Monday, December 7, 2009

Smiles on a Fall Night

Last Wednesday night I saw the first ever Broadway revival of the 1973 Tony Award winning Best Musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. This was just the latest piece of work to be revived by my favorite musical theatre composer.

Revivals are a very important way for us to remember the past. They give those of us who couldn't see the original a chance to see what we could, up to that point, only here on a cast recording. Revivals give us a chance to correct mistakes or to see the beauty that is seldom found these days. Some revivals are re-stagings of the original. Some revivals are vivid re-imaginings. Some use the original choreography but use different direction. Whatever the case, I'm thankful that producers continue to revive the beautiful, important works written by Stephen Sondheim.

Thanks to revivals I've now been able to see:
1997 - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962)
2001 - Follies (1971) 1st Broadway revival
2002 - Into The Woods (1987) 1st Broadway revival starring Vanessa Williams
2004 - Assassins (1990) 1st time on Broadway starring Neil Patrick Harris
2004 - Pacific Overtures (1976)
2005 - Sweeney Todd (1979)
2006 - Company (1970)
2008 - Sunday in the Park With George (1984) 1st Broadway revival
2009 - A Little Night Music (1973) 1st Broadway revival

Along the way I've gotten to see two iconic musicals in which Sondheim wrote only the lyrics. Gypsy (1959) starring Bernadette Peters in 2003 and Patti Lupone in 2008 and West Side Story (1957) in 2009.

Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), and Passion (1994) would complete my viewing pleasure. The first two were enormous flops in their day so it is unlikely that a major Broadway revival of either will happen. Not out of the question, just unlikely. After all, enormous flop Carrie may be heading back to Broadway soon. Thanks to the preservation of a performance on DVD, I can see Passion any time I wish. That's not the same as sitting in a theatre and consuming with my ears, eyes, and emotions, but for now it has to do.

There is a single chair sitting on stage. The orchestra can be heard warming up. A man enters, sits in the chair, begins to play his cello. Others enter, a quintet of men and women, and begin to sing. At that moment I am thrust into the world that is A Little Night Music. The playbill indicates the time is turn of the last century and the place is Sweden. I got the turn of the century part based on the costumes. How beautiful to hear the singers and strings come together for the Overture and "Night Waltz" that opens the production. You see, every song in A Little Night Music is a waltz. Seems rather a perfect fit for the setting. As the show is a series of love triangles, how better to musicalize it than to use waltz which is in three's. Rather genius of Sondheim. I wish I had figured that out on my own without having to learn it from a book.

This seems the perfect moment to interject that my only familiarity with A Little Night Music comes from listening to the original cast recording. I haven't seen the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night" on which the musical is based nor have I read the script even though I own it. So you can imagine my surprise to find the book scenes filled with so much comedy. I never thought of A Little Night Music as a musical comedy. Maybe that's because the most well known song from the musical, "Send in the Clowns," is not funny at all. I'm still not quite sure that the piece as a whole can be considered musical comedy, but there are lots of laughs ball-and-chained to the heartbreak. Being so familiar with the score, I loved seeing how the songs grew from the scenes, especially "Every Day a Little Death," Charlotte's heartfelt song after telling Anne about Fredrik and Desiree and Carl-Magnus. The quintet, sweeping through, changing the scene, commenting on the situations with some of the best songs in the show. And then there's, "A Weekend in the Country," one of my favorite songs, which closes Act 1. This song is genius in it's twists, set ups, and backfires as it prepares us for Act 2 - the country estate of Madame Armfeldt. Farce ensues.

This revival stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. They play mother and daughter. Two women from different generations with non-filtered opinions of each other. Catherine plays Desiree Armfeldt, an actress with a child. Angela plays her mother, Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan, now wealthy woman, at the end of her life who keeps said child from a life on the road with her mother.

Let me trace out the triangles. Countess Charlotte Malcolm is married to Count Carl-Magnus Malcom who is having an affair with Desiree Armfeldt who is in love with Fredrik Egerman who is married to the young, virgin, Anne who is in love with Fredrik's son Henrik, who is having dalliances with their maid Petra who chooses to kiss and sleep with the many before she has to settle for the one. Confused? Like the line in "Send in the Clowns" says, "Don't you love farce?" It is a bit farcical, but it plays out beautifully with the right partners ending up together.

I'm not going to explain in detail the plot of A Little Night Music as you can click the above link and read what someone has so graciously written about the show on wikipedia. I will talk about how amazing it was to sit in that mezzanine anticipating the first chord from the orchestra. The first notes of song from the quintet. The first entrance of Catherine Zeta-Jones. The first word out of Angela Lansbury's mouth. The director, Trevor Nunn, was sitting in the row in front of me, three seats to my left taking notes. That was also very exciting for me. One might think it distracting when his pen lit up to start writing on his yellow legal pad, but for me I was watching the scene and wondering what note he would give later that night and what change he would make. What was minutely wrong with this enjoyable moment?

I often skip one of my least favorite songs on the cast album, "Liaisons." That night, seeing it interpreted by Angela Lansbury changed things for me. The song still seems to be one that the show could do without. It's a character song for Madame Armfeldt. However, it is a reveling piece about her life while commenting on the situations going on between the characters with their liaisons. I never realized that until then. Maybe I should stop skipping songs. You never know what's important even when you think it isn't.

The show was never more exciting than when Angela was on stage. She's an icon. She's won 5 Tony Awards. She knows how to mine every bit of comic gold and heart felt tragedy from every line, word, gesture, or look. I was thrilled that my first Angela Lansbury experience was with a Sondheim show. How perfect for me. I don't know which moon was smiling on me, the one for the young, fools, or the old, but it was sure smiling on me that night. Leigh Ann Larkin was bursting with sexual energy as Petra. Just walking across the stage pulled focus. Her performance of "The Miller's Son" received some of the loudest applause and hoots from the audience that evening. Two scene stealing performances, a score full of beautiful songs, and an Oscar winner making her Broadway debut. It's amazing that I didn't burst all over the people around me.

First times are often full of heightened anticipation though. Mine was no exception. First time to see the show and Angela. Too much. I want to go back and see the show again, with no expectations, and just soak it up. Sondheim is almost always a hard sell at the box office. We've been having a resurgence of his work lately and it may be something that doesn't come around again for many years.

"Make way for the clowns. Applause for the clowns. They're finally here."