Theater Review: “A Little Night Music” — Failing the Test of Time

By Henry Chandonnet

Appreciating Stephen Sondheim’s achievement does not mean loving all of his shows. A Little Night Music may just be one of his musicals that should be politely nudged aside.

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Produced by Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA, through August 28.

Kate Day Magocsi and Mary Beth Peil in Barrington Stage Company’s A Little Night Music. Photo: Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage Company

Following the passing of composer-legend Stephen Sondheim, repertory theater companies across America have rushed to produce a variety of the famed composer’s musicals. Some of these ventures were successful, such as the current Broadway run of Into The Woods, which is infusing some distinctive flair into Sondheim’s didactic take on fairy tales. Still, not all of his shows are equally accomplished, and they cannot always be renovated, even by very talented people. Dealing with Sondheim’s legacy means discriminating, reckoning with the bad as well as the good. These failures don’t diminish Sondheim’s stature, just complicate it. For me, A Little Night Music is among the composer/lyricists overrated musicals and Barrington Stage Company’s superb production proves my verdict — it cannot compensate for the show’s essential mediocrity.

A Little Night Music is a romantic farce, but one with nuance. It attempts to be profound, even heady in its tomfoolery. But underneath the humorous surface lies a discomforting reality: the musical serially humiliates all of its female characters. There’s Anne, the quaint child-bride who loves jewels and comedies. She is eventually swept up by her husband’s son. Then there’s Charlotte, the stone-faced wife who doggedly hews to her husband despite his affairs and drunkenly slobbers over another man as a means to make him jealous. And, of course, there’s Madame Armfeldt, the aging matriarch who spends her time fawning over past trysts — because her life as a senior is utterly worthless. None of the male characters are treated with such triviality, dismissed as mere playthings. Yes, their trials and failures are the butt of comedic quips, but they have agency and are successful at the end of the evening. Most of A Little Night Music‘s demeaning comedy is generated by the sexual and romantic failings of women.

Worst of all is the case of Desiree. Of all the show’s female characters, she has will power. She’s a working actress, is comfortable making choices, and is fawned over by two different men. By the end of the first act, though, we see her true, more emotionally nuanced motivations. Desiree wants to settle down with a husband — for the sake of herself and her daughter. She believes Fredrik to be that man. When Fredrik tells her that he cannot leave his wife, Anne, Desiree is beset with one of the most heart-wrenching breakdowns in Sondheim’s catalog. “Send in the Clowns” is a giant of a song (a standard), and Emily Skinner, Barrington Stage’s Desiree, handles the crushing ballad with forceful grace. Then, miraculously, Fredrik’s wife leaves him and he chooses to settle down with Desiree! How sweet, how trite. Just minutes after the devastation of “Send in the Clowns,” a viewer is left wondering: why did Sondheim put us through this? Desiree is emotionally traumatized for our entertainment yet it all works out. She is belittled at the whims of the men around her. For me, this was an unsettling, manipulative see-saw that felt wrong, at least from the perspective of 2022.

From a production standpoint, BSC does everything right. The set feels classic yet fresh, and the directorial vision is also compelling. The headline theatrical names — Emily Skinner, Sierra Boggess, and Mary Beth Peil, among them — pull their starry weight. More impressive is the young talent in the staging. Sabina Collazo’s Anne is spot-on at hitting her comic cues, and Noah Wolfe’s Henrik brims with invitingly youthful bliss. Above all, though, there’s Sophie Mings as Petra, one of the Egermans’ servants. She is a somewhat peculiar character, present mostly for her sexual panache and lower class bravado. Mings’s Petra, however, infused some liberating energy into a show that is too comfortable denigrating its female characters. At the end of the evening, Petra sings “The Miller’s Son,” a song that — in the wrong hands — can seem inconsequential. Mings makes the tune one of the show’s few empowering experiences. That said, Ming’s performance, along with the fine turns of the other talented actors, cannot make this show fit the times. At this point it is dated, nostalgia for those who are uncomfortable with change.

This isn’t a reason to shun Sondheim, to “cancel” him postmortem. No, this is an opportunity for artists to look hard at his work and create the needed imaginative revisions. The time for  uncritical revivals is over. Barrington Stage Company put on a great production of a musical that, in this day and age, is not so great.


Henry Chandonnet is a current student at Tufts University double majoring in English and  Economics with a minor in Political Science. He serves as arts editor for the Tufts Daily, the preeminent campus publication. Henry’s work may also be seen in Film Cred, Dread Central, and Flip Screen. You can reach out to him at henrychandonnet@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryChandonnet.

11 Comments

  1. Bruce Yeko on August 18, 2022 at 6:13 pm

    You are too young to make such a judgement

  2. Michael Morad-McCoy on August 19, 2022 at 5:18 pm

    Not sure what Mr. Chandonnet has against Mr. Sondheim that drives his rather tortured criticism of “A Little Night Music.” Not sure what show he was watching, but in every other production of Night Music I’ve seen, the relations between the sexes are almost 180 degrees from Mr. Chandonnet’s “analysis.” He claims the women in the show are denigrated and have no agency. This conveniently ignores the reality that, in “A Weekend in the Country,” it’s the women who set in motion the dynamics that will play out in Act II. His claim that the men are the active agents must also conveniently ignore the reality that Sondheim portrays the men as either utter buffoons or painfully emotionally inept. The reality is that the way the show is actually written, the women are the ones who understand what is going on and know how to manipulate the sexist society (one must take the historical context into account) to achieve the ends they desire. And, if one goes along with the somewhat mystic setting, there’s a good argument to be made that Madame Armfeldt, far from being the “utterly worthless” senior Mr. Chardonnet sees, is actually the show’s puppet master who is aligning the midnight sun and its effect on these amusing mortals. Mr. Chardonnet uses the word “nuanced” to lead his second paragraph. Perhaps he should have actually watched for the nuance in this show instead of writing this simplistic piece.

    • Henry Chandonnet on August 19, 2022 at 7:37 pm

      Hi! Thanks for your comment — it was great to see another take on it. That being said, I have to disagree. It’s difficult to say that the women get the plot moving with “A Weekend in the Country,” given that they’re responding to the actions of their husbands. Maybe you could argue that Charlotte has a bit of agency, being that she wills Anne to accept the invitation, but even Charlotte is moved almost entirely by the rage of her husband. We watch time and again as Charlotte faces the indiscretions of her husband, and yet is forced to stay because of some amorphous ‘love’ that is never defined. If that were a serious, dramatic portrayal maybe it would have more value, but it’s played for a laugh. Then there’s Anne, who is essentially thrown around throughout the musical from person to person. I understand the sentiment that Sondheim’s men are often comical buffoons — that’s of course true in this show, especially with Carl-Magnus. But look at Fredrik, the man whose indiscretions Sondheim essentially validates by labeling Anne as a virgin. He has so much power in this show, from loving and not loving Anne at the flip of a coin to obliterating Desiree’s emotional well-being in the second act. Even if the women have some power in their decision-making, they’re all responding to Fredrik’s decisions, which are given the highest rank. At the end of the day, I understand that this is a timely piece. It should be considered in the context of when it was written (as well as when it was set), and I’m sure it was revolutionary then. But, at present, it feels incredibly sexually disempowering.

      • Lucy on October 2, 2023 at 3:40 am

        I don’t understand how you could listen to the song “Every Day a Little Death” and think Charlotte’s predicament is being “played for a laugh.” Dear God, did you catch any of the lyrics?

        Of all the scenes from the source film that ended up in the musical, I’d say that one, between Charlotte and Anne, is the the closest to the original. Charlotte’s monologue, about how tortured she is by Carl-Magnus’s casual cruelty, is deftly turned into a song about barbed words and little blows. Death by a thousand little cuts. Sondheim clearly understood that the ending for Charlotte is only fleetingly happy.

        It’s a comedy, and Charlotte is responsible for some great comic lines. She is the most tragic figure out of all the characters, though, and that is certainly conveyed in the musical.

  3. Mona on August 20, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    First of all Sondheim did not write the book he did the music and lyrics based on the story that is based on a movie. Secondly the review should be on this particular production not of the overall play itself.

    I’ve seen this particular show many times, some better than others. If you want to be a critic/reviewer learn what you job is.

  4. Sondheim Lover on August 21, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    Another would-be theatre critic who lacks the credentials to be one . . . and, therefore, managed to miss the intriguingly nuanced themes of the show he was assigned to critique.

    🎼🎵 Ah, well . . . 🎶

    One ignorant “critic” shall not dominish my love of one my favorite Sondheim shows & its music.

  5. Thomas Garvey on August 24, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    Naive student compares today’s campus politics to those of a beloved classic and notices they don’t align. So who’s wrong? Obviously the classic. Take that, Sondheim and Bergman!

  6. DAK on August 28, 2022 at 10:11 am

    I just saw this production Friday night. I am a huge Sondheim fan, and I was familiar with the score of A Little Night Music, but not the book and I haven’t seen the Bergman film but I intend to stream it soon. The Barrington Stage production was pretty good, but I agree with other critics who found the small pit noticeable. Listening to the original Broadway album on the way home, I was struck by the musicality of the fuller orchestration and I also realized that there was probably a good amount of dancing (waltzes) that are not part of this production.

    I’m a woman and I distinctly felt that during the show that the book is dated and troubling, which was distracting and took me out of the story. Primarily, I found the relationship between Fredrik and Anne to be “cringe” (as the kids say), mostly due to their age difference, but also how his motivation for marrying her is characterized as a cure for his mid-life crisis. Additionally, the Countess’s motivation for staying in her unhappy marriage and enabling her husband’s philandering are hard to comprehend, perhaps this is explained better in the film.

    I love Sondheim’s wordplay but some of the lyrics sound misogynistic to today’s ear (“In Praise of Women”, “It Would Have Been Wonderful”). I doubt A Little Night Music will return to Broadway without a bit of an overhaul to make it more relatable to today’s audiences. The early 70’s were a different time and great art can and should grow with the times. I saw the new production of Company twice, in London and in New York; I can say emphatically that it was well-served with the gender switch to make Bobbie a woman and I would not have enjoyed it any other way.

    • Alice on October 2, 2023 at 3:54 am

      “In Praise of Women” is *intended* to sound “misogynistic” since it is sung by the extremely misogynistic character, Carl-Magnus Malcolm. The title is a wink, and he is meant to be completely over-the-top.

      I realize I’ve stumbled on an old comment. I hope you got around to streaming the movie and it all made sense 🙂

  7. Tom Connolly on August 31, 2022 at 10:22 pm

    The source material provides a plot that takes place over a century ago. The reviewer offers a good discussion of the production but seems to have no idea that it is a period piece. He also offers no hint that it was adapted from a mid-twentieth century screenplay. Instead he offers a rather tortuous attempt at special pleading in order to demolish any hint whatsover that he shall have any truck with masculinism or patriarchal agency. Such heavy-handed argufying is ridiculous in the face of anything so light as musical comedy. Naive sociopolitical exuberance can perhaps be excused but not glaring gaps in knowledge.

  8. Joshua Gordon on September 13, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    The impact of the 1973 original cast recording’s lush orchestration is a huge factor in making this score one of the musical and dramatic landmarks of Sondheim’s career. Any production that tries to get by with a smaller pit ensemble will inevitably fall short of it although the ingenuity of his wordplay and song juxtapositions will always be there (“Now” “Later” and “Soon” individually and then mashed up is one of the most brilliant sets of songs I know of). Even the 2009 Broadway revival with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury made this mistake to save money. Get the original and you’ll hear all the characters soar.

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