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CdA Summer Theatre stages Sondheim’s ‘Little Night Music’

Savannah Larson and Sharva Maynard star in Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s production of “A Little Night Music.” (Dan Pelle)
Savannah Larson and Sharva Maynard star in Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s production of “A Little Night Music.” (Dan Pelle)

‘A Little Night Music” is a legendary musical by the legendary Stephen Sondheim – yet, as legends go, it doesn’t surface very often.

The Inland Northwest gets a rare look at this romantic and bittersweet 1973 Broadway hit in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s production, opening tonight.

Roger Welch directs a cast of 15 in this story of love and loss at a weekend party at a Swedish country estate at the turn of the 20th century.

The cast features a number of top CdA Summer Theatre veterans, including Tamara Schupman, Kirk Mouser, Julie Powell, Laura Sable, Steven Dahlke, Callie McKinney Cabe, Andrew Ware Lewis and Christopher Moll.

For valuable insight into this show, let’s turn to Sondheim himself, in his recently released autobiography, “Finishing the Hat” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010):

• It spawned his biggest pop hit, “Send in the Clowns.

“(It’s) still a mystery to me,” wrote Sondheim. “Not that I don’t think the song is eminently worth singing. But why this ballad of all the ones I’ve written?”

Maybe it’s because he wrote it in “short, breathy phrases,” specifically to suit British stage actress Glynis Johns, whose version he still prefers above all others. Judy Collins recorded the hit version.

By the way, when you hear that song in the show’s context, its enigmatic lyrics finally make sense.

• The musical is based loosely on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film classic “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Bergman later told Sondheim that he enjoyed the Broadway show very much, although he also noted that it had “nothing to do with my movie; it merely has the same story.”

• Bergman wouldn’t let him use the title “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but that was fine with Sondheim. He already had a title he was anxious to use. “A Little Night Music” is the English translation of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the much-beloved chamber piece by Mozart.

• The entire score is written in waltz-time and similar forms. Sondheim said he wanted to compose a musical in the form of Theme and Variations, in which the theme would be the waltz and the variations would be other three-beat musical meters such as polonaises, mazurkas, sarabands and gigues.

• Sondheim said he wanted a project that “would let me show off; I could let loose with verbal dazzle and technical prowess.”

And, he immodestly added, “I showed off and everyone was impressed.”

• Harold Prince, the show’s original director, once described it as “whipped cream with knives.” Sondheim said Prince was more interested in the whipped cream while he “was more interested in the knives.”

• The show is often performed by opera companies, “because of its operetta-like nature” – but it is not an operetta. It has plenty of spoken dialogue, written by Hugh Wheeler.

• It is one of Sondheim’s personal favorites, partly because he enjoyed the technical and artistic challenge of the Theme and Variations structure and also because of Wheeler’s book.

“I got to like the show enormously, not least because of Hugh’s supple and surprisingly ageless libretto,” wrote Sondheim.

“Whenever I have to go see it (major revivals, school productions, some friend’s daughter playing Fredrika), I fret in advance that it will seem like homework. (And then I) find, once the lights have dimmed, that I have an exhilarating time watching it.”