Valse

I have some thoughts to share about A Little Night Music, having just seen a sumptuous production at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. The students were admirably able to illuminate the show’s strengths, which only put the flaw at its core in clearer contrast. 

From Ingmar Bergman, who more famously presented a chess-playing Death, A Little Night Music delineates a large number of game-playing characters: We see a wisdom-spouting old courtesan, who resists her granddaughter’s exhortation to cheat at solitaire.  The generation in between them is an actress whose idea of fun is to invite various foes to a party and see what mischief gets stirred up.  There’s a virgin bride (sexless marriage as a different sort of game) who paws at the bosom of her sexually-active servant.  And on and on.

Librettist Hugh Wheeler gives everyone fabulously witty lines to say, and the dialogue crackles.  The plot has a good sense of actions leading to consequences, a quality missing from many lesser musicals.  There’s even that rarity, a palpable sense of magic, as if the summer night were compelling such moonstruck characters as an overly sensitive (literally and figuratively) divinity student to do crazy things.

Musically, this is my favorite of Stephen Sondheim’s scores, the only one for which the word “gorgeous” seems appropriate.  To honor its Scandinavian setting, the harmonic palette is largely drawn from one of my favorite classical composers, Edvard Grieg.  And, since the show references operetta, many of the waltzes “hum,” by which I mean the notes follow each other in smooth and unsurprising ways.  And that adds to the sense of magic – how pretty it all is.

Sondheim himself is famous for collecting and playing games, which would lead one to believe he sees himself in these characters. Like the lyricist himself, sometimes these lyrics are too clever by half. It’s perfectly appropriate to have a lawyer puzzle out a problem in dense Gilbertian patter, but an uneducated maid? Who talks like this?

It’s a wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass
And I’ll trip the light fandango,
A pinch and a diddle in the middle of what passes by.
It’s a very short road
From the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch
And the pension.

I’ll tell you who talks like that: intellectuals with graduate degrees.  Now, this is an eleven o’clock number, given to a character who, previously, hasn’t had much to sing.  So it’s a surprise that she’s wise (or wiser) than her schooled employer.  But it’s not a good sort of surprise.  It just sets up an excess character to spout wisdom (we already have the grandmother) and the dazzling patter trick is not something that can be pulled off twice.  Of course, an inveterate game-player would be blind to this problem. 

What A Little Night Music has to say about life and liaisons reminds me of the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical, Pal Joey.  Both present an environment where love doesn’t make the world go round, sex does.  Pal Joey’s milieu is the Chicago cabaret scene, where jazz clubs seem to billow out cynicism along with smoke.  The provincial Sweden of Night Music, where it’s always twilight, is a more rapturous place to live.  Ideally, the show is produced with swirling curtains of birch trees, and, indeed, the original logo hid nudes in a tree’s branches.  And there’s a quintet of formally dressed singers, who appear to be former lovers, but you can’t quite comprehend in what combination.

Let’s state the obvious: It’s all very romantic.  For Sondheim, who’d been accused of being over-cerebral and never writing about feeling, here was a chance to play on his mentor Oscar Hammerstein’s turf.  For director Harold Prince, it was a chance to marshall a design team’s considerable forces to express a love story, as he’d be able to do more successfully (financially!) some years later with Phantom of the Opera.  For some odd reason, Sondheim decided to pose himself the added challenge of building the meter of every song on a multiple of three.  Man, that man loves puzzles!  But this also serves as a subtle reference to the operetta era.

By entrancing us with the trappings of romantic operettas – the lush waltzes, the nostalgic choruses, the characters who find metaphorical meanings in moonlight – Wheeler and Sondheim perform the ultimate bait-and-switch.  There’s no love in this musical at all, just lust.  It isn’t an evening that makes you snuggle closer to your honey.  And it’s a little like promising to serve a delicious cake, and out it comes on its round pedestal, the cover is lifted and voila! – there’s an excellent pâté.  At this point it doesn’t really matter if the pâté is superbly crafted, I was looking forward to cake!

I love to play games.  I love to watch sports.  But watching arch and artificial characters playing games for over two hours is not nearly as involving as watching romances in which people actually feel things for each other.  So, towards the end, you check your watch thinking “All right already.  I’ve had enough of this.”  Then, on comes that evergreen, Send In the Clowns.  All of a sudden, A Little Night Music is asking us to take the romantic foibles seriously.  But it’s too little, too late.  We’ve eaten the gin-sodden bon bons for too long, and the abrupt turn, asking us to care about callous gamesters, can’t easily be accepted by hardened hearts.

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One Response to Valse

  1. Michael says:

    Honestly, the characters are so arch and artificial that I think “The Miller’s Son” works a lot better than some of the other songs in the show. I’ve never seen a live production of the show, but I have seen the New York City Opera videotape (which has casting issues, especially with Henrik, and all the actors except Madame Armfeldt deliver their lines in the stilted way that has become fashionable post-Lapine).

    In the context of the show, I don’t think it matters so much that the lyrics are perhaps a bit more articulate than what Petra may or may not be able to come up with, but more that it is a song with a clear structure and emotional arc for the character (though the City Opera production missed the point a little bit by having her end in a state of joy), putting it head and shoulders above the characterisation in most of the book and score. As much as I love intricate, harmonically sophisticated vamps and elaborate word games, almost all of the songs in the second act fall a bit flat in context.

    An interesting point to make about “The Miller’s Son” as a song is that Sondheim essentially transposes the ideas being bandied about by Madame Armfeldt’s butler in the film to Petra in the show, continuing his early-70s trend of giving a thematically important song to a minor character which also works as a character song.

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