It was the spring of 1980. I was in New York City to visit my friend Jim, who was a student at Manhattan College. This trip was a big deal for me – I hadn’t done very much traveling at this point in my life, although I’d been in NYC once before with my friend Pat, but I was traveling alone this time. While there, I was sleeping on assorted sofa cushions, pillows, and blankets spread out on the floor of Jim’s dorm. While I did get to see a lot of Jim that week, he was a busy student, so I had a lot of time for exploring the city on my own. By some logical process now forgotten, I decided one night to attend an off-off-Broadway production of A Little Night Music. It really is a bit of a mystery to me now – I had never seen the show, I didn’t know the songs (except for Send in the Clowns) and I had to figure out where The Church of the Heavenly Rest was located, for the show was being performed in the converted gymnasium there. Some other remarkable things happened that night, and I daresay the whole evening deserves a post of its own, but I’ll just talk about the show for now, hereinafter referred to as ALNM.
This production stunned me on several levels. It was an amazing collection of voices. Many of these folks could or should have been performing in much bigger theaters for much bigger bucks. As it was, I was sitting in a folding chair, front row center, for exactly $6, which was incredibly cheap, even in 1980 dollars. As I read the program, I noticed that every actor’s bio included the actor’s phone number. As I read on, it was mentioned that while all of the performers were members of Actors Equity Association, none of them were being paid for their work in this show. It was my first experience with what is sometimes called a showcase production, and I’m told they’re quite common in New York. Remarkable talents like these folks – who could work for good money in a lot of other cities – were doing this show, hoping to be noticed and hired for one of those paying gigs. This realization was a very large nail in the coffin of any thoughts I might have had about moving to New York to pursue acting (but that’s another post as well).
So we get to the show itself. It is a comedy, though not in the Producers or Spamalot sense of the word. It is a comedy of smiles much more than of belly laughs (though there are a few of those as well). In fact, it is a musical adaptation of the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Now hold on a moment! I know that, for a lot of people, the name Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with fictional characters who are depressed, miserable, dead, or all three, and with audiences who are bored to the point of envying the characters. Unfair as that stereotype may be, I’ll allow it for the moment, if only to point out that Smiles of a Summer Night is actually a bona fide sex farce comedy, and startlingly atypical of Bergman’s work! But back to ALNM – the musical has the ability to cast a particular spell, through a combination of its gorgeous Stephen Sondheim score, its ability to transport the audience to this other place and time, and its refined sense of utter silliness.
Ah yes, the score. If noise and bombast are what bring you to the theater, you can probably skip this one, although the song A Weekend in the Country does close out Act I at quite a fever pitch. Mind you, I’m not criticizing noise and bombast – if I go to see Miss Saigon, there had damn well better be some cannons going off and a helicopter landing on the stage, but ALNM takes place in a rather quieter world, though its emotions are no less cutting. Let’s take Send in the Clowns, for example. Most of us know it as a hit single from Judy Collins, though it has also been recorded by Streisand and many others. As a single, it always struck me as pleasant enough, but to see it in the context of the show, to realize what Desiree is specifically singing about, is a beautifully wistful experience. One other curious note about the score: virtually every song in the show, whether fast or slow, is a waltz, and I think this choice on Sondheim’s part contributes mightily to the unique air that surrounds this show.
I am making a conscious choice to not explain the plot in any sort of detail and here’s why: there are just the two of us here, you and I. I already know the plot, so I don’t need it explained. As for you, well, I find it hard to imagine that you really want it explained to you at this point. Oh… but suppose I’m wrong in that assumption… OK, here’s what we’ll do – if you would like to see a detailed plot summary, someone else has already done a fine job of it and I’ll give you a link to it right here. Otherwise, please accept my recommendation for one the most lovely and beguiling musicals ever written!
Later addition: If you're tempted to see the 1977 film version of ALNM, I have one word of advice: Don't.