A Little Night Music is one of the best musicals, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book A Little Night Music, by Hugh Wheeler. Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, it involves the romantic lives of several couples. It’s title A Little Night Music is a literal English translation of the German name for Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. A Little Night Music, the musical includes the popular song “Send in the Clowns”.
Since its original 1973 Broadway production, A Little Night Music has enjoyed professional productions in the West End, by opera companies, in a 2009 Broadway revival, and elsewhere, and it is a popular choice for regional groups. The book, A Little Night Music, was adapted for film in 1977, with Harold Prince directing and Elizabeth Taylor, Len Cariou, Lesley-Anne Down and Diana Rigg starring.
The score for A Little Night Music has elements not often found in musical theater, presenting challenges for performers, with complex meters, pitch changes, polyphony, and high notes for both males and females. The difficulty is heightened when songs merge, as in “Now”/”Later”/”Soon”, because all three have to be performed in the same key, limiting the ability to pick a comfortable key for each singer.
Critic Rex Reed noted that “The score of ‘Night Music’ in the musical A Little Night Music” …contains patter songs, contrapuntal duets and trios, a quartet, and even a dramatic double quintet to puzzle through. All this has been gorgeously orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick; there is no rhythm section, only strings and woodwinds to carry the melodies and harmonies aloft.”
Sondheim’s engagement with threes extends to his lyrics. He organizes trios with the singers separated, while his duets are sung together, about a third person. Another of the show’s signature elements is that many songs end on a single brief note played by one or more instruments.The work is performed as an operetta in many professional opera companies. For example, it was added to the New York City Opera Company repertoire in 1990.
At several points, Sondheim has multiple performers each sing a different song simultaneously. This use of counterpoint maintains coherence even as it extends the notion of a round, familiar in songs such as the traditional “Frere Jacques”, into something more complex. Sondheim said: “As for the three songs… going together well, I might as well confess.
In those days I was just getting into contrapuntal and choral writing…and I wanted to develop my technique by writing a trio. What I didn’t want to do is the quodlibet method…wouldn’t it be nice to have three songs you don’t think are going to go together, and they do go together… The trick was the little vamp on “Soon” which has five-and six-note chords.” Steve Swayne comments that the “contapuntal episodes in the extended ensembles… stand as testament to his interest in Counterpoint.”
Polyphony is very different from harmony, which Sondheim rarely employs in this work. When multiple singers sing the same phrases, he has them sing mostly in unison.
In addition to the original Broadway and London cast recordings, and the motion picture soundtrack (no longer available), there are recordings of the 1990 studio cast, the 1995 Royal National Theatre revival (starring Judi Dench), and the 2001 Barcelona cast recording sung in Catalan. In 1997 an all-jazz version of the score for A Little Night Music was recorded by Terry Trotter.The 2009 Broadway revival with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury recorded a cast album on January 4, 2010 which was released on April 6.
The show’s best-known and Sondheim’s biggest hit song featured in A Little NIght Music was almost an afterthought, written several days before the start of out of town tryouts. Sondheim initially conceived Desiree as a role for a more-or-less non-singing actress.
When he discovered that the original Desiree, Glynis Johns, was able to sing (she had a “small, silvery voice”) but could not “sustain a phrase”, he devised the song “Send in the Clowns” for her in a way that would work around her vocal weakness, e.g., by ending lines with consonants that made for a short cut-off.” It is written in short phrases in order to be acted rather than sung…tailor-made for Glynis Johns, who lacks the vocal power to sustain long phrases.”
In analyzing the text of the song, Max Cryer wrote that it “is not intended to be sung by the young in love, but by a mature performer who has seen it all before. The song remains an anthem to regret for unwise decisions in the past and recognition that there’s no need to send in the clowns-they’re already here.”