How can you possibly go wrong with Stephen Sondheim? Very easily: A Little Night Music.
One of his most symphonic scores, A Little Night Music tells the story of Desiree Armfeldt (Elizabeth Taylor), a stage actress traveling the world who returns home to visit her daughter Fredericka (Chloe Franks) and mother (Hermione Gingold). While there, she runs into her ex-lover Frederick Egerman (Len Cariou) at the theater only to realize that perhaps she is still in love with him even though he has already married Anne (Lesley-Anne Down).
Add into the complex plot the military man Carl-Magnus (Laurence Guittard), Desiree’s lover; his wife Charlotte (Diana Rigg); and Frederick’s grown son Erich (Christopher Guard) who has just returned home himself from school and is roughly Anne’s age. Suffice it to say, there is bickering, fighting, games of Russian Roulette and a series of events that make this love story entirely compelling. Except that it’s not filmed that way.
Director Harold Prince, who has done celebrated work on Broadway, manages to trim out most of the songs (and many of them the best compositions of the score) without any measure of character development, devolves the story into a simple twisted love triangle and fails to pull out any memorable performances.
Excised from the score are songs performed by Guittard (“In Praise of Women”), Gingold (“Liaisons”), and one for the maid Petra (played here by Lesley Dunlop) called “The Miller’s Son”. I can understand leaving out “The Miller’s Son” in terms of plot necessity, but these are three of the score’s best and most memorable songs (outside of the legendary “Send in the Clowns”), and yet all that remains are wordless husks used as character themes.
Losing songs is fairly common in the transition to the big screen, but what dwarfs that consideration is the utter ineptitude of the performances in the film. Although Cariou, Gingold and Guittard all reprise their stage roles, none of them evoke the kind of emotional resonance or vocal power that is on display in the original cast recording. It sounds as if the score has been shifted up a key or two in order to make it more palatable to modern audiences. Whatever the reason, the three are not at their best and are not ably supported by their fellow cast embers.
Down is a boring figure, despite some potentially fruitful scenes; Guard spends the entire film glowering at others and seems to falter every time he has to deal with romantic entanglements; and the worst of all is Elizabeth Taylor.
A legend of the profession, one would expect much better from Taylor, but this is a painful performance to watch. It’s the worst performance I’ve seen from her, but may be characteristic of her history of choosing roles late in career which may have ultimately contributed to its collapse. Her character is devoid of charm, grace or talent. Her voice is wispy, unenthusiastic and forced. She highlights one of the biggest problems Hollywood musicals have: putting actors into roles where they have to sing whether they have any real capabilities or not. She could have been dubbed, but with Taylor’s distinctive voice, it would have been too obvious.
The only person in the cast that I remotely like is Diana Rigg who at least seems to relish her role as scheming wife and Anne’s devoted confidant. Her voice is stronger than I would have expected and she’s one of the few things in the film I couldn’t stop watching.
The film opens with a curious framing device, where the players of the film are dancing on stage with one another singing a song that was performed by a chorus on stage. It seems as if Prince was trying to evoke the idea that these players all put on a face, a game of manners if you will, for others despite deep inner turmoil and conflict. The unfortunate part is, film has done this better many times before, and it was even hinted at more adequately in a college performance of The Importance of Being Earnest that I worked on several years ago. And if something that remote can do it better, I would expect much better from Prince.
It’s no wonder Prince never directed another big screen feature again. It wasn’t his milieu. Too bad he couldn’t have realized that before making a travesty of the wonderful, sumptuous A Little Night Music.
-Wesley Lovell (September 25, 2009)