WASHINGTON — It was a Broadway smash that won the Tony for Best Musical in 1973.
Now, Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” hits Signature Theatre now through Oct. 8.
“It’s a comedy with a lot of heart,” actress Holly Twyford told WTOP. “It is a beautiful story, it’s got beautiful music that soars to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It will just take you to so many places. There’s a reason my mother and I listened to it over and over again.”
Written by Hugh Wheeler (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), the story opens on a magical night in 1900 Sweden, where an aging actress, a married virgin, a sex-starved divinity student and a buffoonish count become hilariously tangled in a web of love affairs.
“It is a love story on several levels,” Twyford said. “In the beginning, the grandmother says, ‘The night is going to smile three times.’ Over the course of the play, you see when that happens. … It’s people trying to find their way, as we all do in life. I’d never read the book to the musical; I had only ever heard the music, so I read the play and it’s an amazing story.”
You may be familiar with the story from any number of previous iterations. The title itself is an English translation of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” while the story comes from Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955), which inspired Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982) and Elizabeth Taylor’s “A Little Night Music” (1977).
“The dialogue is really similar [to the Bergman film],” Twyford said. “There are things that are slightly different; she doesn’t have a daughter, she has a son. But there are not many differences other than the songs, although there is a part where she sings a song in it.”
Sondheim’s songbook includes Twyford’s personal favorite, “Weekend in the Country.”
“It’s the entire ensemble, some people got an invitation to come to my mother’s house, some didn’t but they’re still gonna go because it’s my lover and he’s jealous and the wives don’t want to go. It’s [right before intermission]. What’s going to happen? What hi-jinx will ensue?”
The most famous song remains “Send in the Clowns,” recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra in 1973 to Judy Collins in 1975 to Barbra Streisand in 1985. Who else covered it?
“Krusty the Clown, that famous pop vocalist from ‘The Simpsons,'” Twyford joked.
You’ll recognize that biting humor from Twyford’s Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Ford’s Theatre, though she admits that she doesn’t typically do musicals.
“Did I say typically? What I meant was ever,” Twyford joked. “Albee looked at ‘Virginia Woolf’ as an opera, so there was something operatic about that character. But [‘Night Music’] actually has songs in it, so it’s not something that’s in my comfort zone. That’s why I’m doing it.”
It’s a welcome challenge with ideal mentors, thanks to some talented triple-threat co-stars.
“I’ve been waiting years to share the stage with Tracy Lynn Olivera and Bobby Smith,” Twyford said. “If you missed Tracy in ‘Ragtime,’ you missed something beautiful, and Bobby just did ‘Titanic.’ … It’s a little bit of a master class, but it’s also just so beautiful to listen to them. … For me, the highest praise is how they act a song. It’s one thing to sing the notes right — there’s a lot of people who can sing quite beautifully — they can do that, but they can also do more.”
While Olivera and Smith provide the singing lesson, Twyford dishes her brand of comic timing.
“You cannot have Stephen Sondheim lyrics without fantastic comedy,” Twyford said. “It’s got ironic comedy [and] some farcical aspects to it: this lover is coming in from the bedroom and this lover is walking in the front door and he’s got the robe on, so things like that are a kick.”
This delicious display is a creative collaboration between director Eric Schaeffer, scenic designer Paul Tate DePoo, choreographer Karma Camp and lighting designer Colin K. Bills.
“There are not actual rooms on stage — that’s hard to do,” Twyford said. “It’s in the beautiful Max Theatre at Signature, which is this great, big, beautiful space with an amazing set by the fabulous Paul DePoo. … There are going to be trees with a nod to Sweden, beautifully backlit, then the facade of my mother’s mansion out in the country, it’s going to be quite sweeping.”
Why does she love Signature so much?
“Eric was talking the other day about being there 28 years; he only expected to be there for 10,” Twyford said. “What he’s done is make this theater grow and evolve like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing. It’s become a benchmark for Sondheim musicals, which is a huge thing.”
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