When done right, which is all too rarely, Stephen Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC can be an ecstatic evening in theatre, a fit reminder of how entrancingly clever he can be, as well as melodic, swooningly romantic and heartwarming: three qualities lately rather missing from his work. I will never forget seeing the original 1974 road show production in Los Angeles, with the late Jean Simmons perfectly cast (bother her lack of voice) as a completely captivating Desiree Armfeldt, that perilously aging, romantically needy diva, and Margaret Hamilton, of all people, playing her redoubtable mother, Madame Armfeldt. (It took a real leap of faith to believe that she was ever a devastatingly irresistible courtesan.) When the entire cast strutted their stuff to Patricia Birch’s kaleidoscopic choreography in the Act One curtain number, A WEEKEND IN THE COUNTRY, with everything building and building into that proverbial, all-too-elusive “wow” finish, musical comedy orgasm was truly achieved.
The 2003 New York City Opera production was probably the best-acted of all, and again hang the lack of voices, with Jeremy Irons heartbreaking as Desiree’s beloved, lawyer Frederick Egerman, Juliet Stevenson superbly authoritative as Desiree, Claire Bloom as her mother and the very musical Marc Kudisch making a comic banquet of Desiree’s obnoxious, macho dragoon lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. The achingly yearning way in which Irons delivered his little monologue about his confoundedly unlikely but nevertheless ardent love of his idiotic young wife, Anne, despite the formidable appeal of his former lover, Desiree, was a magical lead-in to her singing “Send in the Clowns.”
The current London-imported revival at the Walter Kerr Theater is a decidedly mixed bag that largely suffers from Trevor Nunn’s suprisingly coarse direction of something that should be souffle-light and as sparkling as a chandelier. The minimal, molding mirror set design itself, although depriving us of a lusciously opulent fin-de-siecle elegance, is not that bad and serviceable in the extreme, but the lack of onstage furniture felt indeed frugal (with a $125 top ticket price, no less), especially as it turned Madame Armfeldt’s sumptuous banquet into a ridiculous indoor picnic with actors sitting on the goddamned floor. Ditto the cheapness of the eight (or is it nine?) piece orchestra which made the lilting waltz melodies and ensemble numbers sound very ocarina-taproom. There was a lot of heavy vulgarity, notably in the performance of Leigh Ann Larkin (so strikingly strong as June in the Patti LuPone GYPSY) as the maid, Petra, who seemed to confuse the role with Lois Lane in KISS ME KATE (and was that an all-service Irish brogue she kept slipping into in this so-called Swedish locale?). She sang the hell out of “The Miller’s Son,” but the hard-core, bump-and-grind sell really belonged in another show, maybe SHOWGIRLS.
Larkin, at least, sang in tune, which could not be said for more than a few members of the cast, particularly certain members of the so-called “lieder” quintet, who, together, often sounded like back fence cat yowling. An exception here was the always reliable and handsome Stephen R. Buntrock (an absolutely magnificent Curley in the last Broadway revival of OKLAHOMA, far superior to Patrick Wilson, who he replaced). Hunter Ryan Herdlicka’s falsetto-tinged croon was the wrong sound for Frederick’s repressed, embattled son, Henrick (you want a deliciously neurotic head voice for this desperate male virgin’s anguished high notes), while Ramona Mallory was a monotonously grating, shrieking irritant as Anne, making it impossible to see what, if anything, Frederick saw in her.
Also charm-challenged was Aaron Lazar as Carl-Magnus, a noxiously one-note cock o’the walk, and Erin Davie as Charlotte, his long-suffering wife, was okay, but possessed nothing of the ingratiating elan of wonderful Andra Akers in the Los Angeles production, who nearly stole the show, making the utmost of its Eve Arden possibilities. Katherine Leigh Doherty (oh! these tiresomely double-named actors these days!) was an unappealing, conventional, paging Dakota Fanning/Abigail Breslin young Fredrika, lacking in the requisite prettiness which would make her a believable daughter to this production’s Desiree, and I will never forgive her (or make that Trevor Nunn’s direction) for standing upstage during Angela Lansbury’s death scene, completely blocking the view of the entire orchestra left side of the house.
They’re carrying on about Lansbury like she’s the second theatrical coming of Christ, herself, and, although her feisty energy is always welcome here as Madame Armfeldt, and it’s good to see her in a more glamorous role than that matronly tennis enthusiast she played in the dull DEUCE or the wacky medium in BLITHE SPIRIT (which was basically a retread of her DEATH ON THE NILE performance), I do find her struggle with line memorization distracting, and sadly feel she should have done this role ten years ago and would have totally killed in it.
The best performance in the show is Alexander Hanson as Frederick, who originated it in this particular London production and has all the voice which Irons lacked, as well as the easy charisma and skillfully rueful acting chops the part calls for. With him in the role, it’s easy indeed to believe that even such a worldly dame like Desiree never quite got over him, and it’s a joy and privilege to heartily welcome him to New York.
As good as Hanson is, however, he is, somehow, not the major reason to see the show. I’m a great believer in natural visual beauty being a total salubrious, life-extending balm to the soul, be it the Rocky Mountains, or, as here, Catherine Zeta Jones. Her husky voice, while perfectly adequate for this work, is nothing extraordinary, and her acting could not really be described as inspired – although I’d love to see her in the hands of a really committed director who might have, for example, instructed her to display more of a reaction to Frederick’s in-song revelation of his young bride’s withholding virginity, all the better to launch into her own vituperative lyrical response. Also, I thought it was unnecessary that she wiped a “tear” away during a crucial moment of her most important song.
However, when confronted with that sinuously elegant body, swan neck, creamy complexion, those light-catching iridescent eyes, Fragonard nose and, above all, that intriguingly curved mouth which defines “bewitching,” who the hell cares about anything else? Beauty this staggering is something beyond art and, sitting in my fourth row orchestra seat, those few times when her questing theatrical gaze seemed to meet mine (and, was it my fantasy, perhaps shared by others, that she sang the end of “Send in the Clowns” looking directly at me?) chills were to be had. Once upon a time, people stood on chairs or thronged the streets to catch glimpses of fabled goddesses like Lily Langtry, Lillian Russell, La Belle Otero, Liane De Pougy and Hedy Lamarr. You are hereby instructed to plunk down whatever coin it takes for the best seat in the house merely to bask in this sumptuous human spectacle.
OTHER EPOCHAL BEAUTIES
As stated, Zeta Jones is among that rarest rank of women whose looks are simply beyond, the pure stuff of legend, able to enslave kings (and movie superstars) and sometimes start wars, stemming from Helen of Troy, herself.
Nell Gwynn, painted by Peter Lely, who rose from orange seller in the streets to prominent actress to mistress of Britain’s King Charles II. Called “pretty, witty Nell” by Samuel Pepys, she was the living symbol of Restoration England.
Jeanne, Comtesse du Barry (painted by Elsabeth Vigee-Lebrun), mistress of Louis XV, her expenditures helped bring about the French Revolution and she was dragged, shrieking the place down, to the guillotine, an undignified but wholly understandable way to go.
La comtesse de Castiglione (nee Virginie Élisabeth Louise Charlotte Antoinette Thérèse Marie Oldoïni), the first photographic supermodel of the 1800s, who, with her endless blonde hair and eyes which changed from green to violet, who captivated Emperor Louis Napoleon of France, and ended her days a recluse on the Place Vendome, with the shades drawn, the rooms draped in black and mirrors banished so there’d be no reminders of her faded beauty.
La Castiglione by Pierre-Louis Pierson, her photographer of choice
Lola Montez, nee Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, the Irish beauty who became a “Spanish” dancer and ultimately the mistress of Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her the Countess of Landsfeld. When he abdicated amid revolutionary rumbles, she fled the country, ending up in Australia where she entertained gold miners. She scandalized the country with her so-called underwear-less dances and fell on even harder times, ending up destitute in New York. She died before she was 40 and is buried at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Lillian Russell, American actress and sufragette, goddess of the Gay ’90s, whose name is inextricably and lavishly linked with that of her boyfriend Diamond JIm Brady. Actress Marie Dressler: “I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof.” Her voice was chosen by Alexander Graham Bell to first introduce long distance telephone service on May 8, 1890, singing the Sabre Song from New York to audiences in Boston and Washington, D.C..
La Belle Otero, Spanish dancer and courtesan, the most desired woman in Europe, who had countless lovers, including Prince Albert I of Monaco, King Edward VII, Kings of Serbia, Kings of Spain, Russian Grand Dukes Peter and Nicholas, the Duke of Westminster and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. Six men were rumored to have committed suicide over her. Her breasts were legendary; the twin cupolas of the Hotel Carlton in Cannes were modeled after them.
Liane de Pougy (photographed by Nadar), Folies Bergere dancer and courtesan rival to La Belle Otero. Lover of cocaine and heroin, she trained as an actress with Sarah Bernhardt (“keep your pretty mouth shut”) and was lesbian lovers with writer Natalie Barney, who wrote “Idylle Sapphique” about her. She married Prince Georges Ghika in 1920, and, after the death of her son in WWI, became a nun, Sister Anne-Mary, devoted to the care of children with birth defects, as well as a writer.
Liane, drawn by Paul Helleu
Cabaret entertainer/Folies Bergere star Emilienne D’Alencon, who, along with Otero and de Pougy, made up the “Three Graces of Paris” (think Naomi, Christy and Linda of their day), rival courtesans for the best men and jewels in Europe. An early friend and supporter of Coco Chanel, she counted among her lovers King Leopold II of Belgium and the ladies La Goulue and poetess Rene Vivian.
Lina Cavalieri (painted by Boldini) the most beautiful opera singer in history, epitome of the hour-glass figure, early silent film star. She married tenor Lucien Muratore, as well as Robert Winthrop Chanler, of the Astor family, and wrote a book MY SECRETS OF BEAUTY. She died in Italy during WWII, when a bomb fell on her when she ran back to her house to retrieve her legendary jewels.
Dancer/actress Gaby Deslys claimed to be French, but in reality was a Czech peasant girl, Hadiwga Nawrati. King Manuel II of Portugal was mad for her, giving her a $70,000 pearl necklace – pearls were her passion – which hastened the Portuguese Revolution of 1910. She started a 1911 riot at Yale while performing at the Hyperion Theater, following a Yale-Princeton football game, inflaming students, with her inflated ticket prices, who tore the theater apart. She died at 38, from a throat infection brought on by influenza, after two operations in which the doctors were severely inhibited by her strictl instructionsd not to scar her neck. She left her half million dollar fortune to the poor of Marseilles. Her famous gilded swan bed was used in Gloria Swanson’s bedroom set in SUNSET BOULEVARD. MGM bought her life story rights for a film with Judy Garland that was never made.
Cleo de Merode, yet another Folies Bergiere dancer and the very last of the great courtesans, any of whom could have inspired Sondheim’s song, LIAISONS, who also carried on with King Leopold of Belgium. She set coiffure styles with her trademark luxuriantly long locks, danced until she was in her fifties and was very popular in her homeland of Austria, where she befriended the artist Gustav Klimt. She retired to Biarritz and wrote her memoirs, LE BALLET DE MA VIE in 1955, died in 1966 at age 91 and is entombed at Pere Lachaise cemetery in paris.
Lady Diana Cooper, photographed by Man Ray in her role in Max Rheinhardt’s fabled stage spectacle. This British aristocrat married Duff Cooper, through him, and became the redoubtable British ambassadress to France. Nancy Mitford satirized her in her book, DON’T TELL ALFRED.
Diana, drawn by John Singer Sargent
With film coming into prominence in the twentieth century, certain very special movie stars became the new fetishized stuff of worldwide adulation.
Merle Oberon, in the role of Anne Boleyn, another world-changing beauty. Oberon concealed her half-Indian heritage to have an international career, made her own mother impersonate her maid, married Sir Alexander Korda (among others) and ended up immensely rich in Mexico, a symbol of eternal tanned beauty. A regular Oscar presenter, as she left the stage one night, Bob Hope looked after and remarked, “Now THAT’S what I call Acapulco Gold!”