By Peter Filichia
Perhaps it would have been a musical in which such words as “domineering” and such phrases as “Dear Frederick” would have appeared.
Midnight would have been a significant symbol. Appreciation of the country, a dinner party and a gunshot would have been part of the plot, too.
Characters would have included a virgin as well as a grandmother in a wheelchair who would have told about her romantic past.
You’re asking why I’ve used the word “would” six times in those paragraphs when clearly such a musical exists: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. It’s on our minds because it recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its highly acclaimed opening that would lead to six Tonys, including Best Musical.
Yes, but all such descriptions also apply to Ring Round the Moon, Christopher Fry’s 1950 adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s 1947 play Invitation to the Castle. The funny thing is that, after Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince did Follies in 1971, this is the comedy-drama that they next wanted to musicalize.
Anouilh turned them down.
Rather than fighting vainly the old Anouilh, they moved on to the somewhat similar Smiles of a Summer Night. This 1955 film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, became A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.
Clearly, Anouilh had to be carefully taught that Sondheim had become Broadway’s champion composer-lyricist. He eventually learned that, but by the time he told his agent to give Sondheim and Prince the go-ahead, they were literally opening A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in Boston.
I was there that night: January 20, 1973, when it played its first preview at Boston’s Colonial Theatre. After I’d seen tryouts of COMPANY at the Shubert and FOLLIES at the same Colonial, I couldn’t wait for even a second performance for what promised to be the third jewel of the triple crown.
There I saw Richard, Bill, Ed, Lou, Warren, Salvatore and every other musical theater enthusiast I’d ever met in the original cast album section of record stores. It’s the first time that I felt a sense of theatrical community in Boston.
The musical takes place in turn-of-the-century Sweden (although Russian roulette will play a part in it). Anne Egerman, who hasn’t the courage or urge to consummate her marriage with Fredrik, claims “I want to!” Yeah, sure. Fredrik is a much older father figure, which is a barrier for the lass. So, Fredrik drops in on his former lover Desiree.
A lesser lyricist would have had Fredrik sing a frenetically comic song called “Please!” in which he begged Desiree for sex. Sondheim instead went in the other direction (didn’t he always?): Fredrik extols Anne’s virtues in “You Must Meet My Wife” before he admits that his marriage is as white as Florence Klotz’s many Act Two costumes.
Desiree obliges: “What are old friends for?” she exclaims, in one of Hugh Wheeler’s best lines in one of Broadway’s best books. And then her lover Carl-Magnus arrives, cheating on his wife Charlotte, who knows all about it.
At that first preview, we reveled in the tricky rhymes: “cigar butt / bizarre, but” … “mustache / just ash” … “Perpetual sunset can be a most unsettling thing” … “The hands on the clock turn but don’t sing a nocturne” … “hopelessly shattered on Saturday night.”
We wondered if Sondheim had chosen the name “Armfeldt” because it rhymed with “charm felt.” Did he opt for “Petra” so that he could hook it with “et cet’ra”? In the ensuing days, a book about foreign films taught us that, no, Bergman had chosen those names, just as he had named his heroine Desiree. Leave it to Sondheim, though, to mine something more out of her name by having Madame Armfeldt state that “I even named her Desiree” – meaning Desire. Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan, could very well have thought along those lines.
All of us appreciated the elegant music, too. Funny; whenever Sondheim participated in a Q-and-A session, someone would inevitably ask, “Of all your musicals, which is your favorite?” He’d just as inevitably answer, “I don’t have a favorite; I have a least favorite: DO I HEAR A WALTZ?” How ironic that eight years after that 1965 musical, he wrote a score that gave us many a waltz. Songs were in three-quarter time or a variation thereof.
We went into intermission on a high after hearing the Act One closer. Arthur Laurents was fond of saying that so many Sondheim songs were “little one-act plays.” If so, then “A Weekend in the Country” is a seven-minute operetta.
Later we’d learn that it arrived late in the rehearsal process, as did the song set in 12/8 that was a highlight of Act Two. But we never expected that nearly 1,000 professional musical artists would record this “Send in the Clowns” or that some subsequent NIGHT MUSIC productions would even advertise themselves as “The ‘Send in the Clowns’ musical.”
There was a disappointment in “The Miller’s Son.” In King Lear, it’s the Fool who’s smart; in NIGHT MUSIC, it’s Petra, the maid. Alas, the actress seemed to fade as she sang it. Still, the show promised to be another Sondheim and Prince triumph.
Then, during previews in New York, Glynis Johns, playing Desiree, fell ill. Tammy Grimes was brought in to see the show just-in-case. As she later reported to me, “I said that that character would not wear a red dress to a lawn party. Stephen Sondheim said, ‘I love that red dress, and that red dress is staying.’ And I knew I wasn’t.”
(What an irony, considering that in Grimes’ most famous vehicle – THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN – her character yearned to wear a red dress.)
“Good God! An adult musical!” exclaimed Clive Barnes, then the be-all-and-end-all critic for the New York Times. We lusted for the cast album, which took weeks to arrive. Now, with D’Jamin Bartlett singing “The Miller’s Son,” we could at last appreciate the song’s considerable worth.
And how we loved one more that hadn’t been in that first Boston performance. Once again, Sondheim did the unexpected. He could have had Fredrick and Carl-Magnus wax romantically about Desiree’s beauty and charms, but instead he had both state “It Would Have Been Wonderful” if she’d turned into a harridan, for then she’d have been so easy to not love.
A 1977 film has never been well-regarded, but it does have its assets. For one thing, Len Cariou (Fredrik), Hermione Gingold (Madame Armfeldt) and Laurence Guittard (Carl-Magnus) repeated their stage roles. Fredrika, daughter of Desiree and Fredrik (not that he knows that), has much more to sing in “The Glamorous Life.” (Check out the soundtrack album.) Sondheim made a good song an even better one. The film also garnered an Oscar for orchestrator Jonathan Tunick 19 years before he’d win a Tony.
Despite the film’s failure, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC has prevailed with many a production. Victoria Mallory, the original Anne, saw her daughter Ramona play her role in the 2009 revival. Both were appropriately pensive after Desiree is described as “the one and only”; each mused, “I wonder what it feels like to be the one and only.” For decades, we have wondered the same about Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.