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A masterful interplay of music and acting in ‘A Little Night Music’

Stephen Sondheim's musical masterpiece centers around a troupe of traveling actors (courtesy of Frank Chen).

Perpetual anticipation of actors becoming pianists, cellists and even orchestra players buzzed on campus this past weekend thanks to the Stanford Music Department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (1973). Renowned for its complex meters, polyphony and high notes all performed in waltz time, the musical explores the rekindling of past love between lawyer Frederik Egerman and actress Desiree Armfeldt. Their renewed relationship throws a discordant tune into established marriages and liaisons. Ultimately, the drama resolves into a harmony of lovers realizing their desires anew. By breaking traditional boundaries between the orchestra and actors beyond the operatic convention of the chorus, director Wendy Hillhouse challenges the audience to consider how characters perceive music as a vehicle for personal expression.

Well before the lights dimmed, the placement of the orchestra on the stage cued the audience members to the centrality of musicianship to the show. The show opened with the venerable Madame Armfeldt, played by Stanford Lecturer in Voice Kathryne Jennings, raising her up hands from the arm-rests of a wheelchair to direct the orchestra to tune up. The Liebeslieder (lit. “love songs” in German) are the first to enter onstage, five men and women dressed in black, red and white tuxedos or flowing dresses. They are a reimagining of the Greek chorus as aristocratic partygoers, whose songs about past loves between scenes echo those performed in the main drama. The blocking of the Liebeslieder, the main characters yet to be introduced and the orchestra during the opening musical number “Night Waltz” thematically establishes the interplay between the voices of the chorus, the protagonists of the drama and the musicians. A mere two scenes later, Madame Armfeldt directs her granddaughter Frederika, played by Katharine Leede (‘22), to practice the piano, whereupon Leede sits down beside the rehearsal pianist Derek Chung (‘22). Leede plays the opening piano riff for “The Glamorous Life” and cues the entrance of Miles Petrie’s (‘19) Henrik Egerman, who surprises the audience by coming onstage not with his book on Martin Luther but rather with a full-sized cello.

“It’s not gloomy, it’s profound!” Henrik tells his love interest, Cassidy McCleary’s (‘21) Anne Egerman, as he plays a melody in C# minor filled with sweeping bow strokes and vibrato. The introverted seminary student Henrik embodies the passionate musician archetype rarely associated onstage with the cellist. While the visceral rock cello in the score Duncan Sheik’s “Spring Awakening” (2006) may seem to have normalized cello as a masculine mode of expressing sexual frustration, Sondheim’s Henrik decades prior accompanies himself on the cello while he sings his ode to suppressed sexuality and disillusionment — “Later.” Lifelong actor and cellist Petrie resembles Henrik in that he uses cello as a stress release mechanism amidst the Stanford grind of courses and productions. Even so, Petrie rarely played the past four years before “A Little Night Music” so unlike Henrik, he probably would not brandish a silver cello case for his “Weekend in the Country.”

The production frequently breaks the fourth wall between the characters and the orchestra such that musicianship becomes a sort of counterpoint to the not-so-glamorous reality of unhappy marriages and unrequited love between the characters. Between musical numbers, the members of the orchestra still make their mark on the production visually — cradling their instruments under the blue stage lights, eyes transfixed on the on the drama unfolding before them. James Mayclin’s (‘20) Frederik Egerman hides amidst the orchestra members from Desiree’s incensed lover Count Carl-Magnus, played by Tim Issacs (‘20). The flautist trades seats with the frantic Frederik, and the musicians become involved in the action of the show. Concertmaster and violinist Aaron Levett (‘19) notes that the orchestra members knew of their small acting roles early in the rehearsal process but did not rehearse them until right before the show opened. Therefore, their little acting cameos were fun and enjoyable to perform. Levett noted that all the orchestra members appreciated being a dramatic presence within the show as opposed to being physically separate within a traditional pit orchestra space.

This bold flirtation between music and love in “A Little Night Music” is accompanied by production choices creating dramatic irony to expose how music, like the irresistible dramatic flare of Chloe Wintersteen’s (‘20) Desiree Armfeldt, serves to avoid “hurting the dignity” of characters. Another farcical usage of musicians occurs when Lorin Phillips’ (‘20) Petra wraps her arm around Levett amidst her raunchy solo “The Miller’s Son.” Petra sings ““Or I shall marry the businessman/Five fat babies and lots of security” to the delighted Levett. At first glance, this may seem a humorous imagining of the violinist transformed as prosperous businessman and happy father. The moment between a serving girl and the violinist within the context of “The Miller’s Son” moreover reinforces the separation of both artists and the working class from conventional definitions of prosperity. Staging the “lakeside” tryst between Ben Share’s (‘19) servant Frid and Petra behind the grand piano similarly plays around with notions of class and music, reinventing a symbol of Madame Armfeldt’s cultured and privileged life to an undignified space onstage for lovemaking.

After the production’s three-show run last weekend, I cannot help but think that the people who were lucky enough to see “A Little Night Music” will be asking each other, “Do you remember … ?” as they marvel about the performance of not only of the actors but also of the musicians. The performance and even the memory of music permeates every aspect of the tragic farces that the characters make of their lives, culminating in moments such as Chloe Wintersteen’s haunting take on the power ballad “Send in the Clowns” and orchestra cellist Christopher Yeh reprising the “Later” melody when Henrik staggers onstage literally at the end of his rope. The rich production masterfully underscores the thematic similarity between the plights of actress Desiree and seminary student Henrik. They are both artists who succeed in expressing their tumultuous love only through their art and music that otherwise may not be apparent.

For just as Desiree and Frederik realize through singing together that they are the “clowns” in love they wish they could criticize, so Hillhouse making musicianship central to “A Little Night Music” demonstrates that the heart of Sondheim’s opus is in the music or rhythms of life that bind the characters together. Whatever future productions Stanford may bring, I hope that directors look to Hillhouse’s “A Little Night Music” as an exemplar for the tremendous artistic impact for both the performers and audience alike of experiencing shows that “send in [the musicians].”

 

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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