[Parts of this explanation refer to timings in the musical tracks. The references are to the original cast album of A Little Night Music, featuring Glynis Johns as Desiree (Catherine Zeta-Jones’s role in 2009), Len Cariou as Fredrik Egerman, and Hermione Gingold as Mme. Armfeldt (Angela Lansbury’s role in 2009).]
Night Music is one of Sondheim’s more popular musicals, and one of the few that yielded a “breakout” hit song, Send In The Clowns.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the show takes place during the summer season in turn-of-the-century (Victorian) Sweden. At this time of year, it can be bright daylight well into the evening, twilight at midnight, and never get completely dark. The uncertainty of having no actual night but only a “limbo” state somewhere between night and day pervades the mood of the show. As with all his shows, Sondheim invents a musical “language” for Night Music to capture this limbo: He uses harmonies and progressions that seem to spend a lot of time lingering ambiguously between major and minor keys, accomplished by careful use of chromatic tones to “destabilize” melodies and harmonies that would otherwise be firmly in major or minor. A great example occurs in the middle section of the Overture/Opening, starting at about 1:55 into the track; the muted tones of this section clearly have a major-key feel, but there are enough suspensions and dissonances that you can’t call it a “bright” major. The next sixteen bars, starting at 2:34, are much more ambiguous, leaning toward major, but with enough modulations that you don’t really know where you are until you manage to get back to the main statement of the “night waltz” (3:04).
Almost every song in the show is in triple time (meters that suggest multiples of 3); even those that are in a meter of 2 or 4 (like Every Day a Little Death and A Weekend in the Country) use time signature of 6/8 or 12/8 and carry the beat with triplets. Sondheim was presumably inspired by the “love triangles” that make up the show’s story, in which each person begins with the wrong partner but ends up with the right one. (See story synopsis below.)
The triangles are:
Henrik Fredrik Carl-Magnus / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ Petra Anne Desiree Charlotte
Warning: Spoilers. If you’d rather go in oblivious to the story line, skip down to Send In the Clowns.
The action takes place in high summer in turn-of-the-century Sweden. As the show opens, we meet middle-aged lawyer Fredrik, who recently married virginal 18-year-old Anne but has yet to consummate the marriage after nearly a year. His son Henrik, living at home while studying for the seminary, is tormented by a crush on his 18-year-old stepmom and teased relentlessly by their sexy and free-spirited maid Petra. Father and son sing about their respective longings as Anne gently turns Fredrik away (Now/Later/Soon). We also hear about the life of not-so-successful peripatetic actress Desiree Armfeldt [Catherine Zeta-Jones] from Fredrika (The Glamorous Life), Desirée’s daughter from her prior relationship. Prepubescent Fredrika is receiving wisdom from her grandmother Mme. Armfeldt [Angela Lansbury], who in her prime was a formidable consort to nobility. Grandma Armfeldt tells young Fredrika that on summer nights the moon smiles three times: once for the young, once for the old, and once for the fools.
Fredrik takes Anne to the theater where Desirée is performing; seeing his old flame reminds him of their earlier passionate affair (Remember). Fredrik sends Anne home and goes backstage, where Desiree is delighted to see him but outraged to learn that Anne has yet to allow Fredrik to make love to her (You Must Meet My Wife). Desiree, meanwhile, is single and vaguely dissatisfied despite having tons of courtiers, currently the pompous count Carl-Magnus who walks in on Desiree and Fredrik and is very suspicious of Fredrik’s excuse that it was a “business visit” (In Praise of Women). Carl-Magnus is so outraged that his mistress might be cheating on him that he complains about it to his long-suffering wife Charlotte, who is incredulous at his insensitivity and commiserates with young Anne that they find it so hard to leave their husbands despite being treated so poorly (Every Day a Little Death).
But Desiree’s brief visit with Fredrik has rekindled the spark, and for advice on how to recapture him, she approaches her mother Mme. Armfeldt, who agrees to help but disdainfully laments the passing of the days when sexual seduction was merely “a pleasurable means to a measurable end” (Liaisons). Desiree and her mother contrive to invite Fredrik, Anne and their entourage to spend the weekend at the Armfeldt country house. Carl-Magnus’s wife Charlotte gets wind of the plan from a terrified Anne (who suspects the worst) and goads her jealous husband into inviting himself, just so she can enjoy the fireworks (A Weekend In The Country, Act I finale).
Act II opens with a very awkward and in-limbo situation at the country house, with nobody really sure of where they stand or even what time it is, due to the “midnight sun” effect (The Sun Won’t Set). Carl-Magnus and Fredrik confront each other (for the second time now) and acknowledge how much simpler their lives would be if neither of them had met Desiree to begin with (It Would Have Been Wonderful). A very awkward dinner ensues (Perpetual Anticipation) during which Charlotte attempts to flirt with Fredrik just to stir things up further, and the women all end up catfighting with each other until Henrik unleashes his sexual frustration by denouncing everyone’s hopeless lack of morality and storming out, leaving everyone perplexed as the dinner scene breaks up.
Desiree and Fredrik finally get a moment alone. Desiree seizes the chance and makes her move, but to her surprise and dismay, Fredrik confesses that loving her (Desiree) may be his dream but he can’t escape the reality of his life with Anne. Desiree reflects on the irony of being so successful with men yet falling short the one time it was someone she genuinely cared about (Send In the Clowns).
Meanwhile, Anne finds Henrik, who has wandered off and is trying to commit suicide in his oppressed state. As much as she has teased him in the past, he is so comically pathetic that she is attracted to him; the two manage to give each other their first sexual encounter, and they run off together. Lusty maid Petra seizes the opportunity to express her own, very different, free-spirited philosophy of love (The Miller’s Son) by cavorting with hunky manservant Frid.
Charlotte catches up with Fredrik and confesses that this trouble was all her instigation; Carl-Magnus mistakes their interaction for flirting and challenges Fredrik to a duel, which he wins easily, and as his prize he reclaims Charlotte—finally romancing her as she had always wanted. Slightly baffled at the absurdity of all these situations, Fredrik realizes there is nothing for him to do but go away with Desiree after all (Send In the Clowns reprise).
Everyone is now with the “right” partner and is poised to live happily ever after. But young Fredrika in her innocence is still puzzled by all the scheming that was necessary to set things right, and also complains to her grandma that she still hasn’t seen the night “smile.” Mme. Armfeldt explains that the night has indeed smiled for the young, and particularly broadly for the fools, leaving only one more—the smile for the old. With that, she dies peacefully, and after a whirling reprise of the opening (Night Waltz), the curtain falls.
The show’s most famous song makes use of a phrase from the theater vernacular: “Send in the clowns” is what you do when the action is getting too sad or too heavy—you send in the comic relief to cheer up the audience. In the context of the song, the words are poignant: Desiree and Fredrik are themselves the clowns, hence the final line in the song (“Don’t bother, they’re here”) as well as the slightly different final line in the reprise when the two of them finally get together (“They’re finally here”).
Send In the Clowns was written shortly before the show opened and was written specifically with actress Glynis Johns in mind; its short phrases (“Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air.”) were designed to accommodate a singer who has good tone but limited sustain. Jonathan Tunick, Sondheim’s longtime orchestrator, again shows his ability to translate Sondheim’s dramatic sensibility to the orchestra. As a song of ironic regret, the main theme is initially stated as a clarinet solo. The clarinet is playing in its dark and woody low (chalumeau) register. As the song proceeds, other solo lines are all in the woodwinds, primarily flute and double reed (1:22). But in the reprise (track 16), the theme is introduced by the alto flute, an even less powerful and more hollowly melancholy instrument than the clarinet in its low range. Throughout, the strings have been relegated to background texture. But as the reprise proceeds, we learn that Désirée and Fredrik will indeed go away together and live happily ever after, and the dry woody sound is suddenly replaced by lush strings and a harp flourish as they kiss (1:11)—the one and only time the “Send in the clowns” melody statement is heard in the strings. Tunick is one of the few accomplished orchestrators who understands how to really use different instrumental timbres to track the drama in the orchestration in a way that works so closely with the composer’s text that it feels like it might have sprung from the same pen.