“Good God—an adult musical!” exclaimed Clive Barnes in the New York Times a day after Steven Sondheim’s A Little Night Music opened at the Schubert Theater in February 1973.
I saw it eight times during its initial Broadway run of 601 performances which won 12 Tony and Drama Desk awards. (One night I managed to get Hermione Gingold to autograph my program.) Within a decade the work entered the repertoire of opera companies and received a Drama Desk-winning production at New York City Opera in 1990 starring Sally Ann Howes, George Lee Andrews (who played the small role of the butler Frid in the original production), and Regina Resnik as Madame Armfeldt.
The NYCO production opened just a few weeks before Resnik turned 68, 45 years after her Met debut as a last-minute substitute for the ailing Zinka Milanov as Leonora in Il trovatore.
Her role, most memorable for the song “Liaisons,” has an amazing history: among its interpreters are Margaret Hamilton, Zarah Leander, Lila Kedrova (who I saw in London in 1989), Claire Bloom, Leslie Caron, and in the 2009/2010 Broadway revival, Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch.
The 1977 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and many members of the original Broadway cast is best forgotten with the exception of Diana Rigg as Countess Charlotte Malcolm. Pauline Kael wrote, “This picture has been made as if the director [Harold Prince] had never seen a movie.”
Despite “Send in the Clowns” being Sondheim’s most-recorded song, it was tossed into the show during tryouts with its vocal demands designed around the limited resources of its creator, Glynis Johns.
I was at the NYCO premiere on 03 August 1990 and will never forget the atmosphere in the house: it began with universal doubt about the adaptation from a Broadway musical to a company operetta with audience appreciation constantly building until an explosion at the end of Act One in Scott Ellis’ brilliant production.
Barnes said of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, “Despite the idea of a waltz-musical, which somehow suggests one of Strauss’s, or the title, so redolent of Mozart, it seems that Mr. Sondheim is aiming at the lilt of Mahler. There is a peasant touch here, a sense of country values. For all its sophistication it is a story in which the stables are more important than the chandeliers.”