Posted on June 1, 2002 at 12:00 pm
An essay that JRB contributed to the souvenir program of the Kennedy Center Celebration of Stephen Sondheim, June 2002.
To be an aspiring writer for the musical theatre is to worship regularly at the Church of Steve. Some of us wear our affiliation more overtly than others, and some of us are more strict in following the Commandments, but the fact cannot be denied: no one who has aspired to write a musical in the last thirty years can possibly claim that they haven’t wanted to be blessed by the grace of Stephen Sondheim, a grace that is most abundantly displayed by A Little Night Music.
That being said, A Little Night Music didn’t work its charms on me initially. I had been hypnotized by the minimalist pulse of Sunday in the Park with George, invigorated by the over-the-top cinematic sweep of Sweeney Todd, knocked out by the percussive boldness of Pacific Overtures, overwhelmed by the brassy energy of Merrily We Roll Along, but this musical about turn-of-the-century Swedes, with its famously “all-waltz” score, didn’t manage to seduce me until I was well into my twenties.
There’s a good reason for that, it turns out: A Little Night Music is a work of consummate maturity in every possible respect. What it had to offer was something I was completely incapable of appreciating when I was sixteen years old. I’m sure there are plenty of teenagers and Gen-Xers who think it’s the greatest show in the world, but I suspect that even they will find that they didn’t understand the half of it once they’ve gone out into the wide world.
Hal Prince has spoken of A Little Night Music as a deliberate attempt to do something “commercial” and “popular,” to refute the critics who had been claiming that his work with Sondheim (at that point consisting of Company and Follies) was cold and insular. To look at A Little Night Music with that in mind, and in the context of what is currently considered commercial and popular, is to conclude that Hal Prince is off his nut. This is a show that makes no concession to popular taste whatsoever – it is unabashedly “grownup” and has no fear of projecting its intelligence and literacy at all times. And while Hugh Wheeler’s book is often screamingly funny, the tone is generally wistful and gentle. Patricia Birch’s original choreography, light years away from her work in Grease the previous season, was delicate and artful but never athletic, and there is not one “dance break” in the entire score.
And speaking of the score, what would a tired businessman make of that? For perspective, some of the top hits of 1973 were “Crocodile Rock,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “Let’s Get It On.” Clearly, Johann Strauss was not on the radar, so what was Sondheim thinking? It’s not all waltzes, of course – just variations on triple meter time signatures at various tempi, with polonaises (“In Praise of Women”), mazurkas (“The Glamorous Life”) and yes, outright waltzes (“Soon,” “The Sun Won’t Set”) mixed in with the unclassifiable glory that critics have resorted to calling “Sondheimesque.” (There is even one piece of underscoring that is unabashedly in 4/4 time, put there, I’d like to think, just to frustrate generations of future academics.) And the lyrics! Never mind the translucent dexterity, the unimaginable brilliance and mastery of the craft that allows Sondheim such flights of fancy as to set up “candor,” “grander,” and “blander” for a grand slam with “Hans Christian Ander-sen” that’s perfectly legitimate, scans exactly, and is wildly funny – never mind that, this “commercial” show features a song called “Every Day A Little Death”! (I wanted to be the one essayist who didn’t mention Jonathan Tunick’s exquisite orchestrations, but I can’t help myself, they’re just fabulous.)
So let’s assume, for the sake of sanity, that Hal was just lying. Well then, what were they up to? What I see when looking at A Little Night Music is the absolute hallmark of professionalism, a flawless piece of craftsmanship that determined to be the best work of everyone involved while being completely unrevealing about its creators. Certainly Follies and Company bear more than their generally acknowledged share of autobiography among their authors – they are both intensely personal works. A Little Night Music is not that – outside of its unmitigated affection for the theatre, this show tells us very little about the two New York Jews in their forties who were at the center of its creation.
Or does it? For surely in its choice of musical influences, one can discern a very pointed comment – this is not the thrown-together hit parade of a panderer or a “tunesmith,” this is a musician’s score. Its glorious exploration of harmonic relationships and rhythmic contrast was not meant for the layman – there is a serious Composer At Work here. But while this is a score of unquestionable intelligence, it is also effortlessly buoyant, light and accessible and bursting with charm and affection. Sondheim seems to me to have been saying something very specific: sophistication need not be heartless. And indeed, if A Little Night Music is anything, it is sophisticated – but it is also heartbreaking and comical and involving and spirited.
But I didn’t figure that out for a while. And let’s face it – I wasn’t meant to. Stephen Sondheim, forty-two years old and at the top of his game, wasn’t writing this show for pimply-faced adolescents – this is a score that communicates a private passion and dares the audience to deny its seductive power. In time, it got me as well, to the point where I now look to this show continually for musical and lyrical inspiration and sustenance. I believe that there is no other musical in history that is both as secure in its technique and as entertaining in its execution, and the fact that it was indeed a commercially successful enterprise makes me wonder why so many writers and producers in the musical theatre feel the constant need to condescend to their audience.
This is how we worship at the Church of Steve – we revel in the glories that his works endlessly yield. We rebel, we cavil, we deny our faith, but at the end of the day, we come back to the welcoming arms of the true gospel: this thing we do, this art we propose to create, can aspire to a greater perfection, a truer and richer transcendence – look at it there! Believe! Believe!
Oh, did I forget to talk about “Send in the Clowns”?