Considering his godhead status in the world of musical theater, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim has been strangely unrepresented in movies. Although most of his major plays have been telecast in some form or another, to date only six have become feature films: West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), A Little Night Music (1977), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Into the Woods (2014). The 30-year gap between A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd is partially attributable to musicals going out of fashion, and it’s fair to say that West Side Story is, to date, the only unqualified smash Sondheim movie adaptation. Still, a talent of Sondheim’s stature surely deserves better in general—and better, specifically, than the middling film version of A Little Night Music.
Adapted from the Ingmar Bergman movie Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which also inspired Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), A Little Night Music premiered onstage in 1973, introducing the bittersweet ballad “Send in the Clowns.” Cover versions by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins popularized the tune. Like many of Sondheim’s musicals, A Little Night Music is a sophisticated collage of intricate musicality and rigorous wordplay, to say nothing of complex plotting, so it was hardly a natural for a mainstream adaptation. Indeed, the movie version was financed by a German company and distributed in the U.S. by, off all entities, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.
Elizabeth Taylor, far from the apex of her box-office power but still a formidable presence, leads a cast including Len Cariou, Lesley-Anne Down, and Diana Rigg. Set in turn-of-the-century Austria, A Little Night Music tracks the romantic travails of a group of wealthy but lonely people. For instance, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik (Cariou) has recently married his second wife, 18-year-old beauty Anne (Down), though he carries a torch for middle-aged actress Desiree (Taylor). Meanwhile, Fredrik’s son, priest-in-training Erich (Christopher Guard), wrestles with sexual longing and family friend Countess Charlotte (Rigg) laments the passage of time.
The movie opens with the characters performing onstage as the song “Night Waltz” presents rarified central themes (one lyric states that “love is a lecture on how to correct your mistakes”). After a graceful transition to location photography, the movie winds through its narrative, and most numbers are staged as intimate dramatic scenes. As always, Sondheim’s language is dazzling. Anne assures the sex-crazed Erich that “my lap isn’t one of the devil’s snares,” and Fredrik offers the following observation: “I’m afraid being young in itself is a trifle ridiculous.” In one of A Little Night Music’s nimblest numbers, “Soon,” Fredrik contemplates ravaging his wife, who remains a virgin nearly a year into their marriage (“I still want and/or love you,” Fredrik sings). Although Broadway veteran Cariou has a strong voice, the best performance actually comes from Rigg, who imbues “Every Day a Little Death” with hard-won wisdom. Conversely, Taylor fails to impress when she delivers “Send in the Clowns.” In fact, Taylor is the film’s biggest weak spot, thanks to her distracting cleavage and flamboyant acting and weak singing.
Yet the ultimate blame for the mediocre nature of this film must fall on Harold Prince, who directed the original Broadway production as well as the movie, and on Sondheim. Prince’s filmmaking is humorless and mechanical, failing to translate the elegance of the material into cinematic fluidity. And for all their intelligence and sophistication, Sondheim’s songs are frequently cumbersome and pretentious. The film version of A Little Night Music contains many fine elements, but if it served as any viewer’s first introduction to Sondheim, the viewer might be perplexed as to what the fuss over the Grammy-, Oscar-, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning songsmith is all about.
A Little Night Music: FUNKY