Do you know the term “pentimento”? Many of us didn’t until we read Lillian Hellman’s first memoir, in which she used the word as her title.
“Pentimento,” she taught us, was the result of an artist looking at what he’d painted, reassessing a section, changing his mind and repainting what he’d already done.
In listening to the newly re-released 1978 soundtrack of A Little Night Music, one has to wonder about the many changes that Sondheim made from the 1973 Broadway production. Were these pentimenti?
They might have been. Time was Sondheim’s greatest enemy when he was writing musicals. According to Craig Zadan’s marvelous book Sondheim & Co. , during the first days of rehearsals in December 1972, he’d only written ten of the required sixteen songs. Not until very late in rehearsals did the cast get the complicated first-act closer “A Weekend in the Country.”
Zadan quotes Sondheim’s observation that “Some of my best ideas come after I get to see actors rehearsing the material.” Thus, we can also infer that he may have had even greater ideas for improvements as the years wore on. We’ve all experienced what the French call L’esprit de l’escalier (literally “staircase wit”), which describes a situation when you’re at dinner and think of the perfect retort to something that’s been said — but only after you’ve left the table and have reached the staircase. (“Oh! I wish I’d thought of that!”) Does it not follow that Stephen Sondheim has had the same experience with his musicals?
Between A Little Night Music’s stage rehearsals in 1972 and its filming in 1976, did Sondheim realize that the atypical “overture” he’d concocted for the show was simply too confusing for theatergoers? The reason “overture” is in quotations marks? It wasn’t solely played by the orchestra, but was sung by five singers. Perhaps after witnessing many of the 601 Broadway performances, Sondheim realized that theatergoers didn’t understand what was going on. They’d been weaned on musicals that almost always introduced the most important characters first – the people with whom they’d bond and empathize. But these five Little Night Music singers — the first characters they met — were minor ones who virtually disappeared for the rest of the show.
All five completely disappeared from the movie. In the film and on the soundtrack, Sondheim made a profound pentimento. He instead took the time to introduce only his most important characters in “Love Takes Time.” The sharp new set of lyrics was set to an existing melody: “Night Waltz” (or, if you will “The Sun Won’t Set”).
As a result, audiences saw who really matters in A Little Night Music. First and foremost there’s “the one and only Desirée Armfeldt” (Elizabeth Taylor). We then hear a great batch of new and terrific Sondheim lyrics from Charlotte (Diana Rigg), who’s married to Desirée’s lover Carl-Magnus; Anne (Lesley-Anne Down), the woman who married Desirée’s former lover Fredrik but is still a virgin; Petra (Lesley Dunlop), Desirée’s mother’s maid and, of course, Desirée’s mother herself, Madame Armfedlt (Hermione Gingold — the only woman retained from the original Broadway cast).
After we hear from Desirée’s daughter Fredrika (Chloe Franks on screen, but Elaine Tomkinson on the recording), the time comes for the men to join the number. The first is Erich (Christopher Guard).
You’re pardoned if you’re saying to yourself “Erich who? No character by that name ever showed up in the Broadway production!” Indeed – for there he was named Henrik. For years, I thought that “Erich” might be one of Sondheim’s pentimenti; when he first tackled the show, he may have felt honor-bound to retain the same name that the character had had in Smiles of a Summer Night, the film that inspired this musical. But “Henrik” is not an easy word to sing; “Erich” flows much easier.
But then my buddy Jon Maas told me the real reason: director Hal Prince switched the locale of the show from Norway to Vienna, where there’s nary a Henrik.
Next in “Love Takes Time” are Fredrik and his rival and tormentor Carl-Magnus (respectively played by Len Cariou and Laurence Guittard — the only men held over from the Broadway cast). During the song’s four-plus minutes, Sondheim shows his usual brilliant wordplay; my favorite is his rhyming “quicksand” with “tricks and.” Yes, the “s” on “tricks” leads nicely to the ”and” and makes for a perfect rhyme.
The second song has the title to which we’ve become accustomed: “The Glamorous Life.” And while the first line (“Ordinary mothers lead ordinary lives”) and the fourth (“Ordinary mothers, like ordinary wives”) are what we’ve all known, every other lyric is brand-new as is the enchanting melody. For while “The Glamorous Life” used to be Desirée’s song, it’s now been shifted to Fredrika, who stresses that the often-away actress is unlike those women who are sentenced to be “mothers all day.”
Did Sondheim pentimento here because he felt that we needed to know how the little girl felt about her mother? Or did he infer that he’d better keep Elizabeth Taylor’s singing to a minimum? Needless to say, Taylor received neither her sixth Oscar nomination nor her third Oscar for this performance. Nevertheless, her non-sung sarcastic responses in “You Must Meet My Wife” are doused in the perfect amounts of bile.
Those of us who have memorized every bit of the original Broadway cast album (and which of us has not?) will notice the tiniest of changes in “Now.” While Cariou on Broadway sang “But if I assume,” the soundtrack reveals that he sings “But let us assume.” Of course, Cariou might have inadvertently come out with the wrong lyric and film director Harold Prince liked the take enough to let it go. But could it be a Sondheim pentimento? (Next time any of us sees Sondheim and/or Cariou on the street, let’s ask.)
Sondheim greatly expanded “Every Day a Little Death” for a scene in which Charlotte traveled in a carriage en route to visit Anne. Chances are that these new lyrics were not pentimenti, but that Sondheim provided them after he and screenwriter Hugh Wheeler decided to open up the film for this on-the-road sequence.
Those who originally owned the soundtrack on a long-playing record or cassette must have lamented that this section with several new lyrics was left off those recordings. Happily, here it is now in this new reissue as a bonus track.
Once Charlotte arrives at Anne’s and starts “Every Day a Little Death,” Sondheim offers what might be his most petite pentimento. While Anne originally had the lines “in the murmurs, in the gestures, in the pauses, in the sighs, every day a little dies,” Charlotte sings them – first. Anne will later sing them.
Actually, this is an improvement. Anne is reasonably naïve, and the sentiments might have been beyond her ken. She might only be capable of repeating someone else’s ideas, and her parroting them seems more likely.
Although Sondheim wrote “It Would Have Been Wonderful” in a hurry during the Boston tryout, he must have been 100% happy with it – for he gave nary a pentimento in the film. One might wonder why he didn’t change the lyric “If she’d only been fat,” but that’s another story.
Sondheim left “Send in the Clowns” as is, too. Some might say that by 1978 he wouldn’t have changed a word, because in the four-year history of the song, it had by now late-bloomed into a standard whose lyrics millions had committed to memory. I daresay that no matter how much réclame the song had achieved, if Sondheim felt he could have done better, he would have. Besides, years later when Barbra Streisand gave Sondheim a call and said she wanted to record the song but didn’t quite understand the lyric, he augmented it. That may not be quite the same thing as a pentimento, but it does hint that he was open to change. (Or is even Sondheim afraid of saying no to Streisand?)
There are other nips, tucks and additions. Erich has a little less to sing in “Later,” but he does have some fetching new lyrics, too. A little of “A Weekend in the Country” is lost, but there are two nice new sections before Erich’s doleful slowing down the action (including a delicious bit for Madame Armfeldt).
Of course, as is often the case with film adaptations, some songs have been dropped. Fans of “Remember,” “Liaisons,” “In Praise of Women,” “Perpetual Anticipation,” “The Miller’s Son” and the original “The Glamour Life” will lament their loss.
But there are compensations. Three other previously unreleased instrumental cuts are here delivered as bonus tracks: “Night Waltz,” “End Credits” and a nearly two-minute-long section labeled “Poor Old Fredrik” positioned after “Send in the Clowns.” All, of course, sound lush; if there’s one thing that musical movies easily have over Broadway musicals is the number of musicians playing the score.
Thus, you’ll hear three distinct reasons why Jonathan Tunick received an Oscar for Best Adaptation Score – nineteen years before he’d receive a Tony for Best Orchestrations. Oh, the Tonys hadn’t ignored Tunick; they’d ignored orchestrators entirely for the first fifty-one years of their existence. Send in the clowns.