject matter for a musical, but as suggested by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles Of A Summer Night this did indeed become the subject matter for Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music.
Liaisons what happened to them?
Described by its producer/director, Harold Prince, as “Whipped cream with knives” A Little Night Music is set somewhere around the turn of the last century in Sweden. It tells the story of amoral actress Desiree Armfeldt, her paramours and their spouses. As a well known actress Desiree was often off touring so was not able to spend much time with her daughter Frederika who was left in the charge of her grandmother, Madame Armfeldt, an aging courtesan. Desiree’s current beau was the Count Carl Magnus Malcolm who was married to the acerbic Charlotte. Now Charlotte was an acquaintance of Anne the new young wife of Fredrik Egerman, former lover of Ms Armfeldt. Along with Petra the maid and Henrik, Fredriks son this more or less takes care of the entire cast. Of course we do also have the novel addition of a vocal quintet often described as the Liebeslieder which comment musically on the action as a kind of Scandinavian Greek chorus as it were.
Is Hans Christian Anderson ever risqué?
It is in fact the quintet who launch the proceedings as they begin a sung overture which starts with them doing vocal exercises – in the manner of an orchestra tuning up – and flows into Night Waltz as the stage is filled by elegant couples dancing and giving a hint of the romantic twists and turns ahead. Madame Armfeldt then takes the stage with her granddaughter Fredrika, informing her that the summer night does indeed smile three times. “The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second at the fools, who know too little, like Desiree. And the third at the old, who know too much – like me!” The action then turns to the Egerman house as Fredrik, a lawyer, laments his woes at Now being married to a virgin. His son then makes a clumsy pass at Petra the maid, who tells him he may have the knack Later, and Anne promises that Soon she will be a true wife to Fredrik. The first appearance of Desiree occurs as she sings of The Glamorous Life that she leads in the theatre whilst Madame Armfeldt and Fredrika offer some rather bitter ripostes! That evening Fredrik takes Anne to the theatre where he is spotted in the audience by Desiree. Fredrik makes his excuses and seeks out Desiree’s digs where they have a bittersweet reunion after over a decade, and he advises her You Must Meet My Wife which judging from her rather dry response is not an opportunity she relishes. Interrupted (in flagrante) by her current beau, the dragoon, Carl-Magnus, they concoct a rather dubious story about Fredrik bringing some legal papers for her to sign and him falling into the bath! Carl-Magnus sends Fredrik away in his underwear and seriously doubts the story he has been told (In Praise Of Women) . The next morning Carl-Magnus sends his wife, Charlotte, to visit Anne and inform her of Fredrik’s adultery (Every Day A Little Death) Desiree then pays a long overdue visit to her mothers estate and begins to plan A Weekend In The Country with guests, the Egermans, and gate crashers, the Malcolms, also in attendance.
A weekend in the country, how amusing, how delightfully droll
As the curtain goes up on the second act , the guests arrive for the weekends shenanigans. There is the inevitable stand off between Egerman and Malcolm (It Would Have Been Wonderful) and a lavish dinner that ends in an argument and Henrik’s angry departure from the dinner table. As Anne and Fredrika begin to search for Henrik, Fredrik visits Desiree in her boudoir where she reveals that she hopes to rekindle their romance. Fredrik however is unwilling to give up his young bride and leaves Desiree contemplating that it’s a case of bad timing etc – Send In The Clowns. Without giving away the denouement, as the summer night finally draws to a close many more twists and turns occur - duels, unexpected couplings, flings, and more - before Madame Armfeldt tells Fredrika that the night has indeed smiled twice – for the young and for the fools - as the lovers waltz one last time and the night smiles for it’s third and last time.
Love takes time, entirely too much yet sublime
It’s often quoted that the score of A Little Night Music is entirely in ¾ (Waltz) time, but Sondheim himself is quick to correct this. Without a doubt though this show possibly does contain more waltzes than any other as the vocal quintet comment on the action, in song, many times during the evening. Certainly it is hard to find a more elegant sequence of songs in musical theatre as variations on love and romance colour almost every song. Chief amongst the scores highlights must be Sondheim’s most well known song – Send in The Clowns – written for original leading lady Glynis Johns. Ms Johns was not noted for her great vocal range so the song was written, according to legend, in the course of one evening when it was decided that despite her vocal limitations she did need a big number. A Weekend In The Country, with its tongue twisting lyrics, must count as one of the most rousing act one closers ever to be performed, and the wit of the lyrics throughout the show very much contain the “whipped cream and knives” that Prince described. Although less crucial to the main plot there are two further numbers that deserve very special mention. Firstly we have Madame Armfeldt as she reminisces on the Liaisons she enjoyed as a courtesan, and bemoans the lack of romance in contemporary society. Also, at eleven o’clock, we have Petra, the maid, fresh from a nocturnal assignation where she ponders the kind of man she may end, up with touching on everyone from The Millers Son to the Prince Of Wales.
Hi-ho the glamorous life?
The book to the show was written by Hugh Wheeler, and is perfectly in tune with the textures of the remarkable score. Along with the orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, and stunning sets by Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz’ costume designs, the original Broadway run had all the elements that make for a great evening at the theatre. Opening at the Shubert Theatre in February 1973, A Little Night Music enjoyed the best reception so far for a Sondheim/Prince collaboration and enjoyed a successful run of 601 performances. Along with Glynis Johns the cast also featured the indefatigable Hermione Gingold (possibly best known for the film Gigi) as Madame Armfeldt, future “Sweeney Todd” Len Cariou as Fredrik and Laurence Guittard as the Count.
The hands on the clock turn, but don’t sing a nocturne just yet
It was two years later, in April 1975 that the Adelphi Theatre housed the London production of A Little Night Music. British born Hollywood star Jean Simmons lead the cast as Desiree and was joined by Broadways Madame Armfeldt, Hermione Gingold. Joss Ackland played Fredrik and also amongst the cast were well known names Liz Robertson, Maria Aitken and David Kernan. In the role of Petra was, rising star, Diane Langton. In the late eighties I was lucky enough to see Ms Langton reprise her stunning version of The Millers Son in a charity concert – and, for me, her rendition will always be definitive. 1978 saw the some what misconceived film version of the show. Many of the songs, including the show stopping Liaisons were excised from the score, and The Glamorous Life was totally rewritten as a gorgeous solo for Fredrika. Strangely the location for the story was transferred to Vienna, but the film did retain three of its original cast with Cariou, Gingold and Guittard. As Desiree was the, miscast, Elizabeth Taylor. Whilst as an actress her casting may seem spot on she didn’t manage to accomplish the style of either Glynis Johns or Jean Simmons vocally. The one performance that was a real highlight of this film – and indeed in itself is good reason for seeking it out – was Diana Rigg as the Countess. Bringing a cool brittle aloofness to the picture she makes Every Day A Little Death the films best moment for me.
I admit she’s endearing what’s one small shortcoming
Although never revived on Broadway the show has received two productions by the New York City Opera in 1990 and 2003 , the latter production featuring Juliet Stevenson, Jeremy Irons and Claire Bloom. There have been two major revivals in the West End both of which I have been lucky enough to see. Approximately fifteen years after its London debut a “chamber” version of the show with scaled down orchestrations played at the Piccadilly Theatre. The cast was lead by the late Dorothy Tutin as Desiree and featured Eric Flynn, Peter McEnery, an excellent Susan Hampshire as Charlotte Malcolm and a young Alexander Hanson as Henrik. However, it was in 1995 at the South Bank’s National Theatre that A Little Night Music enjoyed a critically lauded production. Dame Judi Dench was sublime as Desiree Armfeldt and her rendition of Send In The Clowns will always remain one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed and heard in the theatre. Almost everything about the production was exquisite, the sets, the lighting, the choreography…..for me the only jarring moment was The Glamorous Life which (misguidedly) combined both the film and stage versions and frankly was a bit of a mess. This aside it truly was magnificent and as well as leading to a well deserved Olivier Award for Dench it had an outstanding cast. As Henrik was, the Broadway and movie Carl-Magnus, Laurence Guittard – married to a perfectly annoying (for that is how she should be!) Joanna Riding. Sian Phillips was a convincing Madame Armfeldt despite being far too young, and Patricia Hodge brought all the right qualities to Charlotte opposite French actor Lambert Wilson’s dragoon! Around the same time a full radio production of the show was mounted on BBC2 starring Betty Buckley and Keith Michell in the principal roles.
So the summer night has smiled three times on London, and once on Broadway – but I am sure it’s only a matter of time before it smiles again on this further essential musical.
To my knowledge there are five English language recordings of the score and I believe there has also been a Spanish one! The definitive one, for me, has to be the 1995 London Revival with Judi Dench which (with the exception of The Glamorous Life) is a stunning recreation of the score. However this was only in print for a short time and when it turns up on ebay it goes for over a hundred pounds so unless you already possess it then its pretty hard to get hold of! I haven’t heard the Spanish version of the show and the film is yet to get a cd release, but the Broadway version was beautifully re-mastered a decade ago and preserves a wonderful cast. Although not quite Judi Dench, Glynis Johns is excellent as Desiree and you also get the incomparable Gingold and the great voices of Cariou and Guittard. Soon is not generally considered one of the best numbers in the show but Victoria Mallory’s soaring performance of the number is absolutely stunning. This recording does also contain the bonus of the film version of The Glamorous Life. The 1975 London cast recording is a little disappointing, as Simmons lacks what Dench and Johns brought to the role, but Langton’s The Millers Son makes up for it. The earlier London revival lacks a cast recording but TER did record an album featuring some of the cast including Flynn and Hampshire. Of interest for this recording are, a future Madame Armfeldt, Sian Phillips as Desiree, Maria Friedman as Petra and the legendary Elisabeth Welch as a more delicate matriarch who makes Liaisons a touching showstopper.
P.S. For the very brave a region one DVD of the movie is released soon!