Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Sondheim of the Day - A Little Night Music

During the solstice in Scandinavia, the sun does not set for days at a time. Dating back to pagan tradition, Midsummer festivities are notoriously raucous social-more-thwarting revelry. Against this ripe backdrop in turn-of-the-century Sweden, A Little Night Music celebrates the romantic foibles of Desiree Armfeldt and friends over one eventful extended sunset.

Stephen Sondheim and the original director Harold Prince “always wanted to do a musical that dealt with love and lovers and mismatched partners...love and foolishness.” While looking for material to adapt into a romantic operetta, they found their own perfect match in the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. “Bergman achieves one of the few classics of carnal comedy,” wrote renowned film critic Pauline Kael, “a tragicomic chase and roundelay that raises boudoir farce to elegance and lyric poetry.” While Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler retraced the romantic runarounds of the film’s story, they sweetened Bergman’s cynicism, allowing “the darkness to peep through a whipped-cream surface. Whipped cream with knives.”

- from The Huntingdon Theatre website

From its debut in 1973, A Little Night Music was warmly received by the critics and reviewers, and has been revived myriad times since - the show is often cited as one of Sondheim's finest works. Conceived as a sort of operetta, virtually all of the music is, unusually, written in waltz (three-quarter) time - and from its magnificent score, a legendary showbiz standard (and pop hit) was born. But first, on with the show...

[Other notable versions of this remarkable number include Elaine Stritch, Dame Cleo Laine, Dame Sian Phillips, and even Margaret Hamilton(!) - but my fave is the original by Hermione Gingold (no video for that, unfortunately)]

And finally... The number that gained a life all of its own - probably Sondheim's most recognised and famous song. It has been covered by just about everyone in the business, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins (whose version was a huge hit in 1975), MegaBabs, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, Lou Rawls, Shirley Bassey, Blossom Dearie, Jack Jones, Johnny Mathis, Cleo Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Maria Friedman, Ruthie Henshall, Michael Ball, Glenn Close, the Tiger Lilies and even Dame Edna Everage (and many, many more besides). However, this is the lady for whom it was written:

Other notable "Desirees" include Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Simmons, Sally Ann Howes, Dorothy Tutin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Juliet Stevenson, Bernadette Peters and Judi Dench]

We went to see it back in (gulp!) 2009 - at the "home" of many a successful Sondheim production the Menier Chocolate Factory - starring Maureen Lipman as Madame Armfeldt, Hannah Waddingham as Desiree and Alexander Hanson as Frederik, and loved it.

A Little Night Music is quite simply magnificent, and deservedly revered as a classic.

All you need to know about the show is on the Everything Sondheim site.

RIP, Stephen Joshua Sondheim (22nd March 1930 – 26th November 2021)

[One of a series of tributes I will be posting to Mr Sondheim this week.]
Previous "Sondheim of the Day" entries:


  1. Oops, I need to catch up. I have been in a mood. Some Sondheim might sort me out.

    1. If you've been in a mood, perhaps the angst of A Little Night Music might not exactly lift it that much :-)


  2. I spy with my little eye Hermione Gingold and Diana Rigg (sigh!)
    'Send in the Clowns' is a masterpiece of bitterness, regret and self-awareness. It became a hit here back in the mid-70's, and it just stopped my Jr. High heart, it was so true. I'm more of a Cole Porter supporter, but Sondheim is undeniably wonderful. And oh what a play!

    1. That is indeed the divine Miss Gingold, but that's Glynis Johns at her shoulder...

      Send In The Clowns is more than a match for some of Cole Porter's or Ira Gershwin's classics. It is quite rightly lauded as Sondheim's finest (commercially-speaking, at least) hour.

      The whole production is a masterwork. Jx

  3. It's amazing how many shows I've (we've) seen. Gypsy; Follies; The Frogs; Company; Into the Woods; Side By Side By Sondheim and my all time favourite A Little Night Music. A true genius!”

    1. Every single one of 'em will be getting a mention this week; don't you worry!

      Now that he's shuffled off this mortal coil, there will be new productions and tributes galore, of that I have no doubt. We just need to look out for them. Jx

  4. Diana Rigg breaks my heart. Every Day A Little Death is my favorite moment from a musical filled with wonderful moments. He was never finer. Variations of 3/4 time suited the time period and setting and plot. The book was as finely tuned as the music. Stellar. Thank you, dear. Bless you.

    1. Dame Diana certainly does the song justice. It has always been the case that Sondheim wrote his songs for actors, not for perfect singers - and one couldn't ask for a better actor in the role of poor, put-upon Charlotte! Jx

  5. I am enjoying this tribute trip down that well-trod lane...
    Thank you, Jon.

    1. You are more than welcome, my dear!

      Sondheim provided us with a feast, and I am gorging on it... Jx


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