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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Send in the Clowns. Really.

So Saturday night I decided to try and catch one more of the January closings on Broadway. In The Heights sold out as I was heading in to the TKTS line, so I opted for A Little Night Music.

A Little Night Music is a Sondheim show from 1973, with book by Hugh Wheeler and directed originally by Hal Prince. The same group would collaborate on the masterpiece Sweeney Todd a half dozen years after, and had done Company three years previous. It's probably best known as the show which includes Send In The Clowns. I'd seen once before, in a NY City Opera production at least 15 maybe even 20 years ago.

I do not consider it his best show or score. Send In The Clowns is a classic kind of because it became a classic. After that you've got the occasional line or two that's hummable and memorable, but Company or Sweeney Todd or Assassins all have more.

It's three hours inspired by Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, which is longer than that movie, way longer than Woody Allen's similarly inspired Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.

And this production, directed by Trevor Nunn (Cats), is a bad one. In fact, the more I think about it in the hours after seeing, the more I'm realizing how bad a production it is.

It's a period piece, about a rondelet of lovers in Sweden in 1900. So that means everyone has to get into period dress, but does it mean that everyone in the production has to be wearing gowns of the exact same off white color, or that two of the male characters seem to be wearing the same outfit, being played by people that look so much like younger and older versions of themselves that you'd think they'd wandered in from some strange production of Follies (a show that actually is about older and younger versions of the same characters)? It's awfully hard to get involved with the love lives of the characters when you can't actually tell the characters apart from one another!

Once upon a time any Broadway production had to have many many musicians. Over the years in contract negotiations, the minimum number required to be paid at any particular theatre has been reduced, and since this production is at an intimate theatre, the Walter Kerr, more traditionally known for hosting plays (the original Broadway production of Angels in America, for one) it has a smaller minimum musician count than a huge theatre like the Gershwin that often hosts big musicals. I think this is the first time that I truly felt deprived sitting in the theatre. A period score like this, which Sondheim wrote mostly in waltz time, should have a certain silkiness to it, a period lustre, it should sound like you're listening to a waltz in some grand estate ballroom in the 1900 Swedish countryside. God knows this doesn't. I don't know exactly how many or few musicians there were, but there just weren't enough.

The set, the costumes, the orchestrations, all of it was just so monochrome, and if you're thinking of the smiles of a summer night, that's not the right color scheme.

This production had originally opened as a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won a Tony Award, and the beloved Angela Lansbury. When the two of them left, the show was re-cast with two grande dames of the Broadway stage.

Elaine Stritch has a long association with Sondheim dating back 40 years to the original production of Company. She's just shy of her 85th birthday, and the role here doesn't require a lot of singing or movement, in fact the character is in a wheelchair for most of it. I wish I'd seen Angela Lansbury, to be honest. The effort shows in Stritch's performance, and even though the character being played is an aging wheelchair bound matriarch, I think we should see the effort more in the physical aspect of the performance while here the giving of life lessons seems a challenge as well.

Bernadette Peters isn't on Broadway near enough these days as one would wish. She's originated roles for the Broadway productions of Sondheim's Into The Woods and Sunday in the Park with George and also played in a dreary production of Gypsy. She's one of the few characters in this production who manages to show love at its lightest, breaking through the monochromatics. Her performance of Send In The Clowns is radiant and revelatory. It's no longer a song, it's a hearbreaking conversation with musical accompaniment. Every syllable of every word of every line drips with a life of longing and feeling and wishing. In fact, she so completely takes the song away from the very idea of "song" in the Broadway musical sense that I wished the should could have taken a break afterward to allow her to sing it as she might if she were actually doing it as song in a cabaret act or something. I don't mean that in a bad way, either. It's just that she's so powerful doing the song one way that the only way to top would be to have her do it in another.

Right after Peters does her stunning rendition of Send In The Clowns, we come to the one pleasant surprise of the evening (with Peters, you never consider greatness a surprise), which is Leigh Ann Larkin's performance of the song The Miller's Son. Which honesty isn't much of a song musically. It's got the one signature "I Will Marry The Miller's Son" and the rest of it isn't worth getting wedded to. But it's got some classic Sondheim lyrics with some heart, and some nice variety between the signature line and the other sections of the song, and Larkin just puts her voice around every subtlety of the lyric and finds every bit of feeling and passion in the song. I was almost as transfixed listening to this as I was to Send In The Clowns just minutes before.

There are enough intrinsically good things about A Little Night Music that it was by and large tolerable even in this bad production. I didn't fall asleep, I mostly thought of what was on stage and only occasionally about how Borders could get run into the ground and other such things. We're not talking Follies which requires absolute perfection to be tolerable. That being said, even a great production of A Little Night Music would be only so great. And we're not talking here about a great production.

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