Posted in Broadway Musicals, Movie Reviews

A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Have I mentioned I grew up at a time when the Broadway musical was still in its prime (not to mention affordable)? Because I was lucky to live in the New York metropolitan area, I was able to see the original productions of so many shows now considered to be classics. One of the best–and loveliest–was Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “A Little Night Music” stands apart from other Sondheim shows. Its music doesn’t sound like anything else he’s written, and the wry romance of the story resulted in his wittiest lyrics. There’s no doubt the excellence of the work rests a great deal on what Bergman already created. In style his film is reminiscent of the Mozart/DaPonte operas–it almost begs to be sung. Despite the satisfactory rearrangement of the lovers, you’re left with the impression that all happy endings are evanescent (It’s a safe bet that Charlotte and Carl-Magnus Malcolm will probably grind each other down into dust). But the reward is a visually beautiful film directed by a master, with Gunnar Bjornstrom and Eva Dahlbeck as Frederick Egermann and Desiree Armfelt so ridiculously good together they outdo even Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The original production of “A Little Night Music” was a bit sweeter than the Bergman film. Charlotte Malcolm was sharply comic, rather than tending toward tragedy, Carl-Magnus was a barihunk without quite the wit of his film counterpart, Frederick was somewhat less dry, and it was obvious that his relationship with Desiree had ended many years earlier than in the Bergman version (Desiree’s child is a girl who’s about ten years older than the film character’s son). On stage, William Daniels, who had replaced Len Cariou as Frederick Egermann, was wonderful in the role. The sheer theatricality of the show was such fun: “The Glamorous Life” (“Bring up the curtain, la la la”) accented by a harp glissando and Desiree’s sweeping gesture to cue the scenery of the play within the play; the clever design of Charlotte’s hobble skirt, which turned out to be culottes; that breath-taking moment when the curtain rose on the second act, with the cast lounging on the lawn of Desiree’s estate, all dressed in their beautiful summer whites. Not to mention how wonderfully Glynis Johns sang “Send in the Clowns” so late in the show’s run, yet making it sound like fresh thought. It’s hard to think of another show that could match that production in elegance.

Glynis Johns as Desiree
Glynis Johns as Desiree

“Night Music,” musically speaking, is all of one piece. Every song in the score, waltz or not, is in three or its multiple; the unstoppable “A Weekend in the Country” is in 12/8. But your ear is never bored since Sondheim plays with tempo throughout the show and tricks you into thinking he’s doing alternate meter as in “The Glamorous Life.” However, I think the most crucial musical ingredient is the contribution of Jonathan Tunick, perhaps the most gifted orchestrator Broadway has ever seen. He adds warmth to the score with some lovely woodwind writing, especially for alto flute and English horn, and he softens the odd tonality of “Night Waltz I” (“The sun won’t set..”) with those lush strings.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite moment in “A Little Night Music.” “A Weekend in the Country,” with its busy choruses and Charlotte’s sage advice to Anne about how to outshine Desiree (“Wear your hair down with a flower/Don’t use makeup/Dress in white/She’ll grow older by the hour/And be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night”)? And the unique juxtaposition of “Now” “Soon” and “Later,” only to hear them come together in a trio? Which reminds me: there’s an unusual bonus on the original cast album at the point when Anne (Victoria Mallory) and Henrik (Mark Lambert) sing the line “I don’t mind it too much.” Their voices so perfectly mesh that her soprano sounds like an overtone of his tenor (In fact the actors married during the run of the show and their daughter played Anne in the recent revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The original Broadway cast album still makes the best case for the show. The recording of the revival has its merits—Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and the lieder singers are excellent–but the orchestrations, therefore the sound, is leaner, making it “less than” from a musical standpoint And by all means avoid the movie version, which changed the locale from Sweden to turn of the century Vienna and ends up laying the proverbial egg (Diana Rigg is a great Charlotte, but it’s just not worth the agony).

So while Hans Christian Anderson may never be risqué, “A Little Night Music” will always delight.

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Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Opera

Brain Bits for a Delayed Spring

It’s March 24th and the weatherman is predicting a snow storm starting tomorrow afternoon, just in time for tomorrow evening’s commute. Mother Nature must be fuming.

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Rise StevensI never heard Risë Stevens sing at the Met—her operatic career ended in 1962—but her artistic reputation was the gold standard for American singers for years. She was a cross-over artist decades before the term was coined, what with her many appearances on radio and television, not to mention her film career, which included “Going My Way,” in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald.

Her voice was indeed unique. Although she succeeded as a mezzo-soprano, her contralto beginnings were always evident in that dark, rich sound. Not many singers have the distinction of being the go-to artist for two such wildly divergent roles as the 17 year-old Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” and the ultimate seductress, Carmen, but she was, for two decades.

If you’d like to hear her at her best, I’d recommend the live 1952 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Carmen.” This was the peak of her career, and while she made two studio recordings of the opera, neither match the intensity of the broadcast. Richard Tucker is incredible as Don José, and when he and Ms. Stevens have their final confrontation, your hair stands on end. I just love what she does with the role—she’s as far removed from cliché as you can possibly get. Unlike other Carmens who tend to snarl the line, her “Non, je ne t’aime plus” is delivered in a dismissive monotone. Her indifference fuels José’s rage, which she knowingly triggers in fulfillment of the fate she had learned during the Card Scene. It’s a wonderfully unified portrayal, something that more than a few Carmens of today could learn from.

Many thanks, Risë Stevens. Rest in peace.

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Speaking of live performances, I was recently listening to and bowled over by “Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute”, the first in a much too long line of galas, celebrations and performances dedicated to his work (For the record, I like a number of his shows, but his worshippers are in a league of crazy all their own). The recording marks a 1973 benefit, and the talent could not have been better.

The standouts are all “Follies” alumnae who reprise their songs from that show, but with the knowledge and zest that comes when a performer has lived with a role for a while. Once of the downsides of original Broadway cast albums of that era is that they were usually recorded on the Sunday following the show’s opening. Actors like Alexis Smith, for whom singing was a bit of a stretch, were short-changed by the process—comparing her “Could I Leave You?” on the original cast album with her rendition at the Sondheim tribute two years later is an eye-opener. She had had the benefit of months of performances and she nails the song cold, both musically and dramatically. While you would expect Dorothy Collins, a singer by trade, to perform well on the Sondheim album, she exceeds your highest expectations. Though it sounds like she had a slight cold at the time, she delivers a searing “Losing My Mind” in addition to a delightful “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which opens the gala. The lady certainly knew her stuff.

And then there’s Ethel Shutta, singing “Broadway Baby.” Her presence is a reminder that the distance between “Follies,” perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s best achievement, and its genesis will continue to grow, to the detriment of the work. You see, Ethel Shutta had been featured in the Ziegfeld Follies back in the 20’s, and when she, along with a number of other actors, was cast in Sondheim’s “Follies,” she brought a performing style to the show that was genuine and true to the era. These performers are all gone now, of course, and the best we can hope for whenever the show is revived is an educated imitation. Most likely, though, we’ll end up with some “Glee”-like shtick. Yuck.

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Variety is not only the spice of life, it saves your sanity. New York’s classical station, WQXR, is in the midst of drowning itself in Bach for ten days. I thought their annual “Beethoven Month” in November was enough, but “Bach 360” is camped on my last nerve. One more cantata, one more passion, and I’ll be losing my mind. Not a good idea, folks.

Posted in Broadway Musicals

“Follies”: Too Much of a Good Thing?

I saw the new Broadway production of “Follies” yesterday, and while I think the good outweighed the bad, I find myself scratching my head this morning. Granted the production has some issues, but more than that, the show itself demonstrates yet again that its stupendous score is used to paper over the shortcomings of its book.

Follies @ Marquis Theatre on Broadway

I remember the endless debate in the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times when the original production opened, and I’ve loved the score ever since I bought the original Broadway cast LP on the day it was released. Dorothy Collins killed me as Sally, and the fact that you could actually hear the smile in Alexis Smith’s voice when she sang the line “That’s the sorrowful precis” knocked me over. In the years since I’ve acquired the same album on CD, along with the 1985 concert album (Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearn and Mandy Patinkin) and the two-disc Paper Mill Playhouse revival that tantalizingly includes all the songs that were cut before the show reached Broadway.

What I think is fundamentally wrong with “Follies” is that with the exception of Buddy (currently in a superlative performance by Danny Burstein), we don’t really know the main characters, nor do we learn how they got from Point A to Point B. We do know that Ben is rich and powerful and that he always wanted to be so, but when he has his breakdown at the end of the show, crying “Me…I don’t love me,” I had a hard time believing him. As Young Ben he seduced Sally but married Phyllis, and why does it matter anyway since at this point in their lives they seem interchangeable. And Phyllis is an enigma until rather late in the show when she finally busts loose with “Could I Leave You?” Until then she’s acerbic and rather remote (except, perhaps, with Buddy), and what interest we have in the character is due almost entirely to who’s playing her. What’s odd about the book is that the older version of the characters are required to illuminate their younger selves, all of whom seem to be blank slates. Dramatically speaking, it should be the other way around.

And what of Bernadette Peters as Sally, whose delusions epitomize “Follies”? No one loves BP more than I do, but she’s wrong for the role, and unfortunately this is compounded by a glaringly bad directing choice. Let’s take the former first: she doesn’t have the right vocal goods for Sally. Oddly enough, I don’t think you have to be Dorothy Collins or Barbara Cook to sing the part (though thank God they did). Donna McKechnie does fine on the Paper Mill Playhouse recording, and in my view Judith Ivey did a good job in the 2001 revival while acting the hell out of the role. What all these ladies have in common was some mileage on them and you can hear it. Bernadette Peters in her 60’s looks and sounds better than I did when I was 40. You just don’t believe she’s a depressed housewife who looks to cure her empty life by revisiting a 30-year-old passion. Instead you wonder why in the world she doesn’t dump her philandering husband and have a fling or two of her own. And I don’t know whose idea this was (probably the director’s), but to have her cry and act on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout “Losing My Mind” was overkill. The song is exquisitely written to show all this in musical form, and to have it so graphically acted out is totally contrary to Stephen Sondheim’s style. It detracts from the climax of the song, a true cri du coeur: “I want you so/It’s like I’m losing my mind.”

Whatever problems may exist with the book or in performance, “Follies” does not disappoint. The specialty numbers will always stop the show, and they do in this production. Jayne Houdyshell totally sells “Broadway Baby,” and Terri White is a singing and tap-dancing wonder in “Who’s That Woman.” Elaine Paige’s “I’m Still Here” is spot on, and Rosalind Elias’s operetta-style duet with her younger self, “One More Kiss,” is sweetly touching. The present version of “Buddy’s Blues” is the best and funniest I’ve ever seen, I loved the staging of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and the showgirls’ costumes in “Loveland” are tremendous.

Is it worth going to see? Definitely yes. There will never be a fault-free production of “Follies,” but it’s a theatrical work–it’s meant to be performed, not stored away in a box until the perfect cast comes along. It has one of the greatest Broadway scores ever written, and it’s always worth hearing people of talent take it on, whether you agree with the end result or not.