Whenever composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince set out to do a musical, they were always on the lookout for ingredients that would be new, fresh or even groundbreaking. For A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, their elegant 1973 Tony-winner, they decided to start with an overture not solely played by the orchestra (as audiences had heard for hundreds of years), but one that would also be sung by five singers.
And so, as the script’s first stage direction states, “Before the houselights are down, Mr. Lindquist appears and sits at the piano. He removes his gloves, plunks a key and begins to vocalize. Mrs. Nordstrom enters, hits a key on the piano and vocalizes with him. Mrs. Anderssen, Mr. Erlanson and Mrs. Segstrom come out and join the vocalizing.”
Hence, the overture. And yet, can theatergoers understand that that’s what they’re hearing? They’ve been weaned on musicals that almost always introduce the most important characters first – the ones with whom they’ll bond and empathize. But these five singers in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC — the first characters we meet — are minor ones — if we can call them characters at all. At most, they’re the show’s omniscient chorus, peripheral to the action — at least until furniture needs to be moved in and out during scene changes.
Theatergoers have also become accustomed to hearing a show’s main characters immediately sing about who they are, what’s on their minds and what they want. The Anatevkans in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF told the audience how important “Tradition” was to them; Charlemagne’s son in PIPPIN let playgoers know right away that he was seeking his “Corner of the Sky.” Even more speedy was J. Pierrepont Finch, who relayed to one and all that he wanted to know “HOW TO” (SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING).
So what are they to think in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC when these five start out singing and asking each other if they “Remember?” before seguing into singing “Soon, I promise, soon I won’t shy away” – lines that make no sense until Anne Egerman – a genuine character – sings them later. By the time that the quintet is telling the audience “Unpack the luggage” – an action that later (and better) refers to peripatetic actress Desirée Armfeldt — your audience could be utterly confused.
But why shouldn’t an audience assume that they’re at the very least important characters? The program, starting with the original Broadway production, has always called them by names and has never simply referred to them as “Ensemble.” This leads an audience to believe that these five will be actual characters who’ll impact the action and not merely comment on it. Even experienced theatergoers could be misled.
So should Sondheim and Prince have scuttled the idea of a vocal overture? No, for it was (and still is) a delightfully different idea. But directors can help their audiences immediately understand by projecting THE “OVERTURE.”
And yes, put the word “Overture” between quotation marks to stress that the term is being used loosely.
Terrence J. Nolen, the wonderful director and co-founder of the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, wasn’t aware of my suggestion when readying his current production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. And who says that he’d have taken it, anyway? Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, he’s delivered a terrific revival of this musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.
As a line goes in Sondheim’s most famous song, “Don't you love farce?” But A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is not in the slamming-door, mistaken-identity frenetic-French vein. We’re in more sedate Sweden in the early 1900s; what turns the show farcical is that the characters make one mistake after another – which all too often happens when people fall (yes, fall) in love.
Or when they think they have. Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman has married Anne, which was foolish, because she’s decades too young for him. We later learn that Anne married Fredrik out of pity, which is a far different feeling from love. That’s one reason why after 18 months of marriage, she hasn’t allowed the union to be consummated. Actually, Anne is more attracted to a young man her own age – Henrik, Fredrik’s son.
This physical neglect sends Fredrik to his former lover, Desirée Armfeldt, who’s been consorting with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who’s blatantly cheating on his wife, Countess Charlotte. All these machinations will cause Madame Armfedlt, Desirée’s mother, to have a good deal of contempt — although she doesn’t shy away from giving Desirée’s 13-year-old daughter Fredrika plenty of romantic (nay, sexual) advice.
Notice the absence of the names Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Nordstrom, Mrs. Anderssen, Mr. Erlanson and Mrs. Segstrom in the plot. Need I say more?
As A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC veteran who was at the first-ever performance in Boston on Jan. 20, 1973 – and has seen nine subsequent productions from London to Scottsdale, Arizona – I’d say that Patti-Lee Meringo’s Anne makes the greatest impression of any I’ve seen.
Meringo doesn’t become, to quote a famous Oscar Hammerstein lyric, “a skinny-lipped virgin with blood like water.” But where Fredrik is concerned, “she’ll give him a peck and call it a kiss” – because Meringo’s Anne is a blatant tease. She rules the roost the way a spoiled small child controls a home. How well she expresses the confidence of a woman who knows she has her husband wrapped around her littlest fingernail. In most productions, when Anne sings “I'll admit I'm endearing,” she manages to convey a modicum of modesty; here, Meringo displays the same sharp awareness that Evita has when she sings, “But one thing I'll say for me.”
But then Anne hears Fredrik utter the name “Desirée” in his sleep. Meringo looks out to the audience in horror. Maybe she does have a rival! Uneasy lies the maidenhead that possesses the crown. Meringo has a previously impossible thought occur to Anne: that if she doesn't give in to Fredrik — and soon — she could be replaced. Not that she’s worried about losing Fredrik; she just doesn’t want to relinquish the fun and power of controlling a man.
It’s a terrific interpretation, but directors who use it must be careful. If your Anne is too strong, then we have to worry that she’ll subsequently be too shrewish a wife to Henrik – and we don’t want that. Nolen and Meringo know enough to not cross the line.
One scene could be better staged between Fredrik (Christopher Patrick Mullen, a better actor than singer) and Desirée (Grace Gonglewski, an important ingredient in the Arden’s quarter-century of success). After Carl-Magnus (the solid Ben Dibble) barges in and causes Desirée and Fredrik to experience coitus interruptus, the lovers concoct a story that he fell into her hip-bath and that’s why he had to don a robe. To prove it, Desirée goes offstage, drenches Fredrik’s clothes and returns with them sopping wet and dripping.
Alas, Gonglewski holds them right in front of her, and because the clothing is simply not soaked enough, the audience can’t quite see the problem and enjoy the visual joke. Desirée should hold the duds far away from her body as well as to the side so that the crowd can see them plainly gushing with water. Holding them far away is more logical, anyway, because Desirée wouldn’t want to get wet.
Gonglewski may not seem particularly Swedish, but she’s captured the character’s essential ingredient. Desirée learned long ago that even if one is merely a semi-successful actress who’s aware that she isn’t a star, she will nevertheless come across as one; that way, anyone who meets her just might assume that she is.
Although Carl-Magnus caught Fredrick in Desirée’s boudoir, he soon comes to the conclusion in song that “The woman’s mine!” Dibble’s take — that Carl-Magnus has no doubt that she is – is a time-honored way to go. But how about Trevor Nunn and Aaron Lazar’s interpretation in the 2009 Broadway revival? Lazar changed his facial expressions a few times during “The woman’s mine” – going from “Yes, she is without a doubt!” to “Wait — what if she isn’t?” to “I’ll bet she’s not!” and back to “No! That’s impossible! Who’d give up someone as extraordinary as I?” That’s wryly funny.
At first, Sally Mercer’s Madame Armfeldt seems too healthy for someone who’ll die at show’s end. But aren’t there plenty of robust humans who are certainly here-today and surprisingly gone-tomorrow from an unexpected attack? Mercer’s robust bearing allows her to strongly deliver “Liaisons.” The assertive nod she gives after stating that the Duke of Ferrara gave her a “tiny Titian” says in no uncertain terms, “How do you like them apples?”
At the end of the first act, everyone has a moment center stage during “A Weekend in the Country.” Here Nolen has Carl-Magnus dramatically draw his pistol and show it to the audience. This recalls Chekhov’s famous dramatic rule: if you show a gun in act one, it should be used in a subsequent act. Indeed, in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, it is.
One husband who was sitting in front of me looked as if he wished that gun would be used on the quintet. It’s not just that the sung overture may have confused him; these five singers wanted to display that they had had glorious voices worthy of grand opera and not just mere musical comedy. Nolen apparently urged them to show off their pipes to the point where they’d occasionally jump an octave just for the fun of it.
Like it or not, we live in an age where such verbal pyrotechnics are not always appreciated. While some theatergoers must have been impressed, that husband in front of me turned to his wife, let out a groan, shook his head sadly and flashed her a look that said “Is this what you dragged me to? Is this what it’s going to be all night long?”
In fact, it only was when the Vociferous Five intruded. So, directors: don’t merely inform your audience in advance that it’s hearing an overture; go easy on those Beautiful Voices, too.
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.