The score is notable for having been written almost entirely in waltz time (3/4) or multiples thereof (only 11 bars of underscoring and the Cut Song "Two Fairy Tales" are in Common Time), and for featuring Sondheim's only major pop hit, "Send in the Clowns." The show was a hit, and is considered one of Sondheim's greatest works (it's also one of the lightest and most accessible, Forum and Into the Woods aside, which makes it a great introduction for nascent Sondheim fans). It concerns a series of interconnected Love Triangles, which end up resolving themselves on a summer's night.
The plot, set in Sweden around 1900, is centered around a rekindled romance between just-barely-fading starlet Desirée Armfeldt and newly re-married lawyer Fredrik Egerman. Fredrik is married to a much younger woman, Anne, who is the subject of his son Henrik's adoration; Desirée is having an affair with a married dragoon, Carl-Magnus, whose wife Charlotte knows Anne through her younger sister. Eventually they all end up at Desirée's mother's house in the country. Hilarity (among other things) Ensues.
There have been numerous revival productions over the years in both New York and London. Adapted into a 1977 film, directed by Harold Prince and starring Elizabeth Taylor as Desirée. The stage show was filmed for TV at Lincoln Center in 1990.
Not to be confused with the Mozart composition.
This musical provides examples of:
- Adaptation Name Change: Henrik's name was changed to Erich in the film, due to the setting being moved from Sweden to Vienna.
- All Love Is Unrequited: Pretty much straight through, until the end.
- All There in the Script: The Greek Chorus is Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Nordstrom, Mrs. Segstrom, Mr. Erlanson, and Mrs. Anderssen. None of them are ever called by name.
- Arc Number: Three, as one of the most striking examples in theatre. See Rule of Three below.
- Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Charlotte is elated when she manages to make Carl-Magnus jealous, taking it as proof that deep down he loves her.
- Betty and Veronica: Desirée as Archie, Fredrik as Betty, Carl-Magnus as Veronica. Alternatively, Fredrik as Archie, Desirée as Veronica, Anne as Betty. The Henrik/Anne/Petra triangle kinda fits this as well.
- A Birthday, Not a Break: It's Charlotte's birthday. So, naturally, her husband drags her to the country so he can see his mistress and challenge his romantic rival to a duel.
- Broken Bird: Charlotte. Her husband's disregard for her feelings makes her feel dead inside.
- Chastity Couple: Fredrik and Anne have a lot of affection for each other but they haven't consummated their marriage a year into it.
- Comically Missing the Point: Carl-Magnus continuously fails to grasp any of his wife's hints. When Charlotte informs him that Fredrik is heading to the Armfeldt home in the country, Carl-Magnus decides the best course of action... is to head there utterly uninvited like it's a party. Charlotte is utterly floored.
- Cool Old Lady: Madame Leanora Armfeldt, in spades.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Carl-Magnus.
- Deadpan Snarker: Charlotte, Mme. Armfeldt, and Desirée (especially in "You Must Meet My Wife").
- Demoted to Extra: Frid plays an important part in Smiles of a Summer Night, but his role in the musical was essentially reduced to one scene. Even his song was cut.
- Dialogue Tree: Fredrik's thoughts take this shape in the song "Now".
- The Diva: Desirée.
- Elopement: Anne and Henrik elope near the end of the play. Since Anne is already married to Henrik's father this is really the only option.
- Endless Daytime: Act II has a thematically appropriate but otherwise Irrelevant Act Opener by the chorus called "The Sun Won't Set", in which it stays twilight till around 11 PM (because Act II takes place near the Arctic Circle during summer).
- Epic Rocking: "A Weekend In The Country", only upbeat and hilarious — a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style first-act Finale.
- Final Love Duet: The finale/reprise of "Send in the Clowns".
- Glamorous Single Mother: Deconstructed. Although Desirée sings a song about living "The Glamorous Life," the irony is that her life as a touring actress is shabby and chaotic. And while she used to raise Fredrika on her own, Mme. Armfeldt eventually stepped in and insisted Fredrika be brought up in her mansion instead of joining Desirée on tour.
- Grande Dame: Mme. Armfeldt is the nicer version.
- Greek Chorus: The Liebeslieders, a group of singers who comment on the story but never interact with the characters.
- Hidden Depths: Petra seems like a fun-loving, flirtatious, carefree girl, until "The Miller's Son" reveals her more reflective side.
- Hypocritical Humor: Carl-Magnus sings an entire song about how men naturally expect fidelity... as he's actively cheating on Charlotte.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Carl-Magnus shows off his ability to throw a fruit knife exactly on the eye of a woman in a portrait.
- The Ingenue: Anne, right down to the soprano.
- Innocent Soprano: Anne is a naive teenager married to a much older man, but is explicitly still a virgin and does not fully grasp the concept of marriage. She is a soprano, going up to A5.
- It's All Junk: A mild case occurs toward the end of the play, when Fredrika argues that love "is all there is." Madame Armfeldt, impressed by her wisdom, remarks that while she's accumulated every material possession imaginable, they never really made her happy: "When I was your age, I wanted...everything. The moon, jewels, yachts, villas on the Rivera! And I got them, too—for all the good they did me..."
- I Was Quite a Looker: In "Liaisons," Mme. Armfeldt recounts how she made her fortune by seducing various royals.
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: Poor, poor Henrik.
- Love Dodecahedron: Except it's not a complicated jumble so much as an extensive line: Charlotte <-> Carl-Magnus <-> Desirée <-> Fredrik <-> Anne <-> Henrik <-> Petra <-> Frid
This line is also a series of interlocking Love Triangles, with Carl-Magnus, Desirée, Fredrik, Anne, Henrik and Petra each forming the apex of a love triangle, in which those either side of them on the line are the other corners. Charlotte also attempts to make Fredrik the third corner of a love triangle with Carl-Magnus and herself at one point, unsuccessfully.
- Love Hurts: Multiple characters can attest.Charlotte: Love's disgusting, love's insane/A humiliating business!
Anne: Oh, how true!
- Malicious Misnaming: An envious Desirée does this in "You Must Meet My Wife".Desirée: I must meet your Gertrude.
Fredrik: My Anne.
Desirée: Sorry, Anne.
- May–December Romance: Anne and Fredrik. However, they don't end up together, and this is portrayed as a good thing.
- Medley Overture: Instead of the usual orchestral overture, the Greek Chorus sings a wordless medley of "Remember?," "Soon" and "The Glamorous Life" (on the cast recording due to space limitations, this is abridged to just the first song).
- Minor Character, Major Song: Petra is a minor role, serving as occasional comic relief, until her insightful solo "The Miller's Son."
- Movie Bonus Song: For the film version, Sondheim replaced "The Glamorous Life" with a completely different song with the same title, a solo for Fredrika about how her mother's career keeps them apart.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Carl-Magnus's attempts to keep Fredrik away from Desirée are nasty, but when he thinks Fredrik is having an affair with Charlotte he turns flat-out murderous.
- Mythology Gag: In Smiles of a Summer Night, Fredrik falls into some water at Desirée's house, soaking his clothes, and so Desirée gives him Carl-Magnus's robe to wear while he waits for them to dry; Carl-Magnus arrives and is outraged, suspecting shenanigans. In A Little Night Music, the innocent explanation is dispensed with: Fredrik and Desirée actually do have sex. But when Carl-Magnus arrives, they tell him that Fredrik fell in the water, and so Desirée gave him Carl-Magnus's robe to wear while he waits for his clothes to dry...
- Not What It Looks Like: Anne and Fredrik walk in on Petra... fixing Henrik's pants. Although no one actually says the magic words, and while it's not sexual itself, it does happen right after Henrik and Petra's attempt at sex (see The Loins Sleep Tonight above).
- Oblivious to Love: Anne.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: At the end of the musical, Madame Armfeldt—who spends the whole play snarking about love and relationships—asks Fredrika "what it's all for." Fredrika gives a heartfelt defense of love—"It's all there is, isn't it?"—and Madame Armfedlt is so stunned that she drops her sarcasm and expresses genuine regret at her life choices, reminiscing about the relationships that could have been.
- Patter Song: "Now".
- Really Gets Around: Petra is quite liberal in terms of sexuality. Her song "The Miller's Son" provides some interesting perspective on her actions: she knows that she'll eventually marry and settle down, and wants to "celebrate what passes by" while she still has the chance.
- Rule of Three: The whole work is structured around threes and triangles.
- The music is mostly in waltz time (3/4) or variations thereof, incorporating a few trios ("Now/Later/Soon"), along with duets sung about a third person ("You Must Meet My Wife" and "It Would Have Been Wonderful" most prominently). The cast is, apart from Madame Armfeldt and Fredrika, structured into a series of interlocking love triangles (see Love Dodecahedron above). The summer night smiles three times (or twice in the film adaptation).
- In original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick's foreword in the published script of the show, he takes this a step further, saying how the show is about the unstable three progressing into the stable two—by the end all of the love triangles are resolved.
- The original idea for the show was to go through the story three times - once as a tragedy (which would've ended with Fredrik committing suicide), once as a farce, and one final time where everything goes properly.
- Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Mme. Armfeldt does not hold back on the sarcasm and disdain.
- Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Henrik does a very bad job of abstaining from the "devil's snares".
- Sex with the Ex: Fredrik and Desirée engage in this.
- Ship Tease: Anne and Petra's "I'm a boy!" scene in her bedroom.
- Shout-Out: During the climax of "A Weekend in the Country," Sondheim's orchestrator Jonathan Tunick quotes the opening horn call from Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier, another high-society musical sex comedy.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Madame Armfeldt has this as her life philosophy. She believes that life is about the acquisition of money, power, and expensive things, and views concepts like love as a distraction from that goal.
- Spoiled Sweet: Anne can be willful and petulant, but also sweet, innocent, and loving.
- Sympathetic Adulterer: Given his wife has continually put off consummating their marriage, whom eventually runs off with his son, and he is genuinely still in love with Desirée, it's hard to judge Fredrick for starting an affair.
- The Tease: Anne and Petra enjoy being this towards Fredrik.
- Tenor Boy: Henrik, whose music is even more punishing than Anne's.
- Unknowingly in Love: Anne is not only oblivious to her awkward stepson's feelings for her, but also to her own feelings about him, which she only realizes at the end.
- Wife Husbandry: Fredrik was friends with Anne's father. She even called him "Uncle Fredrik."
- Wise Beyond Their Years: Fredrika, Desirée's daughter, is the youngest character by far (she's implied to be roughly 10-12 years old), and also the wisest. Her solemn attitude and musings about love border on off-putting, but she's ultimately kind and uses her wisdom to help others.
- Wrong Guy First: By the end, everyone is with the partner they truly love. Anne has left Fredrik for Henrik, Desirée has called off her affair with Carl-Magnus and she and Fredrik are reunited.