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

By Harry Haun
December 14, 2009

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.

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Trevor Nunn, her current director, knows. "I've known Catherine ever since she was a kid starting out in London," he recalled. "In fact, I auditioned her for Aspects of Love, and I wrote to her to explain to her why I was not going to hire her for it because she was too young and too beautiful for what I was looking for. Then, Catherine's career took off, and I've written to her over the years. Long ago, we agreed that we should do a show together, and at last it has come about."

It came about because Nunn staged a well-received Little Night Music at London's tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, and that tininess has been retained and transferred, intact, to Broadway. The director defended the downsizing without bristling: "Because we started in a small theatre, there was no possibility of the production being spectacular, having anything that would rely on great scenic effects. It had to be intimate, but what struck me about the lyrics and a great deal of Hugh Wheeler's wonderful book is that it's a kind of memory play.

"Remember, remember, remember is the word that echoes all the way through it the way that we depend on our memories, the way our memories have fueled something during our lives, the way we disremember. We have Madame Armfeldt's 'Liaisons,' endlessly remembering the wonderful things that happened in her past and believing that the world has changed for the worst. Then, you have Fredrik and Desiree remembering over 14 years this thrilling and wonderful relationship they had, which was a true love relationship, but it broke up because of their different life styles and are they ever going to be able to get that back again? Therefore, it begins in a rather Chekhovian way, and I suppose you could say we never quite leave that kind of atmosphere, although there are times it becomes farcical."

Happily, he didn't have to look high and low for his Madame Armfeldt. "Angela said yes the first time that I asked her and that was five years ago. It was going to begin in a different place at a different time, but it was something that never got to any kind of reality. I had talked to Angela about doing it, so of course the moment I knew we were coming to New York, I talked to her about it again and she said yes."

In addition to the set and Nunn's intimate vision of the piece, the leading man arrived intact. "Alex Hanson is the same and very brilliant, he is, too and I'm very, very thrilled that he's in New York doing it," the director said. "And I hope New York wakes up to him and thinks it's about time that he came over and did something else here, just as we bring lots of American artists over to originate things in London."

Minus the graying-at-the-temples make-up, Hanson is even more handsome off-stage, so Nunn's best-wishes are well founded. At the party, he was still trying to get used to the idea he'd just become a Broadway actor. "It's marvelous and surreal." As the only transatlantic representative of both Little Night Musics, he said the major difference was how the show is received. "It's a different type of audience here. The audience is much more voluable here. We tend to be very shy and retiring in the U.K. We may enjoy it as much, but we may not articulate it as much in laughter, whereas here it's very full-on. New York audiences are very bright, they're very switched on, and they get it. They really get it, and that's a lot of fun to play with."

As his young and virginal bride, Ramona Mallory could make a very good case that this was a part she was born to play. Her mother, Victoria Mallory, originated the role, and her father, Mark Lambert, was the original Henrik who won that romantic toss. She and the current Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, are both Broadway-debuting young lovers. Good luck, kids!

Erin Davie, the young Edie of Grey Gardens, has inherited Patricia Elliott's brittle, biting, Tony-winning role of the much-cuckolded Countess Charlotte Malcolm and has a field day flinging zingers around the room.

"Oh, my gosh, she has the best lines in the show," the actress exclaimed. "Even if I was a terrible comedienne which, God pray I'm not they're so funny they hit every time. It's one of those cases where the writer has done all the work for you."

Her faithless opposite number, the staunchly militaristic Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, is swaggered out there by Aaron Lazar, who has had some military training (i.e., Les Miz) but relies on real life for his research: "My father-in-law is the chief firearms instructor of the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department in Wilmington, NC," he revealed. "Every show that I'm in with different guns, it's not even close to the real thing, as much as I would like to believe it."

The fun of the role, he said, was in butting heads with his romantic rival over his wife and his mistress. "He's a man's man, and you get to make a fool of yourself. I couldn't be having more fun out there. It's the most fun I've had in a long time. It's really a treat. I haven't really done a comedy like this. Our energy flows off the audience so we're always trying to feel out if the audience is having a great time.

"Doing 'In Praise of Women' with that lighting, with that spot on me it doesn't get much better than that. I'm having such a good time. It's my first Sondheim show, and getting to work with Trevor and Catherine and Angela, I'm just on Cloud Nine."

Leigh Ann Larkin, who was a Dainty June of stainless steel in Broadway's last Gypsy, is the lusty wench of a maid on the premises partaking and partaking and partaking. "I love that she's so different from June," Larkin remarked. "I love that I get to play something that is even more a part of myself. Petra and I share a lot of the same thoughts and same feelings. I love that she gets to be sexy, I love that she gets to be sassy, I love that she gets to be smart and observe, and I love that I just get to live in her."

Lending glitter to the evening were Hugh Jackman with mum, Alfred Uhry, the newly-honored-with-an-honorary-Oscar Lauren Bacall, The Times' Frank Rich and Alex Witchel, songwriters Jeff Blumenkrantz and Jason Robert Brown, West Side Story conductor Patrick Vaccariello, Judy Kuhn, the inseparable [Nick] Ashford & [Valerie] Simpson, Martin Richards (who produced Chicago the musical and the movie), Ted Mann, Barry and Fran Weissler, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, saloon chanteuse Joyce Breach (who has a doozy of a CD, "Odds and Ends," coming out in late winter from Audiophile), Rocco Landsman and Jujamcyn's new young prince Jordan Roth, Hollywood Reporter Roger Friedman, entertainment lawyers Mark Sendroff and Jason Baruch (the latter's dad, Steven, is one of the show's 23 producers), Kathleen Turner, Bye Bye Birdie's Elvisesque Nolan Gerard Funk and Kym Johnson from "Dancing with the Stars."

For most first-nighters who had trekked there hundreds of times literally! over the years, it was a sentimental last journey to the 75-year-old Tavern on the Green, which goes out with 2009. Ridiculously bejeweled, it really did look like what one wag called "Liberace's hunting lodge," but, in time, through use and overuse and repeat visits, it was beginning to look a little like home or, at least, a home-away-from-home. And the memories made there will live on: Zero Mostel biting Jack Gilford's nose at the entranceway after a Forum lift-off . . . Cindy Adams chasing Jason Robards all over the main dining area after one of his openings to ask him one question: "Why?" . . . Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and the aforementioned Michael Douglas having a "China Syndrome" press to-do on a cold, sunny afternoon as snowflakes started to fall. Those are the thoughts that will twinkle and shine.