An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music
By Nirmala Nataraj

Stephen Sondheim
Photo by Jerry Jackson.
Inspired by Smiles of a Summer Night, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy of errors, A Little Night Music emerged from Stephen Sondheim’s vision of a musicalized tale about the games that men and women play in sex and love. With a grand scope that is meant to generate nostalgia for turn-of-the-twentieth-century elegance, the play is a marked departure from Sondheim’s previous collaborations with director Harold Prince, such as Company (1970) and Follies (1971), which feature upper-class New Yorkers in a contemporary setting.

Before librettist Hugh Wheeler came on board, Prince and Sondheim had been toying with the idea of writing a chamber opera since their collaboration on the 1957 musical West Side Story (for which Sondheim was the lyricist and Prince the producer). Scandinavia in midsummer (a time of year during which the sun rarely sets throughout the region) provided the ideal backdrop for a play about sexual frustration, perpetual anticipation, and romantic foolishness. After settling on Bergman’s film for source material, Sondheim drew the title for the play from an English translation of the German name for Mozart’s serenade no. 13 for strings in G major (Eine kleine Nachtmusik). In A Little Night Music, three-quarter time, counterpoint, and harmonically complex melodies help evoke the grandeur and complex social interactions of a bygone era.

Sondheim’s original story for A Little Night Music was comparatively darker than the piece he ultimately developed with Wheeler. An early draft of A Little Night Music relates the story as a parlor-room fantasy with three distinct endings. Wheeler, however, felt that Sondheim’s idea was overly bizarre and confusing. As Sondheim explains in his annotated book of song lyrics Finishing the Hat, “[Wheeler’s] work had always been linear, not fanciful.” Although Wheeler attempted to write the libretto that had been asked of him, he ended up generating a piece that Sondheim found “boring and literal.” Wheeler’s book had erased all traces of gravity, darkness, and melancholy from Sondheim’s initial idea, leaving “a graceful but fluffily light comedy version of Bergman’s movie.”

Although Sondheim’s surreal vision for A Little Night Music never came to fruition, the musical that was eventually produced was hardly received as fluffy. In fact, many critics saw through the play’s cheery facade; as Richard Watts commented about the characters: “On the surface they appear to be enjoying their sins, except at moments when they are embarrassingly caught in them. But the atmosphere, for all its gaiety, seemed to me that of men and women who are leading hollow lives and are only too aware of it.”

The original 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music secured eleven Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score), six drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. New York Times critic Clive Barnes summed up the show as “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting . . . the real triumph belongs to Stephen Sondheim . . . the music is an orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes, all talking of past loves and lost worlds.”

A Little Night Music opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway on February 25, 1973. Directed by renowned Broadway director Harold Prince and starring Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold, the musical closed on August 3, 1974, after 601 immensely successful performances. The musical went on to enjoy an equally successful run on London’s West End in 1975 and a number of revivals throughout Europe, with productions spanning from Paris to Stockholm. In the last four decades, the musical has enjoyed numerous Broadway revivals and continues to be a popular selection among opera companies throughout the world. Prince also went on to direct a film adaptation of A Little Night Music in 1977, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down. And of course, the music endures. The nostalgic and wistful “Send in the Clowns” is one of Sondheim’s most immediately recognizable songs and has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra (1973) to Judy Collins (1975), who won a Grammy Award for her rendition, to Grace Jones, Judi Dench, and Megadeath.

Although Sondheim isn’t usually sentimental about his own work and has expressed continued befuddlement over the popularity of “Send in the Clowns,” it seems that much of his early ambivalence about the play has transformed over the years. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes Wheeler’s libretto as supple and surprisingly ageless. Although he jokingly admits to feeling dread as an audience member during a major revival or a school production of A Little Night Music, he writes:

Once the lights have been dimmed, I have an exhilarating time watching it. . . . I underestimated Hugh’s work shamefully when I first read it. After living with it through numerous productions for more than thirty-five years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of the half dozen best books ever written for a musical.

For more about A Little Night Music, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to A Little Night Music visit act-sf.org/music.

The Unforgettable Nat King Cole

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Unforgettable Nat King Cole
By Shannon Stockwell

Nat King Cole in New York City.
Photo by William P. Gottlieb, June 1947
Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. His family moved to Chicago in 1923, where his father, Edward Coles, realized his dream of becoming a Baptist minister. Young Cole learned to play the piano under the tutelage of his mother, Priscilla Coles, who was the organist at his father’s church.

Cole began performing in the mid 1930s when he was still a teenager, playing piano with his brother Eddie in jazz clubs. It was during this time that he acquired the nickname “Nat King Cole,” derived from the nursery rhyme about Old King Cole. After that, he became the pianist in the national tour of Broadway theater legend Eubie Blake’s revue Shuffle Along. The show went under in Long Beach, California, where Cole elected to stay.

Cole’s next big project was the King Cole Trio, made up of guitarist Oscar Moore, double bassist Wesley Prince, and Cole on the piano. In 1943 Cole penned the song that catapulted the trio to fame: “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” The song was recorded that winter after the trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records, and it became a hit. As he played with the trio, audiences began to recognize Cole for his soft, clear baritone voice.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the King Cole Trio began to record and perform more pop-oriented melodies. Cole recorded his most popular songs during these years, including “The Christmas Song” (also known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), which was recorded four times between 1946 and 1961.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Cole, along with his contemporaries, noticed that the pop ballads with which he had risen to fame did not seem to be selling well among younger generations. Still, he retained relevance. In 1961, “Let There Be Love,” similar in style to his pop ballads of the ’50s, was a number-one hit in Britain.

After a brief battle with lung cancer, Cole died on February 15, 1965, but his music and his clear, soft, articulate baritone live on. In the words of jazz musician and producer Dick Katz, his “deep groove, harmonic awareness, supple phrasing, touch, dynamics, taste, and just plain delicious music” have influenced generations of musicians and remain admired by critics, historians, and enthusiasts alike. “The musicality is just there,” says jazz musician Roger Kellaway. “It’s understood. It’s an assumption. His playing sparkles. And it seems effortless.” Aside from his mastery, Cole is beloved by fans for something more—a certain kindness and intimacy in his singing. “At his best and most characteristic, Nat Cole was not so much a singer as a whisperer, or, as one might put it, a confider,” said music critic Henry Pleasants. Kellaway sums it up well: “When you hear something like this, you think to yourself, ‘Boy, would I like to hang out with that person!’”

It was this intimate element of Nat King Cole’s music that attracted playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah when he was writing Let There Be Love. “[Alfred] lives in this world all by himself, in this big house with no family, with no friends anymore—just an absolutely lonely existence,” Kwei-Armah has said. “So I thought, ‘I need to give him something, some sort of musical friend, someone that he plays and has conversations with.’ And someone who made a huge impact on black music here was Nat King Cole. He represented a time in music when it was both sophisticated and beautiful, when it was both erudite and popular. Alfred could listen to him and think, ‘That’s my friend Nat.’”

For more about Let There be Love, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Let There be Love visit act-sf.org/love.

A.C.T.'s Let There Be Love Prologue Podcast

A Prologue Discussion: Director Maria Mileaf Talks About Let There Be Love at A.C.T.

In this exciting preshow discussion, A.C.T. Dramaturg Michael Paller discusses Let There Be Love with director Maria Mileaf. Mileaf’s passion for plays with strong characters led her to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s unforgettable work about a cantankerous, aging West Indian immigrant whose life and family relationships are transformed by a young Polish caregiver who has recently arrived in London. Mileaf has said that the play is bound to create a unique relationship between the actors and audience: “It’s a three-character play; they all have very different perspectives on the world, but they’re all dealing with the same events—maybe the person next to you is going to see the story through the point of view of a different character from the one you are most drawn to. That’s going to make for an interesting conversation after the show.” Mileaf discusses the rich world of Let There Be Love, from the dynamic sets (inspired by the living rooms of actual West Indian immigrants) to Kwei-Armah’s intimate story about immigrants finding home and discovering camaraderie with the unlikeliest of people.



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For more about Let There Be Love, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Let There Be Love visit act-sf.org/love.
 
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