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Ah, Liaisons!

Spotlight literary magazine article for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of:
A Little Night Music
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Peter DuBois

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During the solstice in Scandinavia, the sun does not set for days at a time. Dating back to pagan tradition, Midsummer festivities are notoriously raucous social more-thwarting revelry. Against this ripe backdrop in turn-of-the-century Sweden, A Little Night Music celebrates the romantic foibles of Desiree Armfeldt and friends over one eventful extended sunset.

Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince, “always wanted to do a musical that dealt with love and lovers and mismatched and foolishness.” While looking for material to adapt into a romantic operetta, they found their own perfect match in the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. “Bergman achieves one of the few classics of carnal comedy,” wrote renowned film critic Pauline Kael, “a tragicomic chase and roundelay that raises boudoir farce to elegance and lyric poetry.” While Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler retraced the romantic runaroundsof the film’s story, they sweetened Bergman’s cynicism, allowing “the darkness to peep through a whipped-cream surface. Whipped cream with knives.”

Both the danger and the comedy of A Little Night Music stem from the same source: a knotted web of mismatched attachments. Sondheim musicalized the love triangle — and emulated traditional comic operettas — by composing A Little Night Music in variants on three-quarter time, “an orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes, all talking of past loves and lost worlds,” as New York Times critic Clive Barnes admired. Not only are groups of three built into the heartbeat of the music, but many of the songs are performed by trios or as duets about a third, absent person. When Fredrik and Desiree reunite 14 years after their affair, they sing, “You Must Meet My Wife,” a duet devoted to the wife he is about to betray. “Liaisons” and “The Miller’s Son” further the theme, listing threelovers apiece for former courtesan Madame Armfeldt and Petra, the Egermans’ promiscuous maid. As orchestrator Jonathan Tunick described, “These songs of alienation and yearning for cohesion and balance all represent the unstable number three drawn to the stable two — the triangle yearning to be reconciled to the proper couple.”

Before its happy reconciliation, that romantic instability first explodes into the comic maze of frolicking and flings pictured here. “I want the whole show to have a perfumed quality, not just to bubble like champagne. It is about sex,” remarked Sondheim. “I want some sense of musk on the stage at all times.” As these interlocking love triangles untangle, delightful bubbles of champagne and sensual hints of perfume linger in their wake — like enchanting tunes to leave the theatre humming.