Do I Hear a Waltz? is a little-known 1965 musical with a dream creative team that found themselves on a nightmarish road to Broadway. Originally, Arthur Laurents was set to adapt his play The Time of the Cuckoo as a musical with a score by the legendary team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When Hammerstein died in 1960, Laurents brought on Stephen Sondheim to write lyrics. Sondheim may have been Hammerstein’s mentee, but he did not enjoy the same positive working relationship with Rodgers.
Overall, the production was plagued with all kinds of drama ranging from Rodgers’ rampant alcoholism to numerous director and casting changes to Laurents eventually being banned from attending rehearsals altogether.
I will not be writing about this diamond in the rough today, but I look forward to a local company producing the show so I can fill you in on the rest of its juicy history.
No, I won’t be covering Do I Hear a Waltz?, but the question still stands. When it comes to A Little Night Music, the answer is an emphatic yes. From the first strains of the overture to the final notes of the finale, Sondheim’s music and lyrics are written primarily in ¾ time. The meter is perfect underscoring for the elegant and evocative twists and turns of the waltz and of this musical’s plot.
The classical music influences in the show run deep from the specific chords in the score lifted from the work of Maurice Ravel to its title which is the translation of the German name for Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G Major.
Narratively, the musical is most directly adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. Waltzes, classical music, and Ingmar Bergman might not sound like typical ingredients in the recipe of a winning musical comedy, but don’t be dismayed. Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s work as a team and with other collaborators is far from typical but nonetheless exemplary craft-wise.
A Little Night Music is perhaps best known for its 11 o’clock number “Send in the Clowns”. The moment sees actress Desiree Armfeldt lamenting as much to her lover Fredrik Egerman as she does to herself about the choices that have landed her at this crucial crossroads in her life. At the top of the show, we first hear Desiree’s name uttered by Fredrik in his sleep as he lay next to his much younger wife Anne. If the age difference didn’t create a big enough rift between them, they have also not consummated their marriage after 11 months.
We meet Desiree living “The Glamorous Life” with her acting troupe and corresponding with her daughter Fredrika, who is in the care of her wizened, judgmental grandmother. Fredrik meets with Desiree in secret after seeing her in a play, and they rekindle their long-extinguished romance. Unfortunately, Desiree is in a relationship with the married and hotheaded Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Eventually, Desiree, Fredrik, Anne, Fredrik’s pious son Henrik, Anne’s brazen maid Petra, Carl-Magnus, and Carl-Magnus’ sardonic wife Charlotte all descend on Madame Armfeldt’s estate for what should be a relaxing “Weekend in the Country” but ends up devolving into anything but.
It’s clear why after beckoning for someone to send in the clowns Desiree adds “don’t bother, they’re here”. Sondheim crafted the song with short musical phrases as more of an acting showcase than a vocal one with the strengths (and weaknesses) of original Desiree Glynis Johns in mind. She and Catherine Zeta-Jones performed the song to Tony-winning effect in 1973 and 2010, respectively. Judy Collins’ rendition took home the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1976.
Jill Jeffrey will be tackling the role and “emotionally” daunting solo in the Duquesne Red Masquers production of Night Music.
“Though I personally hold no regrets in my life choices, I can certainly pull memories of lost love and feel the familiar sting of that to perform this song. Recalling that kind of sadness, hurt, and loss is not simple, and it is definitely a challenge to place it all perfectly in the lyrics,” says Jeffrey of her process.
Despite the status of “Send in the Clowns” as arguably Sondheim’s most renowned compositions, A Little Night Music arguably exists as one of his lesser produced works. It also won Tony Awards for Best Score, Book, and Musical originally, but you’re more likely to see productions of other Sondheim classics like Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and even Assassins at your local theater. Night Music might be a deeply felt love farce, but it seems that audiences are more drawn to those three aforementioned (to varying degrees) murder-oriented musicals.
Cynics might blame the critically maligned 1977 film adaptation starring a perfectly cast but musically ill-equipped Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree. Director John E. Lane Jr. recalls falling in love with the score after first listening to the cast album, but understands that the high degree of difficulty that the music poses, particularly for singers, is probably what keeps A Little Night Music from being done as much outside of opera companies. No matter the material, Lane relishes the opportunity to cast Duquesne students opposite professional actors like Jeffrey. He feels that the pros can teach the students things “by example” that can’t be learned in the classroom.
Following the overture, old pro Madame Armfeldt instructs Fredrika to watch for the night to smile “at the follies of human beings” three times. Fredrika remarks that this seems “unlikely”, but her grandmother dismisses the notion. If you leave the theater undeterred by the doubt that initially consumes Fredrika and transported by this gorgeous show, you’ll surely witness the night smiling again.
A Little Night Music runs at the Genesius Theater through April 13. For tickets and more information, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.