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Theatre / A Little Night Music

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A Little Night Music is a 1973 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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".
  • Good Bad Girl: Petra, Fredrik and Anne's maid.
  • Grande Dame: Mme. Armfeldt is the nicer version.
  • Greek Chorus: The Liebeslieders.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Carl-Magnus sings an entire song about how men naturally expect fidelity... as he's actively cheating on Charlotte.
  • 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.
  • Knife-Throwing Act
  • 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 Type 7 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Patter Song: "Now".
  • Rule of Three:
    • The whole work is structured around threes and triangles. The music is mostly in waltz time (3/4) or variations thereof. The cast is, apart from Madame Armfeldt and Fredrika, structured into a series of interlocking love triangles (see Love Dodecahedron above). There are songs sung by three people ("Now/Later/Soon"), and songs sung by two people about a third person ("You Must Meet My Wife" and "It Would Have Been Wonderful" most prominently). The summer night smiles three times.

      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".
  • 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 has the horn play the opening horn call from Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier, another high-society musical sex comedy.
  • The Tease: Anne and Petra enjoy being this towards Fredrik.
  • Tenor Boy: Henrik, whose music is even more punishing than Anne's.
  • Wrong Guy First


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