Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Little (Night) Correction

When I said before that I'd only ever seen one musical live, I should have added a disclaimer: I've only ever seen one professional musical live. I've seen many amateur productions through the years (and been in a couple, too). Its just that the prospect of Night Music has just got me so het up that I'm blithely chucking out memories of countless operettas, Lloyd Webbers, Wizard of Oz's, etc. I think what I meant to say is that this will be my first live Sondheim.

This time last year, I had no great affection for the works of Stephen Sondheim. Actually, I had only the barest clue who he was. I knew Sweeney Todd and thought it was all right, but hated the Tim Burton version (the reediness/breathiness of the two leads irked me so much. I'm still reeling over the fact both HBC and Johnny Depp eschewed any vocal training. I like them both as straight actors, but implore them never to sing again!). I knew he'd written the lyrics to West Side Story, one of my favourite albums as a kid, but I always associated that musical more with Bernstein. And I had a vague notion that he was an Important Figure in musical theatre, but I couldn't have told you why.

Flash forward to the early part of 2009. For no particular reason, I began to listen to his music, read up on him. Felt the stirrings of fandom. No, not just fandom. Obsession. I fell totally, head-over-heels, rapturously in love with this man's music, lyrics and whole persona. It's only been a few months, but I can recognise this kind of devotion when it begins. Every so often I'll discover a band or an author or a film, and I'll begin to cultivate an obsession with them. Although, I don't think 'obsession' is the right word. It implies something unhealthy, like I can't eat or sleep without a daily Sondheim fix. I'm not fixated, or addicted. It's not an all consuming passion. Being 'obsessed' with Sondheim is not detrimental to other areas of my life, either practical areas (eating, sleeping, studying, working, socialising) or enjoying other forms of art. Exactly the opposite. I feel like listening to his music is making me a better person. Stretching my compassionate muscles, my intellect, making me laugh, supplying me with healing mantras. Teaching me about concentration. I definitely feel my life at the moment would be somehow less than it is, if I wasn't now a Sondheim fan.

I'm obviously still a baby, in terms of loving Sondheim. It's been half a year, that's all - compare that to the theatre buffs who've been following him since his Gypsy days. I've briefly browsed through message boards and fansites, and in truth they can be quite cliquey and insider-focused. It's understandable, I guess. There's nearly a quarter-century of backcatalogue and history, innumerable performances and productions, countless different cast recordings and benefits and cover versions to opine on. It's fine, though. I'm not necessarily in this for a sense of community. My relationship to Sondheim's music began as a personal, individualised one and that's how it will stay, I think. That's not to say I never want to discuss his work with other people at all, though. Otherwise why would I be writing this post?

Although if asked, I'd immediately reach for Sunday in the Park With George as my favourite piece, A Little Night Music holds a special place for me because it was my gateway drug. The first full Sondheim I heard (i.e. where he wrote the music as well as the lyrics, so WSS doesn't count) was Sweeney Todd. I admired it as a whole and enjoyed a handful of the songs immensely, but overall it didn't do it for me. Still doesn't, in fact - I think Victorian-era England just generally holds less appeal for me than 1970s New York, or Paris in the 1880s. But on a whim this February, I downloaded the Night Music OBC. It's probably the best choice as a First Sondheim for a novice, purely because the score is a lot less musically complex than some of his other work (it's all in 3/4 time, which makes it easy on the ear) but you still get the convoluted relationships, the wordplay, the dirty jokes, the pathos, which he's such a master at.

I consider it a stroke of incredible good fortune that I downloaded the 1973 Broadway Cast Recording, with Len Cariou (later famous as the original Mr.Todd) and Glynis Johns. In the initial bloom of obsession, I also downloaded the Original London Cast albums to compare the two recordings. The OLC has some nice once-off moments ("Where the hell is the stage manager?") but overall the quality of the singing is not up to scratch. No, that's probably unfair. The London singers are obviously excellent, trained professionals - and hell, Glynis Johns cannot sing for shit - but the sound doesn't appeal to me. I'm very nitpicky. Here's a brief rundown on why I prefer the OBC to the OLC:

  • Veronica Page, singing the part of Anne, uses far too much vibratto. She employs the technique on almost every line. It's irritating, functioning as a kind of barrier between the audience and the lyrics. I just want to shake her and tell her "Stop warbling! The music and the lyrics are perfect as is, don't worry! Just sing normally, it'll work, trust me!". Not only does it detract from the lyrics, but it automatically makes her less sympathetic and, in reminding me of that brand of high, quavery vocals peculiar to old women in the choir balconies of Catholic churches, creates an unintentional comedic effect. By far my least favourite aspect of this recording.
  • On the other hand, I wish Fredrik (Joss Ackland) was more assertive and injected a little bit more character into his voice. To be far, following in the footsteps of Len Cariou, two years after he first played Fredrik, is a daunting prospect. Cariou is one of the great male musical talents and his portrayal of Fredrik is one of the OBC's greatest strengths. He just sounds virile and masculine, but you also get a sense of him being slightly dim and vapid. Ackland, on the other hand, is far too weedy and limp sounding. To really get a sense of the difference between these two men, listen to "Now/Later/Soon". One line in particular stands out, near the end when the three vocal lines are intertwining, Fredrik sings "And I'm stroking your head / You'll come into my bed". The placement of this lyric, and the fact that it's sung in counterpoint with two other vocal lines, means this line could easily be passed over. Auckland sings it swiftly, almost swallowing the line as though he's uncomfortable with the thought and can't wait to get the lyric over with. Cariou, on the other hand, relishes it, sounding excited at the prospect. A much better choice, and a far better singer.
  • Another annoyance, which I fully recognise is totally subjective, is that I find the pacing too quick on a lot of the songs. The ending of "Now/Later/Soon" is a perfect example: I find the OLC rushes through it, as though they're sick of the melody already. A lot of the subtle flavour of the lyrics and characterisation gets tossed as a result. Maybe that's the way Sondheim originally wrote it - I haven't seen sheet music - but as a listener I much prefer the sprightly, clear, even feel of the Broadway version.
  • This is, again, a totally subjective observation, but a lot of the phrasing bothers me. Take the opening of "Every Day A Little Death", one of my favourite songs. OLC Charlotte (Maria Aitken) telegraphs the frustrated melancholy of the lyrics too overtly, by underplaying the melody and almost speak-singing the opening lines. She is clearly dejected, but it plays as too obvious. It's counter intuitive - I feel no real empathy for her. However, Patricia Elliot, the original Charlotte, actually goes with the pretty flow of melody, singing through the lines fully and not trailing off at the ends of lines like Aitken does. She understands that putting a brave face on things, attempting to do justice to those impossibly beautiful melodies, will allow the sadness of the lyrics to fully shine through. It's a far more affecting performance, in my opinion. It's the old truth about acting: seeing an actor trying to fight back tears is always more emotional than watching somebody sob openly, in a theatrical setting.
There are positive aspects to the OLC: their version of "The Miller's Son" is better than the Broadway (although I think Susan Terry's recent version trumps both. Watch here!) and I love the hollered "Where the hell is the stage manager?" in "The Glamorous Life". Overall, though, I have the feeling I wouldn't be half as enamoured with this musical if I hadn't heard the Original Broadway Cast version first. Interestingly, reading the reviews on Amazon and various forums, the general consensus is that, Fredrik excepted, the London Cast is the superior of the two. I still won't change my mind, but its good to know that there's room for many different viewpoints in Sondheim world.

I'm insanely curious to see how I'll feel about the Trevor Nunn directed version at the Haymarket. I know it'll be a very different experience, seeing a live performance rather than listening to cast albums from 30 years ago. I'll have the actor's physicality as well as their vocal range, the costumes, lighting, set, choreography, etc. It's going to be a far rounder experience than I'm used to. And in one sense, it doesn't really matter to me whether the vocals are more OLC than OBC, because it'll be a thrill to hear these songs live anyway. As I said earlier, Sunday is my absolute favourite, but I'll always be fond of ALNM for sentimental reasons. I can't imagine myself not being a Sondheim fan now, and I can't imagine getting into Sondheim in the first place without the help of Night Music.



  1. I just saw Sweeney Todd the movie and am still not quite sure what I thought of it.

  2. Stephen Sondheim is wonderful, amazing, godlike, awesome, [etc.]

  3. omg. my first Sondheim live ever was A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC too.