A Little Night Music
September 11, 2021 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Sondheim was riding pretty high in 1973. His previous two shows, Company and Follies, were both gigantic artistic successes, and everyone was waiting with baited breath for his new show, A Little Night Music. A period country house drama set mostly in waltz time, the show was Sondheim's third consecutive Best Musical Tony Award winner, and yielded (so far) the only radio hit from a Sondheim show. Here is an excellent filming of the New York City Opera production from 1990 [2h55m].

There is scant material documenting the original 1973 production, but here are Glynis Johns and D. Jamin Bartlett appearing and performing their big solos on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson [21m] from that year.

Hal Prince, who directed the original production, directed a motion picture adaptation in 1977 starring much of the original Broadway cast. With newcomers Dianna Rigg and Elizabeth Taylor, it's an interesting document of this enduring show [2h].

The 1995 London revival seems to only have this YouTube video compiling a couple of media appearances by the cast [53m] as a document. Several musical numbers are performed, and Dame Judi's rendition of Clowns may be the best one you'll see.

Trevor Nunn directed a 2009 London revival which then transferred to Broadway with a new cast. For the truly dedicated, here are a couple of challenging (but worthwhile) audience recordings, 2009 London original cast [2h28m], and 2010 Broadway cast [2h48m] with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, amongst others.
posted by hippybear (17 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
In 1985, when I was an impoverished grad student, I saw a free dress rehearsal of a university production of "A Little Night Music" starring economist Alfred Kahn as Fredrik. It was a pretty rough rehearsal, because we saw the same scene over an over ("A weekend in the country"), which is not a problem with Sondheim. It drove home how carefully he composed the music to propel the action forward. I must have seen the City Opera version later when it ran on TV.

It's totally worth watching the Bergman movie it's based on ("Smiles of a Summer Night") to compare and contrast! It's Bergman at his least gloomy.
posted by acrasis at 8:09 AM on September 11

I love Smiles of a Summer Night!

I saw Judi Dench play Desirée at the National in '95. Just a lovely production, and she was marvellous.

Send In The Clowns here (some tape hiss; the one in the compilation above may be better)
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:06 AM on September 11

I just have to say thank you for these posts. It takes me back to my childhood as a theater rat trying to stay out of trouble while my Ma rehearsed for one production or another. Sondheim shows were a regular. Memories of falling asleep to the sound of her practicing on the piano in the living room fill me with the greatest warmth.
posted by calamari kid at 10:37 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

I always think Send in the Clowns is a good example of how different a Sondheim song can sound when in the proper context of its show. By the time I finally saw A Little Night music, I was sick to death of this particular song from having heard it performed in isolation on a hundred mediocre TV variety shows. Heard as part of the overall show, performed by a character I now knew a little, it finally made sense to me.
posted by Paul Slade at 11:14 AM on September 11

In the late 70s, "Send in the Clowns" was everywhere, and I was pretty sick of it, though I didn't know it was from a Sondheim show. I ended up being quite surprised at how charming the play is and how well the song fits the moment in the play. ALNM is my second favorite Sondheim, after Sweeney Todd.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:17 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed these Sondheim posts, and I cannot wait for you to get to my favorite Sondheim shows (Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and especially The Frogs).
posted by lysimache at 11:39 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

In 1974 I was a teenager on a big deal New York City field trip with the other drama and art kids from my big public suburban Cleveland high school and we saw a bunch of shows. We loved most of them (Hot L Baltimore, That Championship Season, especially Pippin) but ALNM was absolutely baffling to us. The bunch I was seated with all decided to bail at intermission, which I didn't even know was legal. I meekly protested, partly out of Duty to Art and partly because I secretly liked it, but ended up going along with the crowd. Just another regret in a long life of them.

My high school sweetheart was one of the most eager walkouts and the same person who a few years later saw (and absolutely despised) one of the few productions of the original run of Merrily We All Along (previously). Reader, I married her (41 years ago).

Sondheim has been a crazy sort of constant in our lives. Hippybear, I love these posts!
posted by How the runs scored at 12:34 PM on September 11

My parents took stagestruck me from our tiny Michigan town to NYC as a HS grad trip, and this OBC was one of two shows we saw. I later sent a fan letter to Sondheim, remarking upon a song's rhyme (that I thought was interesting).

He sent me a letter back, thanking me for my "lovely letter. It did my ego a lot of good."

He then went on to talk about what he'd perceived as me criticizing a rhyme, explaining that it wasn't supposed to rhyme, and pointing me to the syllable patterns.

I have joked that this was a private songwriting lesson from Sondheim. But it also shows how sensitive and self-critical he was.
posted by NorthernLite at 2:15 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]

posted by Going To Maine at 3:26 PM on September 11

You are good to us, hippybear.
posted by youarenothere at 5:07 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]

hippybear, thank you so much for these! I watched the film at some point, Len Cariou with Elizabeth Taylor was certainly a thing.
posted by mersen at 5:37 PM on September 11

Oy, this NPR thing on "Send in the Clowns" was twelve years ago.
posted by fedward at 5:42 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]

I adore this show. It's the burnished jewel in the Sondheim box.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:34 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]

Oy, this NPR thing on "Send in the Clowns" was twelve years ago.

That NPR piece is really great at examining what makes a great song great.

What's sort of scary and annoying is you can do that sort of masterclass-level examination of basically every Sondheim song. They all are constructed with such great care and have very specific choices being made that often aren't at all obvious to the audience of the show. But he's writing show tunes as literature, and they can be studied as such, as well as enjoyed as a performance.

That's the genius of Sondheim. Thanks for linking that, I really enjoyed it!
posted by hippybear at 7:35 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]

I've been loving these Sondheim posts and not engaging enough with them to reflect that. Whenever I think of Night Music my brain does connect pretty much directly to that NPR piece, in which the host stands in for everybody in this thread who said they were tired of the song so the expert commentator can swoop in and be like, "no really, it's good!"

and especially The Frogs

Please, don't fart. There's very little air and this is art.
posted by fedward at 7:26 AM on September 12

This show could do with a content warning for people who are unfamiliar with it, for #MeToo reasons.

A theatre company I'm tangentially involved with staged it a few years ago. A few months before opening night, I was flipping through the libretto and stopped on Frederik's lines where he's musing to himself about how he can get sex from his virgin wife: "A., the deployment of charm, or B., the adoption of physical force. Now B might arouse her . . . " It goes on in that vein for a few lines.

I tried my damndest to get the Powers That Be to at least put a content warning in the program, but got stonewalling. I got the impression they all associated this show with their coming-of-age romances, and so the only interpretation of these lines their mental real estate had capacity for was "haha so cute and hot!" Also, actual responses to me: "He doesn't actually DO it." "It doesn't condone rape. We don't condone rape. If any people think this means we condone rape, well, psssshhht!" "Are people really so sensitive these days?"

As it turned out, an audience member walked out during this song, and stayed in the lobby until the rest of their party came out at the show's end.

After the run ended, the Powers That Be took soul-searching actions and listenings and such, which have borne decent results. Some of them observed to me that they had been in the industry for so long that they'd stopped thinking about these kinds of lyrics, which are everywhere in classic repertoire. These are people who regularly posted #MeToo advocacy messages on social media, who have known for years that there are people in our company who have first-hand #MeToo experiences of the shittiest kind.

Yes, Sondheim is a genius, yes, ALNM is art. And, some lines age poorly. Personally I think production companies that are going to survive, will take the opportunity to highlight such issues and seriously engage with multigenerational audiences around questions like, "What's timeless? What's changed? How do we engage respectfully both with the material, and with young folks who are leading the way in re-evaluating what's okay and what's not?" etc.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:55 PM on September 13

My understanding is that Sondheim (while aging, is still alive) has been approachable about these kinds of matters. I don't know about Hugh Wheeler. But I could see a thoughtful case being put together and presented to the writing team that would result in an alternative version or a new definitive re-write. I don't see anything wrong about trying to figure out how to approach creating such a pitch and how to make the pitch once created.
posted by hippybear at 9:41 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

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