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Three Smiles for Sondheim

A Little Night Music and Smiles of a Summer Night

by Roger Brunyate

Night Music
at Peabody,
March 15–18

Other essays by Roger Brunyate

There can be few composers as unpredictable in their choice of sources as Stephen Sondheim. His musicals have been inspired by Latin comedy (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962), Grimm fairy tales (Into the Woods, 1987), byways of American history (Pacific Overtures, 1976, and Assassins, 1991), and even a Seurat painting (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984). When he turned to a movie for inspiration in A Little Night Music (1973), it is characteristic that he chose a film outside the mainstream of American popular culture, though a masterpiece in its own right: Ingmar Bergman’s period romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).NOTE

Photo of Ingmar Bergman  
Svensk Filmindustri
Ingmar Bergman
Bergman was not especially known for comedy. In the fifties and sixties, his output of brooding Nordic dramas in black-and-white such as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal were staple fare in art-movie houses. Later in his career in 1976, however, he had great success with a filmed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute which showed both his sense of humor and his love of music. It is interesting that Smiles of a Summer Night, the first of his films to win major international acclaim (special prize at Cannes in 1956), was also one of his rare comedies. It is also deeply but subtly musical; as we shall see, this probably had much to do with its appeal for Sondheim.

But even this bright comedy was born from dark depression. As critic John Simon has noted, Bergman was struggling at the time with the end of a marriage, the failure of a love affair, box-office disaster for his recent serious films, and an array of physical ailments including stomach pains which he feared were cancer.NOTE As Bergman himself later described it: “This was a terrible time in my life, and I was extremely depressed.... I had two alternatives: write Smiles of a Summer Night or kill myself.”NOTE Fortunately he chose to make the film. In it, fears have been banished by laughter, and any darkness that remains in the smiling Scandinavian summer night serves only to deepen the feelings and turn the piece from erotic farce into true comedy, where laughter is never far from tears.

  Petra and Anne
Svensk Filmindustri
Petra and Anne
Harriet Andersson and Ulla Jacobsson
Bergman’s inspiration, apparently, was an idea about a young man in love with his father’s second wife. But this is only one of many elements in the final film. Bergman said he “thought of it as a technical challenge to write a comedy with a mathematical relationship: man-woman, man-woman… four pairs. Scramble them and then solve the equation.”NOTE All the couples are dysfunctional when the film begins. The lawyer Fredrik Egerman is in a loving but unconsummated marriage with his much younger wife Anne. Henrik, his son by his first wife, is studying to be a Lutheran pastor, but alternates between moments of failed passion with Petra, the family maid, and bouts of subsequent guilt. Then the famous actress Desirée Armfeldt comes into town, reawakening complex feelings between her and Fredrik, her former lover of some ten years before. Desirée’s present lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, is a jealous dragoon who expects his women to remain in the places he has assigned to them, whether they be his mistress or his spunky but long-suffering wife Charlotte. Eventually, of course, Bergman solves the equation. Henrik elopes with Anne; Fredrik returns to Desirée; Count Malcolm reaches an accommodation with his Countess; and Petra finds a haystack with an obliging butler.

Charlotte and Fredrik  
Svensk Filmindustri
Charlotte commences her seduction of Fredrik
Margit Carlquist and Gunnar Björnstrand
Bergman’s title must surely be an allusion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Certainly, the basic plot mechanism is essentially Shakespearian: take a group of mismatched lovers in the real world, transfer them to a magic place (e.g. the “Wood near Athens” or the Forest of Arden), then complicate things a lot more before finally restoring them to their correct pairings and returning them to reality. The magic place in the Bergman movie is the country estate of Desirée’s mother. There, at Desirée’s request, the old lady invites both the Malcolms and the entire Egerman household for what Sondheim will later set so memorably to music as “A weekend in the country.” As the long summer day passes belatedly into night, there will be the usual intrigues and comic devices associated with bedroom farce. But the real transformation will be effected by the summer night itself, which smiles three times: “The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second, at the fools who know too little.... And the third at the old who know too much.”

These lines are not quoted from Bergman’s screenplay, where they are more spread out and have a slightly different emphasis, but from the masterly adaptation of it by Sondheim’s collaborator, Hugh Wheeler. Watching the movie again with the musical in one’s mind, it is remarkable how closely Wheeler managed to adhere to the original throughout the expository first half of the story, which takes place in some mid-sized Swedish town. Not only are the names and major events the same, but almost all the best lines of the movie are retained, and even sharpened, in the play. There are a few slight differences: Desirée’s love-child by Fredrik is a boy in the film but a girl in the musical; Carl-Magnus breaks in on Fredrik in the play after Desirée had gone to bed with him once again for old time’s sake, whereas their reunion in the film is a lot less harmonious and Fredrik’s state of undress in the film is explained solely by his having fallen into a puddle; and Desirée has her mother actually invite Carl-Magnus in Bergman’s movie, but in Wheeler’s play he merely gate-crashes. Act II of the musical, however, begins to diverge more and more from the film, while remaining true to its basic sequence of scenes. Beyond the obvious need to make room for the musical numbers, the differences mostly have to do with Sondheim’s response to what one might call the underlying musicality of Bergman’s work.

  Eva Dahlbeck as Desiree
Svensk Filmindustri
Eva Dahlbeck as Desirée
A Little Night Music differs from most other stage musicals derived from films, such as Beauty and the Beast and most recently The Producers, in that vocal music plays almost no part in the original movie. Bergman uses incidental music, of course, sometimes archly archaic, sometimes ludicrously melodramatic, but this is not his main poetic medium. There is, however, a short vocal piece sung by a small ensemble under the opening credits which may very well have given Sondheim the idea for his five-voice chorus of Liebeslieder (of whom more anon). There is also a beautiful scene in which the great actress Eva Dahlbeck as Desirée sings the German Lied “Freut euch des Lebens” while accompanying herself on the guitar — a moment which might well have inspired the mood of Sondheim’s most famous number, “Send in the Clowns,” part of a scene between Desirée and Fredrik which has no dramatic parallel in the movie at all.

But Bergman’s musicality lies on a different level. He has written:

I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.NOTE

Stephen Sondheim at Sardi's, New York, 6th September, 2001  
© J. M. Chapman, 2001
Stephen Sondheim in 2001
In other words, music for Bergman is not something added to the film; it is the essential texture of the film itself. When translating this vision into a medium that is itself music, the composer must do more than add songs and ensembles; he must enfold the entire piece in an atmosphere that is at once musical and formal, something that characterizes the texture of the play as unmistakably as Bergman’s eye and sense of rhythm sets a musical imprint upon his film.

Sondheim’s genius in A Little Night Music has much to do with the three main ways in which he handles this enfolding. The most obvious is his choice of meter. Perhaps Sondheim knew Bergman’s description of the experience that first gave him an inkling of the possibilities of film at the age of five, in his grandmother’s apartment looking at a picture of Venice which seemed to move before his eyes while the piano next door “played waltzes, nothing but waltzes.”NOTE At any rate, Sondheim’s score for A Little Night Music similarly is “nothing but waltzes,” or rather variations on triple meter of every kind, written in homage to the great waltz composers of the past, from Johann Strauss to Erik Satie. Bergman was not the only one who liked setting himself technical challenges of a quasi-mathematical nature!

  The Liebeslieder singers in the New York production
The Liebeslieder Singers
Sondheim’s second enfolding device is the use of a small chorus, the so-called Liebeslieder (love-song) singers, to frame the action, perhaps suggested by the off-screen voices under Bergman’s credits. But Sondheim’s singers, three women and two men, are very much onstage. They have names: Mrs. Anderssen, Mr. Erlanson, Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Nordstrom, and Mrs. Segstrom. They have experience. And they have memories, mainly of fleeting affairs with one another that have left them older but scarcely wiser. Musically, they have much of the best singing in the opera, and their numbers frame each act and introduce or comment on most important scenes. And at the very end, they take on the voices of the main characters themselves, as though reminding them of the earlier madness that led to this painful resolution.

JoAnn Kulesza and Phyllis Bryn-Julson  
To sing Madame Armfeldt
JoAnn Kulesza and Phyllis Bryn-Julson
Thirdly, and most significantly, Sondheim and Wheeler break from the settings of Bergman’s two-part structure, with one act in the town and the other in the country. Instead, they make the country setting the container for all the action, with the various urban scenes of the first act appearing as insets in this rural world, wheeled on and off again on rolling platforms. To achieve this, the role of Madame Armfeldt has been expanded into a true grande dame (taken by Hermione Gingold in the original production and shared between faculty members Phyllis Bryn-Julson and JoAnn Kulesza in ours). By changing little Fredrik, Desirée’s love-child, into a slightly older girl, Fredrika, the authors give the old lady someone with whom to share her knowledge gained during a long and profitable life as courtesan to the crowned heads of Europe. After the vocal overture, the play proper begins with the first of their scenes together, and they continue to provide connective tissue from that point on. In the film, the explanation about the smiles of the night is divided into three parts, and is given to a comparatively minor character, the butler Frid, mainly to mark the progress of his relationship with Petra. In the play, the lines quoted earlier are given to Madame Armfeldt in her very first scene, and when the night smiles for the very old in the last scene of all, she quietly dies.

Set design by Roger Brunyate
”They make the country setting the container for the urban action”
Set design for Act I by Roger Brunyate
Her death seems fitting — sobering but not sad. It is but one of several small ways in which the ending of the musical differs from that of the movie. Bergman’s Petra makes her Frid propose to her; Sondheim’s makes clear that he is just a pleasurable diversion before she settles down. Conversely, Sondheim’s Countess Malcolm falls completely into her husband’s arms after he has shown himself willing to fight for her, whereas Bergman’s Carl-Magnus swears to be faithful merely “for eighteen false smiles and fifty-seven loving whispers without meaning.”NOTE Score one on either side for romance and one for realism.

Desiree and Fredrik  
Svensk Filmindustri
Desiree and Fredrik
Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand
But where it matters, in the central relationship between Fredrik and Desirée, Bergman is the realist and Sondheim the romantic. Anne’s elopement with Henrik leaves Fredrik much more devastated in the film than he appears in the play, and he comes back to Desirée more in defeat than rediscovery. Throughout the musical, though, Wheeler and Sondheim make much more of their attraction, playing Fredrik as warmer and more sympathetic and playing down Desirée’s angry exasperation in their first scene in the film which makes her throw him out rather than inviting him to her bed. Having established their mutual attraction in Act I, Wheeler and Sondheim can write a wholly new scene into Act II, in which Desirée and Fredrik once more meet in her bedroom, but this time agree not to continue, since the chance has passed them by. The pathos of “Send in the clowns” is very much part of Sondheim’s characteristic enfolding atmosphere:

Just when I’d stopped
Opening doors,
Finally knowing
The one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again
With my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.…

But Fredrik very much is there; he just doesn’t know it yet. It will take Anne’s elopement and the humiliation of the duel with Malcolm to make him realize it. The summer night has yet to smile on him. But when it does, it will be a warm smile, a softer response to Bergman’s northern brilliance, but a touching homage by one master to another.

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