Sunday, December 16, 2012


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 then-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 which casts the principals in the evening's romantic roundelay as "players" in a turn-of-the-century operetta. Careful attention should be paid to the myriad couplings and uncouplings in Patricia Birch's gloriously gliding waltz choreography, for it 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 daughter Fredericka (the superb Chloe Franks), hatches a plot to marry former lover Frederick Egerman (Cariou). Obstacles: Frederick has recently wed the beautiful but rather 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 upon whom the summer night is hoped to smile, 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 world's most improbable Egyptologist.

Translating a beloved stage musical to the screen is largely a thankless job, for one would 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 admit 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 imperfect, yet 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 in being bitchily witty, unexpectedly moving, charmingly romantic, and at times, just gorgeously opulent and lovely. This kind of light, frothy entertainment is exceedingly difficult to carry off, but for me, A Little Night Music hit just the perfect key. An odd and perhaps unfortunate choice of words, I know, given Elizabeth Taylor’s touchingly hesitant vocalizing of Send in the Clowns (one critic’s diplomatic summation of Taylor’s rendition: “No chart-buster”).

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. I think she makes a fine Desiree, but in spite of her small triumphs in the role, 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 perhaps by Maggie Smith, is everything  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, scene-stealing performance that gives the sometimes lagging 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. When one is not feeling frustrated by how poorly these ladies' talents are sometimes showcased, the joint 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 to the screen. Both tend to recede into the background and make a vague impression at best. It seems the women do all the heavy lifting in A Little Night Music.

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 concept for a show, justifying its transfer to another medium. The song The Glamorous Life Desiree Armfeltd's ode to the theatrical life on the road, is rewritten as the daughter's self-rationalizing boast/lament at having a mother who is wonderful to brag about, but seldom around.  The ingeniously economic number fashioned for the new song relays a great deal of backstory, plot exposition, and character information in a montage of images, both silent and sound, in a manner calling to mind 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

Even those not particularly fond of the film express nothing but praise for the handling of the A Weekend in the Country number; the pre-intermission showstopper and 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 cleverly cinematic. It's a real highlight. Fans of Downton Abbey should really discover A Little Night has a wonderful look about it in its costumes and locations.
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


  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!

    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":

  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!

  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!

  4. "A Little Night Music" is a terrific musical, but I think you are the lone enthusiast of this ghastly film adaptation--which is arguably a catastrophe of direction, cinematography, casting, wardrobe, and acting, with the exception of Rigg and Down, who acquit themselves somehow. This adaptation was universally panned--savaged, actually--particularly due to Taylor's affected, great-lady-with-the-voice-of-a-baby performance and her wildly-fluctuating weight from scene to scene. Arthur Ibbetson gave her a jaundiced hue for the entire production, and Harold Prince set up amateurish shots that didn't line up in the editing room. Perhaps you watched the film with the video off? But then you'd still have to account for Taylor's faked little girl line readings. I agree with many of your reviews and think you're a fine writer, but regarding your assessment of ALNM, I don't get it.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on what is indeed a film beloved by few. All the shortcomings you listed are indeed true about "A Little Night Music", but they only express specifically what stood in YOUR way of enjoying the film. But alas, in the subjective experience that is moviegoing, they do not serve as empirical truths that make enjoying or falling in love with “A Little Night Music” an impossibility.

      What you call attention to is the very crux of the philosophy of my entire blog – why I write about films like “Valley of the Dolls” and “Day for Night” side by side: I sincerely believe we do not like movies exclusively because they are “good” (there really is no such thing, objectively speaking), we thing movies are good because we like them.

      It’s not comparative objective standards, it’s subjective personal taste.
      I thoroughly agree that this is a less-than-perfect movie musical. But did that stand in the way of my falling in love with it? Not one bit.

      We don't love people because they're perfect, we love them because of the way they make us feel.
      That's my philosophy on movies.

  5. I just discovered your wonderful blog today (a link to your review for Who Killed Teddy Bear? on DVDbeaver brought me here, randomly,) and have spent all morning reading past reviews. So I apologize for the comments here (and on other posts) to old reviews--I know on these blogs comments made a few years later rarely even get read, but I can't resist...

    I have been a defender of the ALNM film ever since I saw it in the early 90s when I was 11 or 12 and just getting into Sondheim. I had caught the second act of Into the Woods on PBS and was blown away, but back then the filmed ITW was not available on VHS (only laserdisc due to some special deal with Panasonic,) and so I checked out the other Sondheim musicals I could find at my video rental place--the filmed stage productions of Sweeney and Sunday and an incredibly poor quality copy of the ALNM film.

    So perhaps my affection comes partly from early exposure, and taking what Sondheim I could. I do get some of the criticisms--many of the non-musical scenes feel overly static (it's amazing because Hal Prince, who I think is the best stage director of musical theatre out there--at least the best who is also not a choreographer--is notoriously cinematic in his stage works,) and of course a ton of music has been cut--although part of this is due to the cutting of the liebersingers, who probably could not have worked on film anyway. Some of the cuts are also due to the budget issues you mention--Sondheim talks in his book Finishing the Hat about some other elaborate sequences he helped map out that weren't filmed--including a flashback laden "Liaisons."

    But I think the cast is universally excellent--yes, even Liz--with Diana Rigg being a standout. It's also, of course, great to have two of the original Broadway leads. (I will say that, especially when I play the soundtrack recording, maybe they shouldn't have used the same woman to dub Fredericka, Anne *and* some of Liz Taylor's singing.)

    The brand new movie version of The Glamorous Life is one of my top Sondheim songs and is wonderfully filmed, and the Weekend in the Country segment is a masterpiece of staging for me (apparently Sondheim helped map out both which almost makes me wonder what a film directed by Sondheim would look like. ) I even like some of the tweaks made to the score--Henrick/Erik sings his material lower which appeals to me (maybe because I can sing along to him on the soundtrack now...) the re-ordering of Now/Soon/Later, Hermione's added little bit in Weekend, Tunick's new orchestrations for Little Death, etc...

    So I was thrilled when the DVD came out. Sure, the print is still pretty poor, but it is more than I ever expected for the film. And even if I understand some of the complaints against the film on a rational level, I think its reputation (many rank it as THE worst stage to screen musical adaptation--yes, even above A Chorus Line,) is unfair. I'd go as far to say that its reputation has been perpetuated by many people who haven't even actually seen the film...

    I was surprised to see no mention of Hal Prince's only other film, Something for Everyone (which also has a screenplay by Hugh Wheeler although the score is by that other Prince collaborator--John Kander--and I believe like Night Music was filmed in Austria) but then I came across your mention of it in the Cabaret review. Such a great film, that really deserves a DVD release as well.

    Anyway, what a pleasure to come across a review--finally--from someone who appreciates this film on its own terms.

    Eric Henwood-Greer

  6. Wow--I totally agree with your assessment of "A Little Night Music." I have been almost drummed out of various gathering when I have expressed some admiration and appreciation for this admittedly flawed, but I think worthy adaptation. I am a great, amused admirer of Taylor's latter-day persona, all the over-top emoting and crazy vocal tones. Here she is quiet and poignant, giving a real performance, and, as usual, revealing something of her own life, through the work. She would marry Jogn Warner after the completion of this movie, looking for, as Desiree might put it, "less chaos." That did not happen. This is the only aging actress role Taylor took that is convincing. She cannot convey the desperation of a fading star because despite the decline at the box-office, Taylor never really faded. The cinematography was a problem, and certainly Taylor's weight could have been handled more flatteringly. (On the other hand, she could have been more professional, and maintained her figure throughout.)

    Diana Rigg is brilliant.

    I saw this when it finally premiered in 1977, at the premiere itself, and a few days later at a movie house on Manhattan's upper east side. The audience reactions were extremely positive, much more so than than the critical drubbing it took. The only uncomfortable laugh came when Len Cariou sings "If she's only been faded, if she'd only been fat..." But then La Liz suddenly appears looking anything but faded or fat, so that laugh died quickly.

    Great blog.

    1. Hi
      And thank you very much! Your assessment and appreciation of latter-day Liz is very fair-handed. No wonder you're able to appreciate this film's virtues while not finding it necessary to turn a blind eye to its flaws.
      i like what you have to say about the qualities Taylor brings to the role. Under-appreciated qualities, I'd say.
      How fantastic you got to see the film at the premiere! Like with my Castro Theater audience, it sounds as though those in attendance had not yet been told that they weren't supposed to like the film.
      With Taylor no longer with us and with Americans as a people having grown so large that she positively looks svelte by today's standards (the 70s was a skinny era...all those tight jeans and spandex) "A Little Night Music" stands as a pleasing musical memory for me. Glad to hear you enjoy it, too! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  7. I too am a fan of this film adaptation. Without repeating too much of what has already been said here I'd like to also say what I think of this much criticised film adaptation.
    Flawed it may be and missing some songs from the stage version but with the actors involved and the expanded orchestrations on the music it doesn't make this a bad movie. Diana Rigg's performance alone puts this film in the "must watch" category right away.
    I also heard the original cast recording before i ever seen a production (which I finally did in 1997) but this movie I discovered in the 1980's when i was high school and now, all these years later, I have the DVD and the CD soundtrack.
    And for the record, I don't think Elizabeth Taylor's singing of Send In The Clowns is any worse than Glynis John's version. The song was written specifically for someone with limited singing ability and many actresses who have played Desiree fall into this category, not just Johns and Taylor, but the likes of Jean Simmons, Hayley Mills, Helen Morse, Judi Dench, Sigrid Thornton, and Catherine Zeta Jones too.
    My admiration for this film has even led me to creating it's own Facebook page so there you go!
    Thanks for your terrific blog, it's great reading.

    1. Hi David
      Thanks for weighing in so enthusiastically on an unsung (bad pun) favorite! The points you make are well-taken, especially in the way of leveling out the criticisms hurled at the film.
      I don't know if a theater purist would ever enjoy it, but as you say, it is a fine film as it is. Flaws can be accepted if they do not spoil the whole.
      I must check out your FB page on this film. Wonderful idea! Thanks for visiting the blog and contributing, and a double thanks for your very complimentary sign-off. Cheers!