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Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”

November 12, 2010

Event: A Little Night Music
Venue: Esplanade Theatre
Run: 9th Nov – 14th Nov 2010

My first ever Sondheim musical, and boy was it an experience.

The thing about Sondheim musicals is that you are constantly being fed with some of the finest and wittiest lyrics in all of Broadway, and it’s hard for the brain not to be stimulated by the constant full-on assault on your senses and your intellect.

But more on that later.

I was there on opening night, and the theatre was in my estimation around 60%-65% filled.

Not too bad for a Sondheim musical, I thought, since Sondheim musicals aren’t exactly the most marketable of shows.

That being said, if there was one particular Sondheim show that would be at least somewhat marketable, I reckon “A Little Night Music” would be it, partly because it contains one of Sondheim’s most commercial hits – “Send in the Clowns”.

For me though, the main draw was my favourite Sondheim song “Every Day A Little Death”, the lyrics from which this blog takes its humble name from.

I wasn’t too thrilled by the entire plot line of the musical, partly because I felt it took too long to get anywhere, and also because it represented a deviation from the classical musical theatre plot form of a main protagonist stating his ambition early on and spending the entire show achieving his objective.

(My friends commented that the first act almost resembled a TV soap opera, which was very true.)

But I guess therein lies the genius of Sondheim, the man who is widely-regarded as one of the most revolutionary and most important figures in musical theatre in the last four decades.

Although the book by Hugh Wheeler had its shining moments, the star of the show would definitely have to be the carefully-crafted lyrics as well as the impossibly-intricate music (which was composed almost entirely in triple time).

Sondheim started out his Broadway career being a lyricist for hit shows such as “Gypsy” and most notably “West Side Story”, so his genius as a supreme lyricist is unquestioned.

However, his musical compositions deserve equal attention as well, because some parts in “A Little Night Music” were so incredibly complex that I just shook my head in disbelief.

One fine example would be the counterpoint constructed in the early trio of songs “Now”, “Later” and “Soon”, which just took my breath away.

You had three different characters singing each of the three songs, revealing their innermost desires and insecurities, and then at the end all three songs come together in the most glorious possible way.

Another example would be the polyphony in “Perpetual Anticipation”.

“Every Day A Little Death”, though not as complex, remains my favourite Sondheim song to date because it so succinctly captures the pain and frustration of a helpless woman whose husband is unfaithful to her.

It’s the perfect marriage (ok, bad pun) of music and lyrics in this song that makes it such a beauty.

One thing that Sondheim has to be given full credit for is his ability to fully dramatise his songs, meaning that he is always cognizant of the fact that the song has to move the story forward.

It’s not like it’s “Oh everyone, here comes a song! So just sit back and relax while I belt out a number…”

In fact, it’s the complete opposite.

I remember hearing a Sondheim interview once where he said that his approach to writing a song in a musical is that by the end of the song, the character or the plot has to have had moved from Point A to Point B.

And all this is evident from “A Little Night Music”.

He adds small details to the music and the lyrics in his songs that allow the actors to sing and act out important plot elements at the same time.

It’s a seamless integration between song and book.

That, in my opinion, is what a true musical song should be all about.

The musical runs at the Esplanade Theatre till 14th November, so I would suggest you get your tickets as soon as possible.

Sondheim musicals don’t come our way very often.

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