A Little Night Music

By Hugh Wheeler; Directed by Trevor Nunn
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

The cast of A Little Night Music on Broadway.

BOTTOM LINE: A beautiful production of a (somewhat) adult musical; go because you like Sondheim, not just to see Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I must admit, I am quite surprised by the success of this first Broadway revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Based on the weekly grosses, it routinely sells out, and at full price. While this might not be surprising for a big dance spectacle like Billy Elliot, Sondheim musicals tend to have a more limited appeal. And after seeing this production, I can only imagine that some of those who spend $137 simply to see Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury might leave feeling slightly underwhelmed. Let me be clear - A Little Night Music is a delicious show, and this production has much to recommend it. Although I had a wonderful time, at a very leisurely three hours or so, this somewhat subdued musical may not be for everyone. 

A Little Night Music, originally produced on Broadway in 1973, is based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. In turn-of-the-century Sweden, lawyer Fredrik Egerman brings his virginal young wife Anne to the theatre, without telling Anne about his past romance with the star Desirée Armfeldt (Zeta-Jones). But reliving the past does not prove so easy – they must not only deal with Anne, but with Desirée’s jealous lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, the Count’s frustrated wife Charlotte, and Fredrik’s guiltily hormonal son Henrik. The first act introduces all of these characters, along with Petra (the Egerman’s lusty maid) and Madame Armfeldt (Desirée’s world-weary mother, played by Angela Lansbury). As the first act ends, everyone leaves for Madame Armfeldt’s estate, where in act two the characters become increasingly entangled in each other’s romantic lives.

A Little Night Music is a wonderfully bittersweet musical; with its constant refrain of “remember, darling” it is largely about recalling one’s fond (if perhaps mistaken) memories of youthful passion. While we see occasional instances of this young love, A Little Night Music is more about remembering the past than about eagerly anticipating the future. So the tone is muted and often understated. There are no big dance numbers, and no divas belting out one showstopper after another. And because the orchestra is much smaller than the original, even the most energetic song (the first act finale “A Weekend in the Country”) seems somehow lessened.

And the musical looks quiet as well. The costumes are all neutral tones: creams, whites, grays, khakis, and blacks. The set is a simple segmented wall of frosted glass, through which the actors bring out pieces of furniture. And above this wall is a plain black panel that seems to suck in light (and the lighting isn’t all that bright to begin with). The overall effect is one of darkness, if not dreariness. I found this especially odd considering this is supposed to be Sweden in high summer; a constant choral complaint in act two is that the sun refuses to set, yet I kept waiting for it to rise.

However, this is all secondary to Sondheim’s lush, waltzing music and brilliant lyrics. While many of the songs seem significantly slower than I’m used to hearing them, you almost certainly won’t have difficulty understanding the words (which is key, especially if you don’t know the material). And all of the performances are terrific. This production may have some of the best voices now on Broadway. While I had heard that some of the acting was a bit broad, I’m guessing the actors have mellowed since this show opened in December; for the most part, I thought the cast balanced the honesty of the characters with the humor of the piece. I especially enjoyed Alexander Hanson’s sexy and too-confident Frederik, and Erin Davie’s painfully hilarious Charlotte, but all of the performers have wonderful moments. And even though Madame Armfeldt almost never gets up from her wheelchair, Ms. Lansbury is delightful, and steals the show more than once.

My dirty secret? I did NOT see Catherine Zeta-Jones…on purpose (gasp!). Zeta-Jones has two scheduled absences, and the only available discounts are during these periods. If you’re on a budget and don’t care so much about Zeta-Jones, you’ll likely get a better seat for less money by going the next time Zeta-Jones is out (from Tuesday March 30th to Sunday April 4th). And not to fret- understudy Jayne Paterson, who normally plays one of the five roving chorus members, is wonderful. Her chemistry with Hanson is palpable, and her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” (yes, the song is from this show) is achingly beautiful. 

Is this the best possible production ever of A Little Night Music? Probably not – my ideal version would have a fuller orchestra and a brighter, lighter design concept. But there is plenty to love, including the cast and the musical itself. I walked out of the theatre extremely content, having spent a thoroughly enjoyable three hours. If you’re looking for a rocking good time, go elsewhere. But if you want a quieter, more adult version of musical theatre bliss, you won’t be disappointed.

(A Little Night Music plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $52 - $137 and can be purchased at or by calling 212.239.6200. 10 standing room tickets are available for students only (1 per ID) on the day of the performance, when the box office opens, for $27. For more information visit