Divas, Divos, & Opera Queens (HSOW Part 2): Sondheim

Posted by Wayves volunteer 13/08/2013

By Hugo Dann

From philosophical dialogues about the meaning of life and death, and the function of faith in a secular time, to the earthy fundamentals of sex and human need; from a Carmelite convent to an Edwardian country estate; from martyred nuns to the Swedish upper crust, rich and risqué, at play. A Little Night Music is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s lyrical setting of Ingmar Bergman’s film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Where Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites is romantic and spiritual, Sondheim’s music theatre is pragmatic and existential. And yet both have much to say about the human condition, and both can be seen at the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop and Festival , along with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, in Halifax this week.

Hugh Wheeler adapted Bergman’s screenplay for the stage, but it is Sondheim, as both composer and lyricist, who conjures the world and sets its tone. One of the defining artists of the modern musical, Stephen Sondheim has legions of both critics and devotees. His masterworks range from the queerly sassy lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s songs (“I feel pretty and witty and gay!”) in West Side Story to the grand guignol horror and cynicism of Sweeny Todd.  Although he didn't write an overtly gay situation or character until he was in his 70s (Bounce in 2003 and 2008), Sondheim has achieved iconic status in the queer community, and his work frequently suggests queer interpretations.

In A little Night Music various social and amorous relationships play out. Sondheim’s characters (like Bergman’s, in the original) want sex and security. This doesn’t make them unfeeling, but none of them can afford to be prostrated or carried away by “love’s young dream”;  there are serious practical considerations that must be dealt with.

The gifted, beautiful, (but aging) actress, Desirée Armfeldt, must find a secure future for herself and her daughter, an escape from the rapidly diminishing returns on a life invested in art, the “glamorous” life.

Fredrik, a successful, middle-aged lawyer, loves his young, still-virginal wife. But he likes (needs!) a good fuck every now and then, just as a man in his position needs (deserves!) a good cigar. For her part, as much as she appreciates “old” Frederik’s wealth and position, at only eighteen his wife still dreams of love.

Count Carl Magnus, a cavalry officer, likes dueling. Not because he’s necessarily bloodthirsty, but it’s good for his military reputation, and a vent for his always over-boiling emotions. His wife Charlotte can’t stand him, but still finds herself aroused by him to such a degree that she can’t live without him.

At least, so it all seems. Perhaps the Countess’s sexual appetite for her bellicose husband masks a deeper feeling. Perhaps, despite his bourgeois sensibilities, lawyerly Fredrik really loves the bohemian Desirée, and she him. And yet no one’s desires seem to match their chosen partner’s. What they want, or think they want, never seems to happen. 

In A Little Night Music, where all the lovers are a little star-crossed, Sondheim's queer take on sex and romance is mined for comic gold, in the trio Soon/Now/Later, and Send in the Clowns; no sentimental ballad, but bittersweet and ironic, brittle comedy in the best tradition of Noel Coward.

GLBTQ, (my go-to site for first impressions on all matters queer-cultural), describes Sondheim as expressing “a consistent concern in [his] plays with the individual or group excluded from the mainstream, and what the consequences of that exclusion are for the community as a whole. … Ironically, the most rousing number in West Side Story is the Puerto Ricans' celebration of the "America" into which they will never be assimilated: ‘Life is all right in America / If you're all white in America.’"

The pithiest comments on the action of A Little Night Music are offered by the outsiders, the maid Petra, the butler Fid, and by Desirée’s mother, the aged courtesan Mme Armfeldt. As Frid prepares to tumble Petra, he comments on those he’s just served at dinner, “dressed up like waxorks, jabbering away … [not one of  them] having the sense to grab the first pretty girl that come along and do her on the soft grass …” Later, with the satisfied Frid snoring beside her, Petra sings, fantasizing about different husbands, but always returning to reality, “meanwhile … it’s a wink and a wiggle/And a giggle in the grass.”

In Liaisons, Mme Armfeldt sings of her eminently practical, negotiated arrangements with various titled aristocrats, “I acquired some position, plus a tiny Titian.” She observes, with the critical eye of the skilled artisan, “Too many people muddle sex with mere desire … it should on no account perplex, or worse, inspire/It’s just a pleasurable means to a measurable end.”

However, as Oscar Wide so keenly noted, “the young know everything.” It is the youngest character, Desirée’s daughter Frederka who sums up it all up as she sits with her grandmother, watching the middle-aged play at love:

“MADAME ARMFELDT: Child, will you do me a favour? Will you tell me what it’s all for?

FREDERIKA: Well, I think it must be worth it.

MADAME ARMFELDT: Why?

FREDERIKA: It’s all there is, isn’t it? Oh, I know it’s often discouraging, and to hope for something too much is childish, because what you want so rarely happens.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this articlestated that Sondheim had never written an overtly gay situation or character. That mistake has been corrected. Wayves regrets that mistake and we're grateful to the musical theatre lover who pointed it out to us.

Halifax Summer Opera Workshop and Festival presents two more performances of A Little Night Music at Neptune's Studio Theatre on Argyle Street in Halifax:

Friday. August 16, 7:30pm

Sunday, August 18, 2:00pm

For Box Office information, click here.

 

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