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Everything you need to know (and more) about A Little Night Music

What’s 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 match, while his son Henrik, just a little older than his stepmother, has secretly fallen in love with her. When Fredrik and Anne visit the theatre, he is reunited with an old flame, the actress Desiree Armfeldt, and sparks fly – even though Desiree is seeing 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.

What’s 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 certain 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).

What’s 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, she’s referring to the well-known theatrical device for covering when something has gone wrong on stage – sending in the clowns. As things start to go wrong in her own life, she’s 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 the song for her. Since then it has been performed by everyone from Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand to Dame Judi Dench and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

What’s the 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 covered 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 details. In Act II, other forces begin to intrude, including the great outdoors – rushes grow at the edge 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 encapsulate 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.

Who’s the composer?

The music and lyrics for A Little Night Music were written by music theatre giant Stephen Sondheim, also known for CompanyFolliesSweeney ToddInto the Woods and more (and as lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy). His work reinvented the American musical, often tackling unusual, 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 long-time Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince described the show as “whipped cream with knives” – heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure.


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Arts Council England Leeds City Council The Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation
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