Like beach days and tan lines, Palm Beach Dramaworks‘ Musicals in Concert series has become a summer standard. The company kicks off its 2015 presentations with Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music from July 10-19. Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman movie Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical takes place in Sweden in the early 1900s and explores themes of love, loss, youth, and aging. Sondheim’s score manifests these themes through soaring and sophisticated compositions, anchored by the famous song “Send in the Clowns.”
Director Lynnette Barkley is tasked with interpreting the score and script into a compelling concert production, and is doing so in a very short amount of time. We chatted with Barkley about the score, the story, and the inherent challenges—and benefits—of concert presentations.
|A Little Night Music director Lynnette Barkley leads her cast in rehearsal. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll|
PBI.com: Can you describe your experience with A Little Night Music, prior to being asked to direct this production?
Barkley: When I was in college in Southern California, this was the CD I had in my car that played on my commute from home to school. It is my ultimate favorite Sondheim musical. I love this music so much. I have not done the show before, but I am completely familiar with it. I could sing‚ just to myself in the car, every song.
Why is this musical your favorite representation of Sondheim’s work?
I think because it’s hopeful. Sondheim is always cynical in his own way and complex, and his work wonderfully grabs you by the heart and rips it out emotionally. But, for me, a piece that has hope appeals to me. Of Sondheim’s canon, it’s the one that’s really about love. It’s about having it, losing it, wanting it, missing it. You’re frustrated by it, but, ultimately, the message is that you don’t want to live without it.
How does directing a concert presentation differ from directing a full production?
It’s a staged concert, so it’s about trying to find the balance of going in broad strokes—you want to tell the story, you want to interpret the music as well as you can in a very short period of time. So the story is important, the music is important, and then you still have the audience, so you want to give a sense of everything else. Everything else is a taste of staging, a bit of costumes; we’re not doing full costumes, but rather a sense of contemporary mixed with the time period so you feel like you’re there without it actually being costumed.
What are some of the themes you want to emphasize?
Definitely the theme of aging, longing for the simplicity of lost love, the contrast between the wisdom of age—when you get to a point and you’ve lived life and you’ve experienced things and you’ve lost love, there’s a wisdom in that and you wish you had that when you were 20 something—versus the abandon of youth. So those themes are very much a part of it. There are a lot of people in this play who are trying to capture lost youth.
Do you think a trimmed-down production like this makes it easier to illuminate those themes?
It depends on what aspect of it. In some ways, it really allows you to be about those themes. You don’t have a lot of other stuff getting in the way—moving this or moving that, or wearing this or wearing that. The material is so rich, so a simple approach, I think, is sometimes better.
Can you describe the musical style of A Little Night Music?
The show is written in 3/4 time. It’s theme and variation, which is amazing because you don’t realize it is when you’re listening to the whole thing because there are so many waltz variations. The stunning, mind-boggling lyrics define characters and move the story, but within this very lush, beautiful music.
Why is it important to include a piano, a cello, and a violin? Are those the bare essentials for this music?
I believe they are. Certainly the cello is a bare essential. We’re given a score, and it’s for 30 instruments (she laughs). So, thinking in simplicity, we needed a chamber ensemble that would help support the lushness. The cello gives you a little edge, there’s a little wistfulness to it; so much of this is a memory play [where the characters] look back on things they should have done, and I think the cello supports that. The violin, especially in a waltz time, is so beautiful. In discussing it with my musical director, Kevin David Thomas, he really felt that this would serve our piece well.
This is a relatively large cast for a concert presentation; how did you approach working with a cast of this size as it applies to staging?
We have our five chorus singers who are the Greek chorus, and they play [many characters], and everyone else is a main character. I’m keeping everybody on stage at all time, in chairs with music stands upstage, along with the three musicians, so they are actually part of the orchestra. They come down to play scenes and then go back to being part of the orchestra and the full visual picture of the show.
The show takes place in Sweden in the early 1900s. How did you go about conveying this time period?
We walk differently now, so part of it is how people carry themselves. There’s a little bit more of a lift, which also is part of the whole waltz idea, that sort of lifted feel that you find in the waltz. Part of it is language. In 10 days, you don’t have time to work on any sort of accent, even though it’s Sweden in the turn of the century. So we’re going very simply with a continental, which means you put the consonants at the ends of the words; you pronounce properly, you don’t Americanize. But we’re not going with British accents or trying to put anything on—just keeping it very continental, very proper, which also helps with Sondheim lyrics. You really want to hear those words. I’m very fortunate I have a cast of singers who are also actors, and I think that is very important in this piece.
What has proven to be the biggest challenge in directing this show?
Finding the balance between staging and concert, that is the biggest challenge. How far do you want to go, because you want the audience to be engaged visually, but it is still a concert so the music has to take precedence. As we’re staging the play, I’m aware of keeping it simple but still emphasizing movement and interest and just a sense of location in each scene.
What do you hope audiences take away from the production?
I hope they will be emotionally involved, they will find it funny, they’ll find it engaging, and they come away humming more than “Send in the Clowns.”