Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Perpetual Anticipation...

...is good for the soul, but it's bad for the heart."

So goes Stephen Sondheim's recitative in his brilliant musical A Little Night Music. Just about everybody has been wondering when his 1973 masterpiece might appear again on Broadway. We've had revivals of his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (twice), his Follies, Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park with George. Even more problematic pieces Assassins and Pacific Overtures have seen revivals. In past seasons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close have both been mentioned as possibles to play Desiree, the aging actress at the center of the story. But so far, they have failed to send in the clowns. Roundabout Theatre Co. has just announced a single performance fundraiser for their theatre in January, 2009, a concert staging with the starriest cast imaginable. Notably, Christine Baranski will be playing the scene-stealing part of Charlotte , and Broadway Babies Victor Garber, Laura Benanti, and Marc Kudisch will also participate. The terrific Natasha Richardson, Tony-winner for the Cabaret revival a while back, will play Desiree, and in a fantastic casting coup, her mother, Madame Armfeldt, will be played by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave.

A Little Night Music was the first Sondheim musical I was exposed to, back when I was a teen-ager. My friend Valerie, who was and remains a Sondheim-aholic, introduced me to the cast album at a party way back when. (Yes, that was the kind of party I attended as a teen. Any wonder I turned out like this?) I was aware of West Side Story and Gypsy, of course, but this piece just blew me away. The first time I saw the show was in a major revival in Los Angeles. The attraction here was the casting of Glynis Johns, the original Desiree, in the role of her mother, Madame Armfeldt. The central role was to have been played by Lee Remick, who was tragically diagnosed with breast cancer before rehearsal started and was forced to withdraw from the production to begin chemo. She was replaced by one of the most boring actresses ever to grace stage or screen, Lois Nettleton. As a result, Johns, in a wheelchair but still riveting to watch, was the undisputed highlight of the show. I have seen only two other productions. I mentioned the revival at The Kennedy Center's Sondheim Festival a while back, in which Blair Brown had the lead, and of course, there is the notorious film flop, against which I have already railed.

What is it about Night Music which has caused it to be absent so long? Surely it's not the score, famously written as a series of waltzes, for it contains Sondheim's most famous tune, "Send in the Clowns." It also contains what is arguably the most exciting Act One finale in any musical of the 20th century, "Weekend in the Country."

I say arguably, because two other Sondheim Act One Finales might challenge that statement. Sunday in the Park's first act ends with "Sunday," in which our hero Georges Seurat constructs his most famous painting with the people he has been sketching throughout Act One. The song always makes me teary, as it reflects the artist's struggle to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

And then there's Gypsy, which features a shatteringly human reversal. On a lonely train platform in the middle of nowhere, with boyfriend Herbie and daughter Louise cowering in the background, the monstrous Mama Rose sings optimistically that "Everything's Coming up Roses." But the lyrics mask a dark desperation. We know we are not in for a happy ending.

Perhaps the planned benefit reading will convince someone that we need A Little Night Music.
If not Now, then Soon. Rather than Later.