Theatre yesterday and today



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These days, due to the pandemic, an actor’s ability to make a living in the theatre is virtually impossible. It’s also no secret that even in the best of times actors work hard to make a living when the theatre is doing well. Sure, it’s great when they land a hit, but more often than not, actors invest the same heart and soul into shows that close in a weekend. Actually, not really the same, as the work and pressure put into a show that’s struggling can make tensions unbearable on a rocky road to Broadway. Sometimes all that hard work pays off, but more often than not, it doesn’t. It’s a rare feat for a musical to come into town already a hit, not having been through the wringer like Guys and Dolls or The Producers managed to accomplish.

A Little Night Music opened in 1973 to mostly favorable reviews that secured the third Best Musical Tony for a Sondheim show and awarded him personally with the third of an eventual seven awards for writing music and lyrics. It had a seventeen-month run, not bad for a Sondheim show (it was longer than Company or SweeneyTodd, two other Tony winning Best Musicals), and backers did see a return on their investment, placing Night Music in the “hit” category.

Laurence Guittard and Patricia Elliott as husband and wife

in “A Little Night Music” (1973). Photo by Martha Swope.

For the company of Night Music, rehearsals started with an unfinished score, and book by the British playwright Hugh Wheeler, which resulted in a good deal of material to try out in live in front of audiences almost up until its opening night. Sondheim tabulates this in the first volume of his two books, stating in Finishing the Hat: “Five songs [were] written during the five-week rehearsal period, which is as fast as I’ve ever written.”

To counter that, Hal Prince, Night Music’s director, told Craig Zadan in his book Sondheim & Co.: “Going into rehearsal with ten of our sixteen songs was sheer lunacy. It was maddening and I’ll never allow it to happen again with anyone!”

Maddening for sure. During the Boston and New York previews, even more songs were removed and added. In my recent conversation with Laurence Guittard, who created the role of Count Carl-Magnus in that production, we discussed the arduous nature of performing in a musical when songs are written right up until the last minute:

“Steven had a terrible time coming up with that number, ‘In Praise of Women,’ Guittard recalled. “That was the last thing that went into the show and it was literally days before opening night that I got it. He tried various numbers, everyone knows ‘Bang,’ of course. But there were many versions of ‘Bang,’ with the original one featuring the Liebeslieders in it, then they got taken away (fortunately for me). Then he started working on a song called ‘Women Were Born to Wait,’ which I think nobody knows about. I think Steve ran out of steam on it… but he took snippets from everything to create the final number. His ‘Eureka!’ moment was realizing it was meant to be a ballad, and not a military number. And he said something like, ‘I know I have to write ‘Dancing in the Dark’ for you.’”

Laurence Guittard singing “In Praise of Women.”

When I mentioned that it must have been a thrill and half to have had Sondheim compose a song specifically tailored to his voice, Guittard was practical in his response. “I didn’t have time to be thrilled. It was quite harrowing. If I remember properly, ‘A Weekend in the Country’ came in shortly before we went to Boston… We didn’t have ‘It Would Have Been Wonderful,’ as that went in during the run there. And that one was a hard to remember. So, I was always slightly concerned that I would blow it. And then weirdly, when I played Fredrik in London [in 1995 opposite Judi Dench’s Desiree] I had to do the other words. So, my old neurosis came back in spades. It was always tricky.”

“What was best working with Steve was when he brought it in to you because he was so specific about what he intended. And I remember those sessions gratefully.”