A Little Night Music at 30

Classic Arts Features   A Little Night Music at 30
A work that hovers between opera and musical comedy.

When A Little Night Music first spun and swirled its way onto the stage of Broadway's Shubert Theatre on February 25, 1973, it marked a turning point in the prolific collaboration between composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince: For once, one of their productions would be equally adored by the press and the public. It's easy to forget that their previous efforts‹the groundbreaking Company and Follies, which are now considered classics‹were not big moneymakers, nor did they find favor with all critics.

But the love affair with A Little Night Music lasted through 601 performances. This bittersweet comic roundelay of bedrooms, boudoirs, and thwarted romances, based on Ingmar Bergman's beloved film Smiles of a Summer Night, was a solid hit. It received virtually unanimous rave reviews. "Good God! An adult musical!…Heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting," said Clive Barnes in The New York Times. The New Yorker's Brendan Gill was even more exuberant in his praise: "Throwing caution to the winds, I assert that A Little Night Music comes as close as possible to being the perfect romantic musical comedy."

The show was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards and won five (including Best Musical) and spawned a national tour, a London production, and a film version.

And yet A Little Night Music has never had a revival on Broadway. These days it seems most at home in the opera house; in recent years, it has been presented by Florida Grand Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Utah Opera, and Lyric Opera of San Diego. In 1988 it was staged by Opera Ensemble of New York, and three years later the work entered the repertory of New York City Opera in a production directed by Scott Ellis and starring Sally Ann Howes, George Lee Andrews and Regina Resnik. That production is revived this season, with an all-new cast including Juliet Stevenson, Claire Bloom, Michele Pawk, Jeremy Irons, and Marc Kudisch.

What is it about A Little Night Music that blurs the line between opera and musical comedy? Like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which has also become an opera-house staple, it benefits from big, musicianly voices able to cope with the sophisticated score. It also takes place in a period of time remote from ours. Opera-house audiences are used to this; contemporary Broadway audiences have become more resistant. Operatic shows of the 1980's like Phantom of the Opera have had long runs. But 1990's shows like Ragtime, while enjoying a moderate run, never reached smash-hit status, nor did Titanic‹and both latter shows, it seems now, might be strong candidates for opera-house revivals.

A Little Night Music has always been Sondheim's most classically-conscious work. Its score, all of it written in variations on waltz meter, evokes the musical worlds of Mozart, Ravel, and every composer who bore the surname of Strauss (or Straus). This glorious latter-day operetta boasts not only arias, but duets, trios, the quintets of its so-called Liebeslieder singers, and a first-act finaletto as intricate and thrilling as the Sextet from Lucia.

"A Little Night Music is a piece that delights and charms on every level," says New York City Opera General Director Paul Kellogg, "whether it's someone's first exposure, or whether it's heard by sophisticated musicians who completely understand what Sondheim was trying to do with it."

Stephen Sondheim has never considered himself much of an opera lover, yet the operas he has gone on record as liking‹Porgy and Bess, Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck, most of Britten and Puccini‹are almost all theatrically strong twentieth-century works composed in accessible musical idioms. Sondheim feels that what ultimately determines whether a work is a musical or an opera is its venue, and the audiences it plays to. "This is glib to say," he told the Royal National Theatre's Platform Papers, "but I really believe it: When [Gian Carlo Menotti's] The Medium and The Telephone were done on Broadway, they were Broadway musicals; when they were done in opera houses, they were operas."

Operetta, of course, forms the bridge between opera and musical comedy. It was the fertile soil from which the great American musical comedies sprang. But Paul Gemignani, who conducted A Little Night Music on Broadway and will conduct it again for this revival, sees one of Puccini's later works as its real antecedent. "This is more like La rondine than like operetta," he insists. "Sweeney is operatic melodrama, and Night Music is a romantic period piece, like La rondine. In my conducting, I don't approach this piece any differently than I would an opera. It's all musical theater."

Marc Kudisch, who plays the role of the pompous, pathetic Carl-Magnus in this production, is one cast member who straddles the worlds of the opera house and the Broadway stage. He's made his mark as a leading man in such musicals as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bells Are Ringing, and High Society, but he is a classically-trained baritone who has not ruled out the possibility of taking on operatic repertoire in the future. "One of the reasons I love this part," he explains, "is that there are not many roles that are written this way any more. Sondheim is really the last bastion for baritones. He writes so well for that kind of voice and there's such joy for me in being able to sing this way. You hit that F at the end and hold it forever, and any well-trained baritone is going to really get off on that. Baritones usually can take a time-share up there, but it's not where we live."

It's not at all surprising that Kudisch's regular warm-up piece is Carl-Magnus's "In Praise of Women." "It sits in a nice, meaty, rich place in the voice," says Kudisch. "And what's great about that aria is that it goes from having a certain marcato to a real lyricism, and then back again, which is really nice. For me, it's that character's idea of romanticism. No one else's, of course!"

In Kudisch's estimate, A Little Night Music is an American opera. "Sondheim may not agree with me on that," he says, "but it is! Even in Sunday in the Park With George there are moments that are incredibly operatic. That's also why Sweeney is being done so successfully by opera companies. Although it has spoken dialogue, it's still not an operetta because it is not light fare."

Works like A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd have successfully attracted the vast audiences in opera houses that, sadly, they might no longer find in today's tourist-heavy Broadway demographics. And this spring, Sondheim's little-known Passion is being presented in New York by DiCapo Opera. There's an important hidden benefit to this shifting state of affairs: The musical-comedy fans who'll flock to see these stagings will help fill opera companies' coffers, paving the way for productions of new works by young composers that will keep opera a viable contemporary art form. Sondheim has clearly served as a source of inspiration for many young composers, and our next Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, or Mark Adamo may ultimately owe a tip of the hat to him in more ways than one.

Eric Myers, a frequent contributor to Opera News, is the author of Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis, now available in paperback from Da Capo Press.

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