From 1970 to 1973, Stephen Sondheim debuted three musicals on Broadway—Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. As testament to the composer’s indefinable talent, these efforts have somewhat confounded critics and academics eager to categorize his work. Are they classical musicals (anything that’s B.C.—before Cats—generally falls into this designation), with increasingly sophisticated lyrics integrated into the storytelling? Or was Sondheim on the way to something new, a musical theater form that built a bridge to opera and happily jumped over (and around) the subsequent bombast of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the weakly scripted, overproduced extravaganzas that followed in his wake?
Company was a big hit, and it represented a departure from Sondheim’s previous commercial efforts as lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy and as composer-lyricist for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Follies was then acclaimed as a ground-breaker, with lyrics truly functioning as dialogue. Then came the ambitious A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. It had a healthy Broadway run, and if Sondheim wasn’t at the height of his powers to entertain the hoi polloi, he was certainly at the zenith of his desire to challenge his particular audience with a sardonic tale of marital woes and sexual liaisons in turn-of-the-century Sweden. Sondheim delivered the goods in a sweep of lyrical complexity and with a musical palette distinguished by rich chord clusters, sly atonality and the clear influences of Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky. The result was something approaching operetta or, perhaps more accurately, art song.
A Little Night Music is a demanding show to produce—requiring attractive period costumes, elegant settings and a near-operatic physical effort—and the Nashville area hasn’t seen a version of it in recent memory. That situation is rectified this weekend, when Vanderbilt Opera Theatre and Vanderbilt University Orchestra join forces to present three performances Nov. 10-12 at Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall.
“I wouldn’t call it an operetta,” says Gayle Shay, Vanderbilt associate professor of voice and director of the university’s opera program, “if for no other reason than that the story has a lot of depth. There’s more character development and more sophisticated dialogue.” Hugh Wheeler—also Sondheim’s collaborator on Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures—wrote the script, and among the delicate human issues the story addresses, or at least hints at, are lesbianism, sexual impotence, promiscuity, adultery and May-December romance.
“Yet the music hearkens toward operetta,” Shay continues. “It’s got the breadth of range, and the orchestrations are lush.” The arrangements come courtesy of Jonathan Tunick, yet another figure critical to the vitality of Sondheim’s luminous career, now in its sixth decade. (Sondheim turned 75 in March.)
An orchestra of 30, under the baton of David Childs, will play the sumptuous score, singular in that nearly all of the 18 numbers are in 3/4 time (or variations thereof). What emerges is a celebration of waltz, ranging from the lilting, sarcastically funny duet “You Must Meet My Wife” to the deliciously frenetic Act 1 closer, “A Weekend in the Country.” Then, of course, there is the show’s signature song, “Send in the Clowns,” a double-time 6/8 whose languorous tempo belies its poignancy. Among the other standout tunes is “Every Day a Little Death,” which breaks the waltz mode, offering a subtly tricky 4/4 melody and a haunting modulation.
Shay has assembled a cast of 18 players. In a departure from the norm of using students exclusively, the show’s leading roles will be sung by faculty members. Assistant dean Amy Jarman, a soprano, will play Desiree Armfeldt, the jaded actress at the center of the story’s action, and baritone Jonathan Retzlaff takes on the role of lawyer Fredrik Egerman, her former lover seeking to rekindle old passions.
“This is my eighth year directing opera at Vanderbilt,” Shay says. “I’ve been wanting to do some Sondheim, but we’re always thinking about who our student singers are. This is a great score, but the barrier to doing it in a college setting is how tough it is for 21-year-olds to understand those lead characters. Jonathan and Amy are terrific performers, and they’re exactly the right age. Otherwise, the show has really good roles for the students. The casting was fortuitous.” Key performers include Gioia Fazzini, Erin Kemp, Regan Lackey and Nathan Brown, who, in the role of the womanizing Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, displays an especially promising singing voice.
True to her academic role, director Shay mounts A Little Night Music with the development of youthful artists in mind. That means no microphones will be used. “The orchestrations are brilliantly conceived,” she says, “designed so that you always hear the voices above the music. Our performers are thrilled that there aren’t mics. They’re trained to sing unamplified. Yes, you want to hear the singers and the words, but what I believe is that, as an audience member, you have to work a little harder to take it all in, and that keeps you involved.”
Shay herself has an MFA in voice from the University of Maryland, but she comes at directing from the theater side, having also stage-managed professionally for a number of years. “To be successful, a production like this is all about pacing, and we’re working here with a cast with varying degrees of experience. It’s important to make sure everyone’s on the same page. A Little Night Music has a good book, but it’s a challenge to find a way to make that wit sparkle. We’ve struggled, but we feel we’ve turned the corner."