You can no longer see Angela Lansbury as Madame Arnfeld in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, but you can still hear her on the lovely and loving two-disc recording produced by Nonesuch and PS Classics. Beware, however — while Lansbury, who has left the show to be replaced by Elaine Stritch, is a delight on the recording, Catherine Zeta-Jones (who has now been replaced by Bernadette Peters) is impressive as her daughter Desiree, and the score is just as amazingly lovely and intriguing in its devotion to the waltz tempo – the album may not be the best way to hear this score. That’s because the orchestra accompanying the singers is thin. For a score that calls for a lush sound, this is a serious problem.
If you already have the original Columbia records Broadway cast album, or the original London cast album on RCA, you know full well how the orchestra is an impressive presence throughout. When the show premiered in 1973 there were twenty-five musicians in the pit playing lush and lovely orchestrations by the inestimable Jonathan Tunic.
If you do own one of these recordings, you may well want to add this new one to your collection. But if you don’t, this one isn’t the best way to hear the score for the first time.
The revival, which began in the small theater in England called the Menier Chocolate Factory (it’s in a converted confectionary) and then transferred first to a bigger house on London’s West End and then to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, uses new orchestrations for a smaller orchestra, something called “a chamber orchestra” which apparently meant only eight players in the pit.
At least they did not go to the ridiculous extreme of a few other reduced-forces revivals of Sondheim shows. For Sweeney Todd in 2005 they did away with the orchestra all together and had the actors play instruments. (Who knew Patti LuPone could ooommmpah on a tuba?)
Still, recording producer Tommy Krasker understood that such meager orchestral forces as were used in the theater would be unacceptable on a recording of this lovely score. He arranged to have thirteen players for the recording. The new orchestrations for the production had been written by Jason Carr, no great slouch in the trade. He handled the revival of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George a few years back and was nominated for a Tony for his new charts for La Cage aux Folles this year. He expanded on his work for the recording. His charts are inventive, tasteful and avoid merely imitating Tunick’s originals. Still, thirteen players can’t provide the lush atmospheric support that twice as many players did for the originals.
As a result, either one of the original recordings are the best introduction to the glories of Sondheim’s musical achievement here. To me, the London is superior to the Broadway. Either way, you get to hear Hermione Gingold hold forth on the topic of “Liasons” in a performance that stood for a quarter century before Lansbury gave it her own twist.
However, if your collection includes the original Broadway cast recording, you may still want this one so you can hear Zeta-Jones’ improvement on Glynis Johns’ singing on “Send in the Clowns.” Johns’ version is nearly painful to listen to.
Alternatively, if you have the London version you may still consider this recording so you can hear Alexander Hanson’s improvement on Joss Ackland’s singing the role of Fredrick, the head of the household in Sweden where the sun never sets on a midsummer night.
As we have come to expect of the products of PS Classics’ Tommy Krasker and of Nonesuch Records, the entire package, including the packaging, is superb. The recording itself is clean and clear with superbly good separation between voices and parts so it is easy to appreciate each and every contribution while still getting the ensemble effect. This is particularly important for this score because it has so many songs and scenes that blend individual voices into something much more than a mere sum of the parts.
“Now” (with tripling couplets like “That might be effective / My body’s all right / But not in perspective / and not in the light”) and “Later” (with lines such as “As I’ve often stated / It’s intolerable being tolerated”) and then “Soon” (where Frederick’s virginal bride sings “Even now, when you’re close and we touch / And you’re kissing my brow, I don’t mind it too much”) are stand alone wonders that then merge into a tremendous trio that is simultaneously simple and complex. “A Weekend in the Country” is an all cast compilation with each member joining in but retaining the individuality that has been built throughout the first act.
Krasker provides the lyrics for the entire score as well as a well crafted song-by-song synopsis by Sean Patrick Flahaven and an essay on the place of the show in the Sondheim catalogue by Frank Rich. Seventeen black and white photos and one in color give you a feel for the look of the show although more color would have done a better job of that.
Fine performances all around make the package a valuable addition to a musical theatre shelf – one that already has one of the originals, that is.