From Artistic Director Ryan Turner
Why A Little Night Music? This is a question I’ve heard frequently in the past year. I would compare the overall experience of A Little Night Music to that of a Mozart opera or a Shakespeare play; it is a beautiful, profound, and sometimes painful commentary on the human condition, but it is also enormously funny and saturated with wisdom. Here are deliciously flawed and human characters, perplexed by love and desire. They are trying, as the character Désirée Armfeldt puts it, “to seek a coherent life” to replace the “muddle” that confuses and torments them. Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), one of the most distinguished figures in American musical theater and operetta, was educated at Julliard and studied composition with Milton Babbit. He represents the third generation working in this distinguished musical genre; his predecessors are legends such as Victor Herbert, followed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. In 2013 he received the MacDowell Medal—the first ever awarded to a major figure in American musical theatre.
Few composers are as unpredictable in their choice of sources. Sondheim’s musicals have been inspired by ancient Roman farce (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962), Grimm’s fairy tales (Into the Woods, 1987), byways of American history (Pacific Overtures, 1976; Assassins, 1991), and even a Seurat painting (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984). So it is no surprise that Sondheim chose Ingmar Bergman’s period romantic comedy film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) as inspiration for A Little Night Music (1973).
Besides being a polymath and guru of contemporary musical theatre, Sondheim is a lover of puzzles, particularly crosswords, and often sets himself musical and linguistic problems. In adapting Smiles of a Summer Night, he found a puzzle in representing elegant, turn-of-the-century Sweden in musical terms. The solution lay in the forms of Viennese operetta and its most notable component: the waltz.
The plot deals most felicitously with threes: three smiles of the summer night, three generations of the Armfeldt family, and love triangles. Sondheim’s score boasts a coherent triplum musical structure that is firmly rooted in the Viennese operetta, working within and playing off of this structure throughout. The show-opening “Night Waltz” provides the perfect theme for these variations of three—both musically and dramatically. Sondheim sees this as a framing device, saying that “the whole score would feel vaguely like a long waltz with scherzi in between so that no song would seem to have come from another texture.” Sondheim puts the triple meter through hoops in these variations, sometimes disguising it completely. For example, “A Weekend in the Country” is a gigue written firmly and exuberantly in duple meter, yet each of its beats divides into three. He uses different dance forms as the basis for various songs: the dotted rhythms of the mazurka in “The Glamorous Life,” the martial polonaise for the dragoon in “In Praise of Women,” and a sarabande to accompany Madame Armfeldt’s reminiscing “Liaisons.” The intrigues continue in his even more complex musical constructs: fugettos (“Later”), canons (“Every Day a Little Death” and “Perpetual Anticipation”), contrapuntal duets (“You Must Meet My Wife”), trios (“Soon”), a quintet (“Remember?”), and a double quartet (“A Weekend in the Country”).
As with Mozart, in Sondheim’s work, music and staging are almost inseperable, but especially in the case of A Little Night Music. The charming waltzes frequently recall the compositions of Maurice Ravel, for example his Valses nobles et sentementales and even the more boisterous La Valse. Underscoring the misery of pleasures deferred (“Later”), Henrik accompanies himself on the cello, playing a gloomy Schubertian strain curiously reminiscent of “Der greise Kopf,” the song in Winterreise in which the heartbroken wanderer likens the frost on his head to the grizzled hair of an old man.
As in most Sondheim musicals, the amount of rhyme given a character signals that character’s level of intelligence and comprehension. Carl-Magnus rhymes the least, Henrik and Anne have only minimal rhyming, and both Madame Armfeldt and Fredrik use a great deal of rhyme, including many interior rhymes. Fredrik’s songs contain the most rhyme, as he is the most intelligent; the lyrics for his song “Now,” in which he plots precisely how to seduce his child bride, being the prime example.
The characters’ lyrics express a great deal about their individual personalities and lives. Notice how slowly Madame Armfeldt’s music and lyrics go by, showing that her elderly mind is still functioning well, but at a much slower pace. Notice how Carl-Magnus can barely finish sentences in his “In Praise of Women,” as jealousy drives him crazy. Fredrik’s music in “Now,” much like his life, is full of monotonous, controlled patterns, with very little deviation. Henrik’s music in “Later” is ponderous, erratic, frequently out of control, and full of abrupt pauses and changes in tempo. Anne’s music in “Soon” mirrors her personality; it is light, jumpy, restless, playful, and off-beat. Yet, at the end, these three very different melodies and rhythms come together to fit into a wonderful counterpoint, demonstrating that, somehow, these people can function together as a family, even as the counterpoint gets more and more complicated—as complicated as life in the Egerman home.
A vocal quintet, the Liebeslieder Singers, begins and ends the show, and flutters about in between whenever needed. Of the quintet Sondheim said, “I thought it would be nice to get away from the realism of the evening. I wanted something to make it a little more poetic.” The quintet functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. However, unlike a Greek chorus, these singers have names, lives, and memories. Musically, they have much of the best material. At the play’s close, they take on the voices of the main characters, as though to remind them of the earlier madness that has led to the painful resolution.
Why an Emmanuel Music A Little Night Music? Emmanuel Music has a tradition of challenging itself to perform works which build on its strengths to expand its musical mission and thereby its audience, and to invite that audience to participate in our explorations. Our production restores the orchestra to a size necessary to provide the expansive palette that Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration and Sondheim’s brilliant, rich songs require; in the most recent broadway revival, the orchestra is sadly shrunken to just seven players. Lynn Torgove’s brilliant and imaginative staging also restores the orchestra to its rightful role as an equal player in the operetta.
Aside from his well-known affinity for Bach and Mozart, Emmanuel Music’s founding artistic director, Craig Smith, also had a penchant for the waltzes and operettas of Johann Strauss. In fact, long-time Emmanuel Music supporters may remember our 1994 concert performance of Die Fledermaus, conducted by Craig Smith. In this spirit of connecting the old and for us, the new, and to bring a bit of Vienna’s pre-Lenten Fasching (carnival) waltz-time glimmer to Boston’s gloomy January, we present A Little Night Music.
From Stage Director Lynn Torgove
Midsummer’s Eve is marked by the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, when the northern hemisphere is tilted most towards the sun. But it is more than a celestial phenomenon. This seam between the lengthening and shortening of the days, between growth and decline, has been held as a crucible for playwrights, filmmakers and composers for centuries. Characters are held closely in the porcelain vessel of the night, under the heat of the moon, and so are transformed and unmasked. The alchemy occurs in the forest or the garden, in nature, where man and woman are both out of their element and returned to it.
The pinnacle of such adventures is, of course, William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Sir Michael Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage, George Kukor’s The Philadelphia Story and Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night also found Midsummer’s Eve to be the perfect frame for the play of human folly and reconciliation. Even in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, while not explicitly set during Midsummer’s Eve, the characters find conversion and re-connection during a summer’s night, sotto i pini.
This night of magical metamorphosis is what inspired Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim to base their musical theater-operetta-singspiel on Bergman’s movie Smiles of a Summer Night. Ingmar Bergman was in love with Mozart and Molière, and had just finished directing Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow before he began filming Smiles of a Summer Night. The film reveals all of these affections—the formality and themes of foolishness and infidelity of French farce, the exposing empathy of Figaro and the froth of Lehár’s operettas. Add to this amalgam Bergman’s own preoccupation with guilt and humiliation, and we have what many have called “the perfect romantic comedy!”
Wheeler and Sondheim saw—or rather, heard—the musical potential in what was already a very musical film. (One of the main characters, Fredrik Egerman, even whistles a bit of “La ci darem” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.) They sensed the waltzes of Lehár perfuming the theatrical setting of the movie and noticed the profound acceptance of human frailty, which is at the center of Mozart’s Figaro. As the grand dame of the film, Madame Armfeldt, admits, “I am tired of people, but it doesn’t stop me from loving them.”
We add to this the sensibility of the 1930s screwball comedies, filled with plots of divorce and re-marriage (as Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy is returned to her former husband Dexter after a night of self-revelation in The Philadelphia Story) and the seamless integration of music, dance and dialogue (see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shift effortlessly between all three in the complicated plot of Top Hat). And we move from a European setting to our own American take on star-crossed lovers, traversing the shortest night of the year.
But as Midsummer’s Eve comes to an end, after all the heartache, intrigue, and ambiguity, it is not the lovers who have the last word. Sondheim and Wheeler give it to Madame Armfeldt, who sighs that the last smile of the summer night is for the old, who know too much. But it is the servants to whom Bergman gives the last word. As the sun finally rises, Petra, the Egerman’s saucy maid, cheerfully proclaims to her now fiancée, Frid, Madame Armfeldt’s coachman, “But now the clowns will have a cup of coffee in the kitchen!” Those who know the most may be those who know how to take pleasure in life.