Monday, September 19, 2016

Theatre: Stratford - A Little Night Music

I am usually reluctant to trek all the way to the Stratford Festival to watch a show since there is so much excellent theatre in Toronto, usually costing less money and definitely saving on the travel time and expense to get there.  More importantly, there are typically not many Stratford shows that interest me since I am not that fond of Shakespeare and the musicals traditionally mounted are the old-standbys such as Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, or Sound of Music, which I have already seen many times before–in other words, safe and boring!

I was pleasantly surprised by the 2016 season where the festival seemed to branch out beyond the mundane in their selection of shows, and even came up with a musical that I had not yet seen live.  This is Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 Tony Award winning “A Little Night Music”, arguably his most commercial and relatable work in terms of theme, music and lyrics. Inspired by the 1955 Swedish filmSmiles of a Summer Night”, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, the musical deals with the romantic entanglements of various couples—young, mature, servant and upper class pairings.

Middle-aged, widowed lawyer Fredrik Egerman has married his much younger, virginal trophy bride Anne, who has withheld conjugal interactions with him for the past 11 months since their wedding.  Fredrik re-encounters his former lover, the glamorous actress Desiree Armfeldt and old sparks reignite.  Desiree is currently having an affair with the pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who in turn is married to Charlotte, a friend of Anne’s.  Added to the mix is Fredrik’s brooding son Henrik who is secretly in love with Anne, the Egermans' flirty, promiscuous maid Petra, Desiree’s daughter (not so coincidentally named Fredrika) and Desiree's worldy-wise mother Madame Armfeldt. 

Desiree asks her mother to arrange a weekend gathering at her country estate, allowing all the characters to converge and interact.  The hi-jinx over the weekend include schemes to induce jealousy, a failed suicide attempt and a Russian roulette duel.  Eventually the various relationships sort themselves out and the proper couples pair up in the end.

As always Sondheim's lyrics dazzle with intricate rhymes ("penchant/trenchant", "faded/jaded", "flustered/blustered") and witty duets where the back-and-forth dialogue between the participants feel like the thrust and parry of a fencing match (Fredrik/Desiree - You Must Meet My Wife, Fredrik/Carl-Magnus - It Would Have Been Wonderful, Charlotte/Anne - Every Day A Little Death).  The most impressive song that closes Act I involves all the characters preparing for and traveling to "A Weekend In The Country".  This is an extended ensemble number that according to Sondheim "tells a story with motivations and complications within the song form", requiring complicated choreography and on-the-fly set changes.  Sondheim's most commercially successful and memorable song, Send In the Clowns, reflecting on the regrets of lost chances at love, was written as an afterthought late in the development of the show.

My first encounter with A Little Night Music was the 1977 movie adaptation of the same name, starring Len Cariou as Fredrik, Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree, Diana Rigg as Charlotte and Lesley-Anne Down as Anne.  While this was a passable attempt at capturing the musical, the singing efforts left much to be desired.  Many wonderful songs were deleted (including Liasons, In Praise of Women, The Miller's Son) or shortened/rewritten ("The Glamorous Life, Night Waltz, A Weekend in the Country") for time constraints, while the presence of a Greek-chorus singing quartet was eliminated. 

Watching the full theatre production of this Sondheim gem at Stratford, with trained actors who sang beautifully and had impeccable comedic timing, was such a joy.  The standout performances for me were the hilarious deliveries of Ben Carlson (Fredrik) debating his seduction strategies in the song Now, Juan Chioran (Carl-Magnus) waivering between pompous self-assuredness and insecurity while singing In Praise of Women, and veteran Stratford actress Cynthia Dale (Charlotte) lamenting her husband's infidelities in "Every Day A Little Death".  Yanna McIntosh (Desiree)'s rendition of Send In The Clowns was aptly heartbreaking, full of wistful disappointment tinged with a hint of bitterness.

I recently rented the DVD of Ingmar Bergman's classic Smiles of a Summer Night, in order to compare this source material with the musical that it inspired.  Although I had to quickly read English subtitles to follow the quick Swedish repartee, there was still time to admire the wit and intelligence of the dialogue.  I was very impressed with what an excellent job that Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim did in capturing all the intricate plot points of the movie and incorporating them into delightful songs that both advance the story and give insight into the personalities and motivations of the characters.  As I watched the movie, I could easily identify the moments where I expected the actors to burst into the songs that I am now so familiar with.  There were a few changes in plot that I noticed, including changing Desiree (and Fredrik's?) child from a five-year-old boy (a non-speaking role in the movie) to a 14-year-old daughter who features much more prominently in the musical and even has a song to sing—"A Glamorous Life" in reference to her mother Desiree.  Another change in plot was a minor point that was probably made to add more humour to the situation.  In the movie, Desiree's weekend invitation to the country is extended to the families of both her former lover Fredrik and her current lover Carl-Magnus.  In the musical, Carl-Magnus and Charlotte scheme to crash the party ("A weekend in the country ... How I wish we'd been asked ... We'll go masked" ¹). 

The final major deviation from the movie relates to the Egerman's maid Petra, who hooks up with the Armfeldt's servant Frid.  In the movie, these two characters are of major importance and become the fourth couple in the romantic comedy.  They are even prominently featured in the film's promotional photos and the cover of the DVD.  Frid poetically vocalizes the theme that harks back to the film's title—there are three smiles between midnight and daybreak, the first for young lovers, the second for the fools and the third for the sad and dejected.  In the musical, Frid's role is almost totally eliminated and it is Madame Armfeldt who describes the three smiles, changing the last one to the smile for the old.  While Petra wants to marry Frid in the movie, in the musical she is more ambitious and wistful for a better life and a higher station, as she describes in the beautiful song "The Miller's Son" (".. Or I shall marry the Prince of Wales" ¹).

It was so fulfilling for me to watch a more obscure musical that is not often mounted and which I had not experienced live before.  Unfortunately for the 2017 season, Stratford is back to the same old, same old with the offerings of Guys and Dolls and HMS Pinafore.  Granted that I may be in the minority in my desire for lesser known or new musicals.  It is probably good economic sense to pick a tried and true production that caters to the masses.  But for me, I will stick to Toronto's many smaller theatres in my search for exciting, edgy new shows to watch.

¹ Lyrics quoted from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

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