Sunday, December 16, 2012

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC 1977

My introduction to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music came in 1973 when I blindly purchased the Original Broadway Cast LP solely on the strength of my passionate adoration for his timeless scores to the Broadway shows, Company and Follies. I say blindly because, despite my mini-fandom of Sondheim (that same year I’d dragged my family to see The Last of Sheila simply because I’d heard Sondheim collaborated on the script with actor, Tony Perkins), I really knew nothing about A Little Night Music at all. I was unaware of the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film upon which it is based —Smiles of a Summer Night; I didn't know anything about its content or structure, or whether it was a dramatic musical or comedy; and of course, I hadn't heard a note of the of the music (I know it’s hard to imagine now, but there was actually a time when not every man, woman and child had a recording of Send in the Clowns in release).
A Little Night Music sets the proper fairy tale tone by using a theatrical staging of the musical as a framing device that casts the principals in the evening's romantic roundelay as "players" in a turn-of-the-century operetta. Careful attention paid to the myriad couplings and uncouplings in Patricia Birch's gloriously gliding waltz choreography reveals the entirety of the film's plot. 

But here is an instance of ignorance most assuredly proving to be bliss, for in purchasing the cast album without benefit of foreknowledge, I was granted the ultimate gift of being introduced to A Little Night Music as a purely musical experience. And for a Sondheim fan, what could be better? As a show, A Little Night Music is a perfectly charming little sex farce, perhaps one of the best of its stripe; but for me its strongest suit has always been Sondheim’s lushly romantic score. Consisting entirely of intricate waltz-time melodies with witty lyrics full of astoundingly clever wordplay, Sondheim’s compositions for A Little Night Music are among the best of his illustrious career.
By the time the film adaptation of A Little Night Music opened for a limited engagement at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in 1977, I had not as yet seen a stage production (that wouldn't be until some 30 years later) but having all but worn out the grooves on my Broadway cast LP and committed the entire score to memory, I would say that I was more than primed for the event. 
Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree Armfeldt
Diana Rigg as Charlotte Mittelheim
Lesley-Anne Down as Anne Egerman
Hermione Ginglod as Madame Armfeldt
Len Cariou as Frederick Egerman
Laurence Guittard as Carl-Magnus Mittelheim
Like an intricate waltz in which the participants continually and imperceptibly change partners, A Little Night Music is a lyric dance of desire in which lovers, paired by fate, and with varying degrees of success, try to manipulate the circumstances of their lives. In turn-of- the-century Austria, stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Taylor), wearying of her life on the road away from her daughter, Fredericka (the superb Chloe Franks), hatches a plot to marry former lover, Frederick Egerman (Cariou). Obstacles: Frederick has recently wed the beautiful but slightly shallow Anne (Lesley-Anne Down), his 18-year-old love who, after 11 months of marriage, still guards her virginity; Desiree herself is the mistress of the jealously possessive and much-married military dragoon, Carl-Magnus (Guittard), whose shrewd and embittered wife (Diana Rigg) is Anne’s old school chum; and,adding to the mix, Erich Egerman, Frederick's son from a previous marriage (Christopher Guard) is tortuously in love with Anne, his stepmother.
An orchestrated string of comic contrivances results in this amorously antsy group (which also includes a randy housemaid and a handsome manservant [Lesley Dunlop & Heinz Marecek]) converging for a weekend at the country estate of retired courtesan Mme. Armfeldt (Gingold) who just also happens to be Desiree’s mother.
Self-serious seminary student Erich Egerman struggles to resist entrapment in one of "the devil's snares" in the form of Petra, the housemaid. Ironically, in real-life actors Christopher Guard and Lesley Dunlop became a couple after meeting on this film.
A Little Night Music is the stuff of classic romantic farce played out with considerable charm and wit by an engaging cast in eye-poppingly sumptuous costumes and surroundings. And interwoven amongst the sometimes heartbreaking follies of these lost and searching fools whom the summer night is hoped to smile upon, is Stephen Sondheim’s breathtaking music (lushly orchestrated to Oscar-winning effect by Jonathan Tunick who appears briefly as the conductor for the operetta that opens the film).
In the 1978 Harold Robbins camp-fest, The Betsy, British actress Lesley-Anne Down displayed her versatility in taking on a role the polar-opposite to that of child-bride Anne Egerman in A Little Night Music. Personal fave: 1981's Sphinx, where Down plays the screen's most improbable Egyptologist.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Translating a beloved stage musical to the screen is largely a thankless job, for you’d have to attend a comic book convention to find fans more vociferously persnickety and proprietary than theater geeks. And while I've suffered my share of gut-wrenching disappointments at seeing some beloved stage show bowdlerized on the screen (cue Sir Richard Attenborough’s lame-legged, A Chorus Line), I always concede to the fact that film and stage are entirely different mediums and a movie musical has to stand on its own distinct merits, not on how faithfully it translates its source material. I’m in a small camp on this one, I know, but I find A Little Night Music to be a marvelous movie musical. One that I'm well aware fans of the stage show consider to be a disaster. I'm not denying its flaws (even the filmmakers concede that pressures of time and budget made certain compromises necessary), but for pure screen pleasure and taking delight in wonderful actors, beautiful music, and a sharp, funny screenplay, A Little Night Music is a most diverting and glorious entertainment.
The night smiles three times at the follies of human beings: First for the young who know nothing; the second, for the the fools who know too little; and the third, for the old, who know too much.
My lack of a theatrical frame of reference no doubt played a large part in why I fell so hard for this flawed, but thoroughly delightful film, just as did the circumstances of my seeing it (The Castro Theater was packed, the film was shown with an intermission, and applause followed almost every number). Hoping just for a chance to see what I had missed in never seeing the show onstage, A Little Night Music as a film actually exceeded my expectations in terms of cinematic style, performances, and overall panache. It succeeded at being bitchily witty, moving, romantic, and at times, just gorgeously opulent and lovely. This kind of light, frothy entertainment is exceeding difficult to carry off, but for me, A Little Night Music hit the perfect key. An odd choice of words, I know, given Elizabeth Taylor’s touchingly hesitant vocalizing of Send in the Clowns (a friend of mine adored one critic’s summation of Taylor’s rendition as, “No chart-buster”).

PERFORMANCES:
Well-suited to portraying a diva of advanced years who knows a thing or two about how to get a married man to leave his wife, Elizabeth Taylor is at her latter-career best in A Little Night Music. Not only is her much-commented upon, well-upholstered figure perfectly suited to Florence Klotz’s Oscar-nominated period costumes (although in some scenes one might wish cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson had made more of an effort to photograph her flatteringly) but is quite winning as she effortlessly glides from slightly overplayed comedy to genuinely touching drama. She’s marvelous and brings an appropriately regal star power to the film, but in all of her triumphs, it’s Diana Rigg who walks away with the picture.
The Ladies Who Lunch
Everyone references Send in the Clowns when speaking of A Little Night Music, but my favorite song in the entire show has always been the plaintive Every Day a Little Death. This duet by the two deceived wives is movie musical magic for me. I fall apart, it's just that gorgeous.
Listen to it Here
To paraphrase a lyric from one of the show's Second Act songs, “The woman is perfection.”  Diana Rigg, whose talent for high-style bitchery is rivaled only by perhaps Maggie Smith, is everything that a film like A Little Night Music needs. She's an urbane and spirited actress with a way of commanding the screen no matter whom she shares it with. Hers is a sharp performance that gives the film much-needed zest and fire. Adding to this is the brilliant Hermione Gingold who, though sadly underutilized (and denied her lovely song, Liasons), enlivens each of her scenes with her trademark droll delivery. The contributions of these two actresses is invaluable in making A Little Night Music such an enjoyable experience.
Laurence Guittard and Len Cariou recreate the roles they originated in the Broadway production. As fine as they are in their roles, both actors lack that intangible "something" that' translates on film. They recede into the background and nary make an impression.  The women do all the heavy lifting in A Little Night Music.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I’m not overly fond of the arbitrary, often unimaginative “opening up” that occurs when theatrical properties are adapted to the screen, but I love it when directors discover an authentic cinematic language for a show that justifies it being transferred to another medium. The Glamorous Life is an ingeniously economic number that conveys a great deal of backstory, plot exposition and character information in a montage of silent and sound images that recall the sensation of leafing through a scrapbook.
The Glamorous Life
Sondheim's brilliant song begins as a young girl's boastful paean to the life of her actress mother and ends up being a self-convincing denial of loneliness
THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
Even people who don't much like the film express nothing but praise for the handling of the number, A Weekend in the Country, the film's centerpiece. Shot in a series of escalating cross cuts that mirror the mounting anxieties of the two parties set to merge at the Armfeldt estate, its a bouncy and amusing number well-played by all and very cinematic. It's a real highlight. Fans of Downton Abbey should really discover A Little Night Music...it has a wonderful look.
Considering how many people involved in the original Broadway production were involved in bringing A Little Night Music to the screen (Sondheim, director Harold Prince, choreographer Patricia Birch, screenwriter Hugh Wheeler, costume designer Florence Klotz) it's surprising the finished product pleased so few. The filmmakers cited crunched schedules, unstable financing, and the legendarily bad health of Taylor as the reasons for the many compromises undertaken.
True or not, I think all that focusing on what could have been clouds a fair appreciation for what was accomplished, which for me, a man who returned to the Castro Theater three more times to see A Little Night Music during its initial engagement, is something pretty special.

(Incidentally, these days, what with all those kids from Glee butchering one Broadway standard after another, I'm beginning to look more kindly on ol' Liz's  "no chart-buster" version of Send in the Clowns.)
Copyright © Ken Anderson

4 comments:

  1. I really need to see this at long last! I have seen the stage production and recall loving A Weekend in the Country in particular. How symbiotic that, without any prior knowledge, we both chose to focus on Lesley-Anne Down films this week!

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    1. Ha! I just finished reading your terrific post on "The Betsy" and you're right, there's something weirdly symbiotic in our both focusing on one of her films during the same week! "A Little Night Music" is one of my favorite films to watch over the holidays, and as I've been laid up with a cold, I've been rewatching it and thinking of how I haven't seen Down in anything in ages.

      I saw "The Betsy" not long after I saw "A Little Night Music" and loved how different she was in the roles. Since no one ever speaks about either of these films, I'm thrilled you brought attention to one of the funnier glam/trash movie soaps of the late 70s.
      I hope Ms. Down appreciates all the publicity she's been given between the two of us! :-) Thanks, Poseidon!

      Link to Poseidon's Underworld review of "The Betsy":
      http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2012/12/ya-wanna-make-betsy.html

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  2. ahhhh, this magical musical score stumbled upon me after i greedily bought more than a few sondheim musicals and then proceeded to neglect them... and then one night while on shuffle that husky, purring voice belonging to glynis johns came on in "you must meet my wife" (not "send in the clowns" -though not knowing this musical i had already been abused by the over-recording of that song). i was hooked. i couldn't listen to anything else for weeks, save for that intoxicating voice conveying the numerous levels of expression required for the song: forced politeness, cynicism, sarcasm, indignation and anger, not to mention sexual tension. even now, it still retains the #1 most played song in my library. i was entirely seduced by a voice.

    so that could explain why i have not watched the movie thus far (i'm not partial to glynis, wait, yes i am, but i truly do adore elizabeth taylor... i suppose i just haven't gotten around to watching it), but your wonderful blog, as always, fills me with the motivation i was lacking to open my eyes and make the time to allow more splendid art and experience to enter my life. (though i will always wish i could have seen glynis in that role. but i hadn't been born yet. heavy sighhhhhhhh).

    anyway, cheers! and happy holidays!

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  3. Hey there, Kathrynnova
    I think a great deal of Sondheim's music has the power to seduce you describe. This score and Follies have really spoiled me for most musicals. I love that you became intoxicated by that waltz duet "You must meet my wife" and Glynis John's voice. She sounds wonderful on that.
    I doubt if the film version will replace those memories, but perhaps you'll find something in this adaptation to add to you Sondheim experiences. Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Rigg certainly did that for me.
    So good to hear from you again. Happy Holidays!

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