Contributor Lindsay B. Davis on the release of the soundtrack for the 1977 film ‘A Little Night Music,’ an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical.
Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway musical theater composer and lyricist, once said in a 2006 interview with Time Out London, “The movie adaptations of stage musicals that I’ve seen, without exception, in my opinion don’t work…It’s not just the realism but the fact that a close-up on screen can say all a song can: ‘What justifies a character singing one idea, no matter how cleverly, for three minutes on the screen? I get impatient and want the story to carry on. I don’t get impatient in the theatre.“
This could explain why, for many years, the 1977 film adaptation of acclaimed Broadway musical A Little Night Music (1973) was one of only a few Sondheim musicals to migrate from stage to screen. Directed by Hal Prince (who directed the Broadway original as well) it stars Elizabeth Taylor as actress Desiree Armfeldt (in a role originated by Glynis Johns) and despite Taylor’s star power, the overall reception was decidedly negative. Said New York Times critic Vincent Camby, “Having elected to transform the Sondheim show into a film, Mr. Prince appears to have made every decision that could sabotage the music and the lyrics. He has cast the film with people who don’t sing very well and then staged almost every number in such a way that we can’t respond to the lyrics.”
That did not stop the Academy from awarding the film with its Best Adaptation Score Oscar, which speaks volumes about how a good soundtrack could often transcend a mediocre film, as is the case with A Little Night Music, being released by Masterworks Broadway. While the film soundtrack may not appeal to Broadway purists (due to 5 of the Broadway original’s songs being left out, others like “The Glamour Life” being seriously revised and the mid-level vocals of Ms. Taylor) it has appeal and even when listened to without the context of the film or having seen the musical, quite lovely. Consider it one to enjoy with a hot cup of coffee and croissant on a Sunday morning. Listen to “A Weekend in the Country” and be swept away. A weekend in the country taking rambles, having leisurely chats…Feel the solemnity of the all instrumental “Poor Old Frederick.” Find yourself singing out along with Taylor in “Send in the Clowns” … Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve? … before perhaps Googling Judi Collins’ rendition.
Other highlights include “Now Soon Later” and “Every Day a Little Death,” which has the cinema’s clickety-clack sound of a carriage ride and horse’s nays in the background. Sung by Diana Rigg and Lesley-Anne Down, with Rigg’s triumphant and rich resonance, it is so moving. A song that aches. Love’s disgusting and insane. A humiliating business. Oh, how true. Ah, well.
The newly-remastered CD is transferred from the original stereo masters, and includes liner notes by Sondheim archivist Peter E. Jones. The CD will be available through Arkiv Music on September 10, plus downloads through digital service providers the same day.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist. She resides in New York City.