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Sondheim Returns to the Huntington

A Little Night Music launches company’s 34th season tonight

It is difficult to imagine the Broadway musical without Stephen Sondheim. Now 85, Sondheim is the lyricist of two Broadway classics—West Side Story and Gypsy—and the composer-lyricist for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Passion. Few have done more to reshape contemporary musical theater than he has. With eight Tony Awards, a Pulitzer, an Oscar, and eight Grammy Awards under his belt, he has been described by former New York Times critic Frank Rich as “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American theater.”

So how to explain the fact that the Huntington Theatre Company has staged only one Sondheim musical in its long history, a production of Company back in 1997? The answer, it turns out, comes down to money.

“Musicals are expensive to produce,” says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois. But after recently seeing two acclaimed but stripped-down productions of Sondheim shows at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London (Merrily We Roll Along and Assassins), he realized it was possible to stage a production that would stay true to the lushness and complexity of the composer’s music without breaking the bank. Now, after two years of planning, the Huntington opens its 33rd season with a production of A Little Night Music, one of Sondheim’s most popular musicals. Directed by DuBois, the show includes his most frequently recorded song, Send in the Clowns.

Featuring a sweeping score and written almost exclusively in three-quarter, or waltz, time, the musical is the story of a group of former and current lovers, set over the course of a weekend in early 20th-century Sweden. Inspired by Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer’s Night, A Little Night Music offers a lyrical meditation on romantic love and sex, lust, and missed opportunities and regret. When it debuted in 1973, New York Times critic Clive Barnes hailed it as “heady, civilized, sophisticated, and enchanting…a mixture of Cole Porter, Gustav Mahler, Anthony Tudor, and just a little of Ingmar Bergman.”

“I’ve always loved Sondheim,” says DuBois. “He feels like the Shakespeare of our generation just in terms of the intelligence of the writing, the kind of depth and complexity of feeling, the way the music sort of meets the lyrics.”

He chose A Little Night Music, he says, because “I feel like this musical’s pretty perfect. I’m drawn to material that has elements of darkness and that has a really strong emotional hook, which this piece does. I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior and the relationship between the heart and the groin. For me, it’s a timeless piece of writing because it’s so beautifully constructed around the human condition.”

It’s a departure of sorts for DuBois, who has been directing new plays for most of the last several years—either ones commissioned by the Huntington or ones by writers he’s fond of. In fact, this is the first musical he’s directed in his seven years as artistic director. “I was really ready for a new set of challenges,” he says.

A Little Night Music

The production stars Stephen Bogardus as Fredrik Egerman and Haydn Gwynne as Desiree Armfeldt.

Known for its intricate lyrics and complicated, notoriously tricky harmonies, Sondheim’s work poses any number of challenges for a director, especially when it comes to casting. “You can’t just have voices,” DuBois says. “You have to have people who can act. They have to be able to dance and they have to be able to sing. Finding that combination is a big challenge because it’s not broad musical theater acting. The songs involve a complicated form of acting and you’ve either got it or you don’t.” Happily, he says, he wound up with an amazing company.

Starring as Desiree Armfeldt, the once-famous, now middle-aged, actress who encounters her old lover is British actress Haydn Gwynne, best known for her Tony-nominated performance as the dance instructor in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot the Musical and as Margaret Thatcher in the recent West End production of The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. The role of middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman, Desiree’s ex, is played by Broadway veteran Stephen Bogardus, who first appeared with the Huntington in a 2012 production of Yasmina Reza’s dark comedy God of Carnage and was nominated for a Tony for Love! Valour! Compassion!

DuBois acknowledges that one of the trickiest scenes to pull off is the one where Desiree sings Send in the Clowns. The song has been recorded by more than 100 performers, among them Frank Sinatra and most famously, Judy Collins. DuBois says he and Gwynne talked at length about how to make the song fresh by taking the cue from the scene itself. “We talked about the fact that yes, it’s an iconic song, so there’s something intimidating about performing it, but if you sing it in relation to the context of the scene, emotionally moment to moment, then it just becomes your interpretation of the scene as opposed to: what kind of flourish is she going to put on the music? The most important thing is casting a Desiree who’s a great actor, which Haydn is.”

McCaela Donovan A Little Night Music

McCaela Donovan, BU School of Theatre assistant director, plays Fredrik Egerman’s bride’s maid Petra.

The cast also includes McCaela Donovan, BU School of Theatre assistant director and a College of Fine Arts lecturer in musical theater and movement, and Sarah Oakes Muirhead (CFA’15).

Donovan has one of the juiciest roles in the cast: Petra, the saucy maid of Fredrik’s young bride, Anne. The role affords Donovan a chance to perform one of the show’s most stirring numbers, “The Miller’s Son.”

“The song is challenging because it comes with expectations,” Donovan says. “It’s the 11 o’clock number, and I think one of the hardest things is having to wait the entire show to sing it. It’s both exhausting and exciting in the way it’s written, like a runaway train you have to stay just a step ahead of. We’re trying to get away from playing the lush sentimentality that is innate within it, and really focus on Petra’s calculated and urgent goals.” Donovan describes her character as “a woman who knows that although she will not likely rise above her current station in life, she is determined to try.”

A veteran of Sondheim musicals (she’s appeared in three different productions of Into the Woods, playing a different part each time, and has twice played Squeaky Fromme in productions of Assassins), Donovan says she loves being part of such an ensemble piece as A Little Night Music.

“It’s been exciting to see so many BU people involved with this production at the Huntington,” she says. “It’s truly a wonderful collaboration between the two organizations, and I feel fortunate at this moment to be part of both simultaneously.”

Muirhead is making her Huntington debut as Malla, Desiree Armfeldt’s maid. “When I found out that the Huntington was doing A Little Night Music, I immediately knew that I wanted to be involved in the production,” says Muirhead. “I attended many Huntington shows during my time at BU, and the opportunity to work with a Tony Award–winning theater company on such an iconic Sondheim show, especially under the direction of Peter DuBois, felt like the ultimate postgrad dream.”

Muirhead concedes that performing Sondheim’s music can be daunting. “His writing demands a very high level of technical skill, yes, but it also demands incredible intelligence and razor-sharp wit. It requires a real understanding of humanity, as well as a willingness to be openly flawed and vulnerable. His music is complex because his stories are complex. As an actor, it’s definitely a great challenge, but it’s also a great gift. You can’t ask for better material.”

The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of A Little Night Music runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through October 11. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $30 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $20 with promo code MILITARY, and student rush tickets are available for $20. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

One Comment on Sondheim Returns to the Huntington

  • Chloe on 09.17.2015 at 4:26 am

    Music is always beautiful. I have been to the theater once and I like it very much. I’m touched.

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