An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music

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.

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