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Introduction to A Little Night Music

Your guide to this sparkling Sondheim musical…

What is the story?

A Little Night Music was inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, and is a bit like a game of romantic musical chairs.

Successful, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman has recently married naïve, 18-year-old Anne in what turns out to be a terrible mismatch, while his son Henrik, just a little older than her, has secretly fallen in love with his new stepmother. When Fredrik and Anne visit the theatre, Fredrik is reunited with an old flame, the actress Desiree Armfeldt, and sparks fly – although Desiree herself is currently seeing a married dragoon, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, much to the misery of his wife Charlotte.

When Desiree asks her mother, Madam Armfeldt, to host a party for the Egermans at her lavish country estate, all the characters set off for ‘A Weekend in the Country’, each with their own amorous hopes, fears, and schemes…

Dame Josephine Barstow as Madam Armfeldt in rehearsal © Sharron Wallace

Who are the main characters?

Fredrik Egerman: a widowed lawyer and ex-lover of Desiree Armfeldt
Anne Egerman: his new wife, just 18 years old
Henrik Egerman: Fredrik’s son from his first marriage, 20 years old and in love with Anne
Petra: Anne’s maid and confidante, tries to seduce Henrik

Desiree Armfeldt: actress, now touring small towns, and Fredrik’s ex-lover
Madam Armfeldt: her elderly mother, a once courtesan
Fredrika Armfeldt: Desiree’s 13-year-old daughter, and possibly also Fredrik’s daughter

Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm: a military dragoon and Desiree’s latest and very possessive lover
Countess Charlotte Malcolm: his jealous wife

There is also a Quintet, sometimes known as the Liebeslieder (love song singers), who comment on the action throughout like a Greek chorus. In our production, they function as agents of the story, influencing the action so the right people end up together.

Laurence Kilsby as Henrik Egerman and Corinne Cowling as Anne Egerman © Sharron Wallace

What is the music like?

A Little Night Music is written almost entirely in 3/4 time! The waltz is dominant, but other dance styles in triple time also crop up – including the polonaise and mazurka. This pattern of threes is also in the lyrics – trios are sung with singers separated, while duets are sung together but about a third person, reflecting the story’s interconnecting love triangles.

At some points, multiple performers each sing a different song simultaneously, such as the merging of ‘Now’ (Fredrik), ‘Later’ (Henrik) and ‘Soon’ (Anne) in Act I: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have three songs you don’t think are going to go together, and they do go together?” – Stephen Sondheim

There are also classical references – the title itself is a translation of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the score is influenced by Ravel, and there is a direct quotation in the musical’s second-most famous number ‘A Weekend in the Country’ from Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier (also a comedy about partner-swapping in which the waltz is key)!

Quirijn de Lang as Fredrik Egerman in rehearsal © Sharron Wallace

What is the hit number?

A Little Night Music features what might be Sondheim’s biggest hit – ‘Send in the Clowns’. It’s sung when Desiree finally confesses her feelings for Fredrik, only to be turned down. As an actress herself, she refers to the well-known theatrical device for covering when something has gone wrong on stage – sending in the clowns. Something has gone very wrong here in the play that is her own life, and she is left feeling vulnerable, exposed and a fool – all of which is poignantly painted in the music.

The song was actually an afterthought – Desiree was intended to be a non-singing part, but on discovering that the original Desiree Glynis Johns could sing a little, Sondheim penned this specifically for her. Since then it has been performed by everyone from Shirley Bassey and Barbara Streisand to Judi Dench and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

What is this staging like?

In this new co-production directed by James Brining with designs by Madeleine Boyd, the characters themselves are performers. At the opening, the set resembles a packed-up show in a shut-up theatre, with furniture heaped in the centre of the stage. The Quintet (Liebeslieder) set the scene with a ghost light, and give Madam Armfeldt her wheelchair as she takes up her role.

Liebeslieder continue to construct various scenes, all with pared back props and furniture. This allows the piece to flow in a dance-like way from location to location, suggesting the surroundings but leaving the audience to fill in the blanks! In Act II, other forces begin to intrude, including the great outdoors – rushes grow at the edges of the stage, which is now a sunken garden, and the never ending night takes over…

Costumes accentuate the two worlds of above and below stairs, and vividly paint each character. Madam Armfeldt looks austere and regal, harking back to turn of the Century, whereas Desiree explodes onto the stage with Brigitte Bardot style.

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Stephanie Corley as Desiree Armfeldt © Sharron Wallace

Who was the composer?

The music and lyrics for A Little Night Music were written by music theatre giant Stephen Sondheim, also known for Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and more (and as lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy)! His work reinvented the American musical, tackling untraditional and sometimes darker themes.

A Little Night Music was one of Sondheim’s biggest commercial successes. It opened on Broadway in February 1973 and ran for 601 performances, winning six Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score. Its original director and longtime Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince described the show as “whipped cream with knives” – heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Stephen Sondheim c. 1976

A Little Night Music is a co-production with Leeds Playhouse, running 26 June–17 July 2021.

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