I finally watched the 1990 New York City Opera performance of A Little Night Music (from Live at Lincoln Center). I promised myself this treat after watching the dismal 1978 movie with Elizabeth Taylor. It’s so much better.
The cast is great; I enjoyed all the acting and singing. Frederick (George Lee Andrews) and Desiree (Sally Ann Howes, who I will always think of as Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) have great chemistry and are charming and witty together. I really enjoy the give and take between them.
Beverly Lambert plays Frederick’s virginal wife Anne as a complete airbrain, which fits the part. Desiree’s lover/dragoon Carl-Magnus Malcolm (played by Michael Maguire) really seems to have a brain the size of a pea, as Desiree describes him to Frederick. I also enjoy Petra, the lusty maid (played by Susan Terry) and Desiree’s worldly and insightful mother, Madame Arnfeldt, played by Regina Resnik.
Ironically, a weak spot for me in this production is the “Send in the Clowns” scene. During the intermission, there is an interview with Stephen Sondheim explaining that song. He did not originally include it in the score. When the production was in rehearsal (for the 1973 original Broadway show), director Hal Prince called Sondheim and asked him to write a song for Desiree. Sondheim did not want to because he felt that particular scene belonged to Frederick. Prince explained his reasoning, talked it over with Sondheim, and Sondheim wrote the song in two days. Sondheim explains:
“It was never meant to be a soaring ballad. It’s a song of regret. It’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak (meaning to sing) for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Frederick because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up. So it’s a song of regret and anger.”
Then the video shows Sally Ann Howes working on phrasing with musical director Paul Gemignani. You get the feeling that she really understands the purpose of the lyrics and how to make it work.
So, when the scene between Frederick and Desiree comes up in the second act, I have some expectations. Howes lets me down. She sings it with a beautiful voice. But it’s too much about the beauty of her voice and not enough about the emotion of the scene. I want pain and anguish, sadness and anger there. I want her to be about to cry and barely able to spit out the words. That sounds awful, but that’s what the song needs. The lyric “Isn’t it bliss?” is filled with bitter irony. I think that Judi Dench does it right… the catch in her voice, the sadness.
Anyway, that’s the only thing that didn’t work for me in this production. This is a really enjoyable version of A Little Night Music; the show works well on the stage and it’s much better than the Elizabeth Taylor movie version. Unfortunately, the 1990 Lincoln Center production is not on Netflix. There are DVDs available, or you can watch it in pieces on YouTube.
As I explained in my earlier posts, this show is not directly Shakespearean. It is a musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful film Smiles of a Summer Night. Bergman was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and there are shared themes. Smiles of a Summer Night also inspired Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.
If you want my viewing suggestions, watch Bergman’s film first, then the 1990 musical, think about skipping Woody Allen, and don’t even consider the Elizabeth Taylor movie.
I think this will be my final post related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unless someone has another movie suggestion or comment from the text, I’m about ready to move on to Much Ado About Nothing. Read it with me!
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