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Maybe more than any other theatre score ever written, A Little Night Music is the perfect marriage of content and musical structure, and it is endlessly fascinating to look at the way composer Stephen Sondheim built this gorgeous, witty, sexy score. In addition to the fact that Sondheim built his score entirely in triple time, to underline the many sets of threes found throughout the story, he also kept all the songs within the stylistic forms of the story's historical period, even though his trademark dissonance and his Olympian rhymes give the score a modern feel too.
As orchestrator Jonathan Tunick describes in his preface to the published Night Music script, Sondheim uses 18th and 19th century musical forms in this score to reinforce and decorate the story's romantic setting. There are waltzes here to be sure, but it is not true that the entire score is in waltz time. The score includes waltzes (all three of the Night Waltzes, "Soon," "You Must Meet My Wife"), but also mazurkas ("Remember," "The Glamorous Life"), sarabandes ("Later," "Liaisons"), polonaises ("In Praise Of Women"), etudes ("Now," "Every Day A Little Death"), and a gigue ("A Weekend In The Country"). All in some form of triple time, all period, but not all waltzes.
One of the most interesting aspects of this score is that many of these songs are unlike regular theatre songs. Most theatre songs describe things a character has already thought about and is only now articulating, the way characters sing about falling in love only after they have already fallen. In contrast to that, when we hear "Now/Soon/Later," "In Praise of Women," "Send in the Clowns" and other songs in this show, we are hearing these thoughts exactly as they occur to these characters. The action happens within the songs, not before or after the songs, making the score more active, more alive, much more compelling.
Also notice that many of the songs are either comment songs or interior monologues. These characters only occasionally sing to each other, because singing in a musical is usually an emotional release and these characters cannot express their emotions very well. Self-involvement and the inability of people to connect to each other is one of Sondheim's favorite topics (look at Company, Sunday in the Park with George, and Assassins).
As in most Sondheim musicals, the amount of rhyme a character uses indicates his level of intelligence and presence of mind. Carl-Magnus has the least amount of rhyme, Henrik and Anne have only minimal rhyming, and both Madame Armfeldt and Frederik have a great deal of rhyme, including many interior rhymes. Of course, Frederik has the most rhyme, because he is highly intelligent and also a lawyer, trained in logical thinking. In the song "Now," as Frederik plots precisely how he will seduce his child bride, there is more rhyme than anywhere else in the show. In fact, this song contains one of Sondheim's most acrobatic rhyming sequences, as Frederik tries to decide what book to read to Anne to get her in the mood. Notice how there are two sets of rhymes nested in these four lines, one halfway through the lines and one at the end:
DeMaupassant's candor would cause her dismay.
Every character's language tells us a great deal about his or her personality. Notice how slowly Madame Armfeldt's music and lyrics go by, showing us how her elderly mind is still functioning well but at a much slower pace. Notice how Carl-Magnus can barely finish sentences in his song "In Praise of Women," as his jealousy drives him crazy. Notice how Henrik's music and lyric in "Later" repeatedly speeds up and slows down as his mind darts among his various frustrations and desires. Notice how Anne can only echo Charlotte in "Every Day a Little Death" because Anne doesn't really have any thoughts of her own about marriage or romance -- she has never really thought much about it until now.
There is so much richness in the Night Music score, so many musical and lyrical themes and motifs, so many connections, so much rich subtextual characterization, but two pieces in the score in particular deserve deeper examination. As he does throughout the score, Sondheim gives us so much information in the first song of the show (actually, a trio of songs that become one). In "Now," Frederik's lyric is chock full of legal language and thought processes, organizing everything down to clear choices A and B, then breaking each of those down into further choices. He uses language like "in so far as approaching it," and "to wit." He uses "shall" instead of "will," and funniest of them all, he says "I still want and/or love you..." Not only has Sondheim characterized these three characters through the amount of rhyme they use, as mentioned above, but he also characterizes them through their music. Frederik's music in "Now" is full of monotonous, controlled patterns, very little deviation, a kind of musical stagnation -- just like his life. Henrik's music in "Later" is heavy, ponderous, and erratic, frequently out of control, full of lots of abrupt pauses and changes in tempo, just like poor Henrik. Anne's music in "Soon" is light, jumpy, restless, playful, and off- beat a lot of the time, again just like her personality. Yet, at the end, these three very different melodies and rhythms come together and actually fit into a wonderful counterpoint, demonstrating that in some way, these people can function together as a family, even as the counterpoint gets more and more complicated, just as complicated as life in the Eggerman home appears to be.
As many times as we've heard the song "Send in the Clowns," it is not often that we hear it in its original context, and when we finally do, we find that it is even richer, more beautiful, and more heart-breaking than we ever knew. As Desiree sings this song to Frederik, her one great love, we see the great tragedy of their relationship. When he wanted her, she was too busy; now that she wants him, he is already married. Their timing is rotten.
So why the circus images? Two reasons. First, Desiree is an actress. The use of show business metaphors for her life, references to entrances and such, is merely an indication of how she sees life, as one big play (and of course, it's also a reference to the fact that her life really is a play, or rather a musical called A Little Night Music, but she doesn't know that.). But there is another reason. In a circus, when a performer falls off of the tight rope or the trapeze, they can be seriously injured or killed (even if there's a net, which there isn't always). When that happens the clowns are sent in to distract the crowd from the gruesome details of what is happening on the floor. Desiree sees herself as the fallen trapeze artist, the one whose timing is off, who misses her catcher (Frederik), the one falling from the trapeze ("me in midair") to her metaphorical death. So when she sings "Quick, send in the clowns," it is to hide her fall. At the end of the song she sings, "Don't bother -- they're here," knowing that she and Frederik are themselves the clowns, the fools, after all, referring back to Madame Armfeldt's musings on the three smiles of the summer night.
So many of the show's themes are then summarized in the images of the final reprise of "Send in the Clowns," as Frederik sings freer, less controlled music for the first time -- the merry-go-round representing the swapping of partners, Frederik as King Lear, whose "kingdom" is split up and lost, the clowns representing the foolishness of them all (and perhaps the way they all rescue each other from the embarrassment of their "falls"), and the "farce," of course, being the whole story...
Stephen Sondheim has revolutionized the American musical theatre time after time, first with West Side Story, then Company, then Follies, Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Passion, each time changing the rules, changing and challenging our expectations of what a musical can be. But even in his more conventional shows, like Night Music, he demonstrates how much he learned from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim still says today that most of what he knows about writing lyrics he learned from Oscar. Better than anyone else writing for the theatre today, Sondheim gets deep into the hearts and minds of his characters and brings them to full, complicated life in both his lyrics and his music. Never a word is wasted, never a note. He is a wonderful composer and a wonderful lyricist, but above all, he's a brilliant dramatist.