PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Little Night Music — Smiles of an Autumn Night

By Harry Haun
14 Dec 2009

A Little Night Music star Catherine Zeta-Jones and composer Stephen Sondheim; star Angela Lansbury and guests Hugh Jackman and Michael Douglas
A Little Night Music star Catherine Zeta-Jones and composer Stephen Sondheim; star Angela Lansbury and guests Hugh Jackman and Michael Douglas
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Meet the first-nighters of Broadway's A Little Night Music.


Should Angela Lansbury find herself, at season's end, in the Tony winners' circle for an unprecedented sixth time, it'll be A Little Night Music — all written in three-quarter time by Stephen Sondheim — that got her there.

From the very narrow window of a supporting role, she rules the roost as well as the show that opened Dec. 13 at the Walter Kerr — a piece of romantic gossamer which Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler extracted from an uncharacteristically lighthearted Ingmar Bergman ("Smiles of a Summer Night"). Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Desiree, with Lansbury playing her mother.

Fresh from prize-magnet Madame Arcati of Blithe Spirit five months ago, Lansbury has moved on to another and more literal madame — Madame Armfeldt, an ancient courtesan who weaves through the narrative, wheeled about her country estate by her granddaughter (or by a hulking butler named Frid), oblivious to overlapping romantic triangles that are unfolding before her (sometimes on her front lawn), none measuring up to hers.

Stealing the show from a supporting slot is old hat for La Lansbury, and she doesn't waste a second, setting the tone of things to come via the PA system with a plummy announcement about cellphones and candy wrappers. "Please disable everything that might create such a disagreeable cacophony," she urged in well-rounded tones.

As Broadway openings go, it was a dark and stormy night, complicated by congested Christmas traffic, unrelenting rain and a small lobby that barely could accommodate a holding pattern. Celebs huddled under the Walter Kerr marquee for photos and sound bites, then scurried inside like chickens for a hopefully warm experience.

The first to arrive were both Barbaras — Walters and Cook. The former checked with a publicist about a quick visit backstage to see Z-J after the show. The latter, a devoted Sondheim disciple of longstanding, will return to Broadway this spring to star in Sondheim on Sondheim. "We started learning the music, but we don't really go into rehearsal until February," relayed Babs. Standing with her was an old Atlanta gal-pal she has known for "more than 50 years." They both giggled in sudden amazement as they started to do the math.

Michael Douglas and producer Edgar Lansbury, respectively the hubby and the brother of the show's stars, made their way into the theatre without much to say to the press. Toward the end of the evening, seen hovering near their imported-from-London leading man, Alexander Hanson, was an attractive woman who turned out to be "Bond. Samantha Bond," his actress wife (she played Miss Moneypenny to Pierce Brosnan's four 007s).

There for Douglas and Z-J were Melania and Donald Trump. "Oh, I think she's going to do great," he predicted cheerfully on arriving at the theatre. "We know them both very well. They're both very talented people."

Sondheim showed — but not so you'd notice. Shunning the paparazzi embedded at the theatre entrance, he scurried into the Kerr via the stage door — and, of course, skipped the press room altogether that had been set up at Tavern of the Green after the show. But he did put in a protracted appearance at the party and was politely noncommittal to any reporter who ventured forth and approached him.

Not that Lansbury was that much more accommodating to the press. She arrived early, not unlike a whirlwind, sweeping graciously through the press area, lighting here, lighting there, then no more. My entire interview consisted of: "I've got to go to my family. I promised them I would." She said it with a smile that spelled finality. After giving at the office, with that performance, the passing notion of block-and-tackling the 84-year-old star evaporated into thin air. Whatever milady desires.

Zeta-Jones, who had been the unreachable star prior to the opening, gamely stepped to the plate and greeted the press with quotes and cleavage galore. "I feel pretty sensational," she admitted a couple of hours after the curtain came down on her belated Broadway debut. "It has taken me a long time to get back on the stage — 20 years, to be blatantly honest about it! — but, once it's in your blood, it never goes away. Each time I go on stage — matinees or evening performances — I just remind myself how right this feels, how much I've missed that immediacy with the audience."

That connection reaches its zenith when Zeta-Jones goes into her big number (and, in Sondheim's catalog, they don't come much bigger), "Send in the Clowns." "It's a treat," she confesses. "I think 'Send in the Clowns' is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, especially when you hear it and are able to sing it in the context of the play. It's a real acting piece more than just a singing piece."

Except for the little gold man she collected for "Chicago" as 2002's Best Supporting Actress, her musical comedy past has been a well-kept secret in this country. "Except for that, nobody would have known that I had done musical comedy back in London," she said. "I did 42nd Street when I was very young. I played Peggy Sawyer for two years — that's how I started." This Peggy really did come back A Star. Continued...