Hero Worship, Part 1
A number of years ago I met Stanislav Grof, who essentially created the field of transpersonal psychology and the Holotropic Breathwork therapeutic discipline, at a graduation ceremony in Burlington, Vermont, where he received an honorary doctorate. He was being glad-handed by colleagues and former students and friends, and I waded through the crowd until I stood in front of this great bear of a man. When I opened my mouth to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the past twenty years or so, I suddenly and inexplicably dissolved into sobs. He hugged me warmly. I tried to explain, but the few words I choked out weren’t entirely coherent. I finally pulled myself together and said, “Thank you, just . . . thank you.”
Hero worship can be so embarrassing.
I have no doubt whatsoever that I would be turned into a similar blubbering heap were I ever to meet Stephen Sondheim. Thank goodness there’s little chance of that happening.
The three Sonheim shows that are closest to my heart are A Little Night Music (which I saw on Broadway in 1974 with Jean Simmons as Desirée and Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as Madame Armfeldt); Sweeney Todd (1979); and Into the Woods (1987).
There’s something about his music — moving but just the tiniest bit discordant — and his witty, sophisticated lyrics that satisfies on so many different levels. His is a profound understanding of the human condition in all its foibles and failings, that peculiar mixture of darkness and light that makes us alive.
Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music is set in Sweden at the turn of the century, and tells the story of a lawyer, Fredrik Egerman, who is married to a beautiful, featherbrained, and inexperienced 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne. He sees an old flame, Desirée Armfeldt, who is appearing in a popular play, and his romantic interest in her is rekindled.
Here Fredrik meets Desirée in her dressing room after the show, and immediately sings the glories of his young wife:
In 1978 someone made a series of extraordinarily bad decisions: to make a film version of A Little Night Music; to cast Elizabeth Taylor as Desirée, then coat the lens with Vaseline, and dub her (badly) on “Send in the Clowns”; to change the setting from Sweden to Vienna; and to cut or alter many of the songs.
The only good thing about the movie was Dame Diana Rigg in the role of Countess Charlotte, the wife of an arrogant, insanely jealous military man, Count Carl-Magnus, who is openly having an affair with Desirée. Charlotte sings about the situation in “Every Day a Little Death”:
Desirée invites Frederik, his virginal wife, Frederik’s stodgy, depressed son Henrik (a divinity student who is in love with his stepmother), and their household staff, to a lavish weekend in the country. Of course Carl-Magnus decides to crash the party with his wife Charlotte and their household staff. The weekend is to be held at the country estate of Desirée’s mother, Madame Armfeldt. She is a profane but dignified old woman who is looking after Desirée’s precocious daughter, Fredrika, while Desirée is on tour. Here she sings a marvelous song about the benefits of a carefully conducted love life:
The first act finale is the marvelous “A Weekend in the Country.” It is the height of midsummer, which in Sweden means that the sun never sets completely. In act two, the characters wander around the vast estate and grounds bathed in a golden twilight. This hazy, limbo-like setting allows them to explore their passions and realize who it is and what it is that they truly desire.
The most famous song from the show, “Send in the Clowns,” is easily my least favorite. Or was, until I heard Dame Judi Dench’s version of it (she played Desirée in the London production):
Clive Barnes reviewed the show for The New York Times when it opened in 1973. He wrote:
At last, resonances and elegances in a Broadway musical! A Little Night Music is heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting. It is Dom Perignon. It is supper at Laserre. It is a mixture of Cole Porter, Gutav Mahler, Antony Tudor and just a little of Ingmar Bergman. And it is more fun than any tango in a Parisian suburb.
Broadway, champagne, food, Cole Porter, and the tango. Ye gods I love this musical!