A Little Night Music is one of Sondheim's earlier musicals and probably the most straightforward and approachable of his works along with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum.
The book (by Hugh Wheeler) is based on Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. The story revolves around the romantic follies of four men and women in late 19th century mid-summer Sweden. The sun just doesn't set during the summer in Scandinavia, which is enough to scramble anyone's brains. I haven't seen the Bergman film, so I can't comment on how closely the musical follows the film.
The musical is light and playful (Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator, calls is "scherzo") and as many people have remarked, most of the score is set in 3/4 waltz time. In a sense, A Little Night Music is a dance gone wrong. The musical opens with a short Greek chorus song followed by men and women waltzing. Unfortunately, the people are dancing with the wrong partners. Everyone is chasing after another person who doesn't return their affections. The dance has turned into a romantic game. By the end of the musical, all is set right and everyone is dancing with their proper partners. Sondheim's lyrics are always fantastic, but I especially enjoyed them in this musical. The words are sophisticated and witty and roll off your tongue like a Cole Porter song or an Oscar Wilde play.
But like any Wilde play, the characters portray a world that appears peachy and creamy but where darkness lurks underneath. There's waltzing, gorgeous costumes, and a glamorous actress, yes, but also people living out deluded lives. The central characters are Frederik Eggerman, a lawyer, and Desiree Armfeldt, a glamorous actress. Both are middle-aged people who had a love affair in their youth, fourteen years earlier. Frederik has re-married an 18 year old girl named Anne and Desiree is still acting in touring companies and having flings with married men. Henrik, Frederik's nineteen year old son from a previous marriage, struggles with being in love with his stepmother Anne and tries to drown his sorrow in cello playing and religious studies. Meanwhile, Anne is so naive that she still hasn't consummated her marriage with Frederik eleven months after the wedding day. To complicate matters, Desiree is having an affair with the married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, but she wants to get back together with the married Frederik! Desiree's affair has also made an enemy of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Carl-Magnus's wife.
The musical comments on this tangled romantic web in several ways. There is a Greek chorus (a quintet) which breaks into song at certain points. They never sing about specific people or places, but they mirror the mood of the characters. For instance, when Frederik goes to see Desiree after her performance, the quintet sings the song "Remember" which recalls a youthful fling. Madame Armfeldt and Frederika, Desiree's mother and daughter respectively, explictly discuss Desiree and romantic follies in general. Madame Armfeldt tries to instruct Fredericka in human life so she can avoid her mother's mistakes. Henrik and Charlotte are both sharp enough to see what's going on around them, but being ensnared in the web themselves, they aren't the innocent bystanders like Madame Armfeldt and Frederika. In "A Weekend in the Country", Henrik sings that he's going to tag along with his father on a trip to the Armfeldt estate, in order to observe "frivolous lives." The servants Frid and Petra bring in the low-class perspective on love. They are simple people but they recognize real love when they see it. Petra offers her commentary on romance in "The Miller's Son." No matter who you marry whether a peasant or the Prince of Wales, you will grow old, have to feed children, and/or get bored. One should "celebrate everything passing by" since it doesn't last. Sometimes all that money, choice, and sophistication muddles people (e.g. Frederik, Desiree) rather than enlightening them.
Light comedy is done to perfection in A Little Night Music. Frederik's song about unconsummated passion "Now" is hilarious. I still can't get over the line "I'm sorry to say, but is Hans Christian Andersen ever risque?" But that can't compare to the duet "You Must Meet My Wife" which includes one of the funniest lines ever written: "Isn't that alarming? What is she, a bird?" That song is shortly followed by a comic acting scene involving Count Malcolm discovering Frederik and Desiree in their night clothes. Act I ends with a fantastic ensemble piece "A Weekend in the Country" where the characters argue with each other and scheme romantic plots. Charlotte's look of consternation when Carl-Magnus decides to crash the Armfeldt party is truly priceless (to which he sings "Happy birthday, it's your present"). Finally, there is the dinner party scene where Charlotte and Desiree trade insults while Frederik tries to be charming and Carl-Magnus tries to restrain his wife.
I was fortunate to get my hands on a taped video of the New York City Opera's 1990 production, broadcast on PBS live from Lincoln Center. The cast is very good and the sets and costumes lavishly beautiful. Two standout actors were Regina Resnick as Madame Armfeldt and Maureen Moore as Charlotte. They had many of the best punchlines in the book and they delivered them well. Charlotte is my favorite character and Maureen Moore really brought out the self-deprecating, stingingly sarcastic nature of the woman. I think Moore's version of "Every Day A Little Death" is the best I've heard. George Lee Andrews as Frederik and Sally Ann Howes as Desiree were good in the leading roles, but nothing to write home about. Andrews sounded like Len Cariou (the original Frederik in the 1973 Broadway production), but not quite as good.
It's nice to have some (relatively) light, charming Sondheim music that I can actually listen to while working. Most of Sondheim's works are too heavy or emotionally-involving for me to listen to while doing something else!