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Smiles of a Little Night Music

by:  Phaedra Scott at 10/02/2015

Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist for A Little Night Music based his musical on the 1959 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. The movie is a comic tale of swapping partners during a midsummer night — the shortest night of the year. The film was a smash hit, propelling director Bergman to international fame.

Sondheim was inspired by the comic nature and the mismatched couples in Bergman’s film, and chose to enhance that story in theatrical form. Partnering with book writer Hugh Wheeler, A Little Night Music made its Broadway debut in 1973, where it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score.

A Little Night Music and Smiles of a Summer Night both follow this central plot: Fredrik, an aging lawyer is married to 18 year old Anne in a sexless marriage. His passion is reignited when he sees his old flame, actress Desiree Armfeldt.

Both the film and the musical share the same characters, but what the musical is able to accomplish is the depth of character development. Sondheim was able to stay true to the original source material, but added his own intrigue to the story by creating songs that present the private thoughts of the characters. A popular song from A Little Night Music is Desiree’s number “Send in The Clowns,” a cry for Fredrik’s affection and her own disappointment in herself for missed opportunities.

Take a listen to “Send in the Clowns” performed by Dame Judi Dench and Tony and Olivier Award nominee Haydn Gwynne -- currently portraying Desiree in the Huntington’s production of A Little Night Music.

During the initial writing process, Sondheim imagined A Little Night Music to have three different endings, one that followed the comic tradition, another that was a tragic ending, and the last that was a happy ending with an ambiguous outcome to the fate of Desiree and Fredrik’s relationship. Sondheim wanted to experiment with variation in his musical, taking some liberties from the source material. However, with Wheeler’s book, the musical stuck to a more linear plot than Sondheim’s initial intention.

While Smiles of a Summer Night followed a linear form, it ends with the ambiguous outcome of the fate of Desiree and Fredrik’s leaving the audience wondering: Do the two lovers live happily ever after?

Both the movie and the film have formed a devoted legion of followers. To find out how Sondheim chose to end the story, be sure to check out A Little Night Music at the Huntington Theatre Company. You can catch it through October 11. 

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