How odd that the film adaptation of one of the 1970's most popular musicals could wind up to be such a flop. Could it be that Harold Prince, the legendary stage director, would prove unable to master the same skills behind a camera? Could it be that massive tinkering with story and music would gut the play, leaving a pale imitation flickering on the screen? Could it be that mediocre acting and lousy editing helped make a disaster of a movie? Could it be 1978 audiences were more than happy to pass this one up in favor of a repeat viewing of "Grease" instead?
The answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes. "A Little Night Music" is one of Stephen Sondheim's most beloved plays, winning a collection of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, upon its initial run. Judy Collins (among others) had helped make "Send In the Clowns" a worldwide hit, cementing the play's notability. By all accounts, the movie version should have been a smash hit.
Alas, it is instead a colossal mess. We open promisingly enough, with Prince showing us a stage version of the play, which morphs into reality - something of a modernized spin on Olivier's film of "Henry V." But it's at this time we also notice the changes. Gone is the quintet that acts like a Greek Chorus. The story has been moved, relocating from Sweden to Austria - thus erasing the play's themes of a perpetual twilight. Several songs have been rewritten, and the score retooled. It's a digest version of the play, and not for the better. (Surprisingly, the movie still managed to win an Oscar for Best Song Score and Its Adaptation; considering its only competition was "Pete's Dragon" and "The Slipper and the Rose," it's no surprise the Sondheim connection was enough to land composer Jonathan Tunick a trophy.)
Heavily reworked musicals have made for excellent movies before and since; consider "Chicago," a different beast entirely from the play that inspired it, yet still a cinematic marvel. But here, in "A Little Night Music," the changes only serve to strip away at the essence of the story, leaving us to focus on wooden acting, iffy singing, and a turgid presentation. Prince stages every scene with little flair, seeming flummoxed by how to work with the camera. And so every sequence drags along at an aching pace, the decision to tone down the humor and highlight the darker, more somber aspects of the drama weighing the film down like a brick.
The story (itself adapted from the Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night") involves Frederik (Len Cariou), a lawyer unhappily married to an 18-year-old (Lesley-Anne Down), who, after eleven months, has yet to consummate the marriage. Meanwhile, his 19-year-old son (Christopher Guard), a dreary, perpetually horny seminary student, has the hots for his stepmother. Frederik eventually seeks sexual comfort in the bed of an old flame, the famous actress Desiree Armfelt (Elizabeth Taylor), thus connecting the earlier plotlines of Desiree's daughter (Chloe Franks) living with a haughty grandmother (Hermione Gingold) who disapproves of Desiree's lifestyle. Also in the mix are Desiree's other lover, the dragoon (Laurence Guittard), and his wife (Diana Rigg).
The musical was sent entirely to a frothy waltz time to emphasize the bedroom farce appeal of the goings-on, and while the movie maintains the waltz tunes, it ultimately lessens the impact of the score - long music-less patches drag on, and any sense of fun, romance, or light drama evaporates all too quickly. What the film presents is a bogged-down romantic melodrama. Scenes like the one in which the dragoon discovers Frederik and Desiree post coitus should be brimming with a breezy charm. Where's the fun?
Perhaps Prince was stymied by the film's limited shooting schedule (thus also preventing him from valuable reshoots, which would have covered Taylor's up-and-down weight issue; as it stands, the film presents no consistency to the major character's appearance!), forcing him to rush through key sequences. Extra time might have allowed him to get more comfortable with the set and his stars. As is, however, scenes are left to drag on lifelessly, while musical numbers are left to be edited rather poorly, the multi-layered tunes winding up looking jumbled on screen. (Then again, even the non-musical scenes are poorly edited, with occasionally wildly awkward cutting disrupting the flow of even the simplest conversations.)
Despite the appearance of several stage legends (Gingold and Cariou reprise their roles from the original Broadway run), the performances are all too stuffy, with broad theater-style acting clashing with the intended intimacy of the film. (Gingold does well enough, and Rigg, a screen vet, comes off swimmingly, but the rest? Not so much.) The stunt casting of Taylor is questionable - are we to seriously believe that the dragoon would have a later-day Liz Taylor as his mistress when Diana Rigg is waiting for him at home? The performances are further hindered by mediocre dubbing (for those keeping score: Rigg sings her own, Taylor does not) and an overall inescapable drabness.
"A Little Night Music" was filmed once more, for PBS in 1990, but has yet to return to the silver screen. This, sadly, leaves Prince's 1978 near-forgotten dud as our only link to Sondheim's classic in movie form. Where are the clowns?
Video & Audio
Hen's Tooth Video gets points for finally bringing this now-rare film back into availability, but their efforts will disappoint anyone who's waited this long. The film is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 format, and the print used is washed out, soft, and riddled with print damage. Dirt pops up throughout, several frames are blotched, and a distracting scratch runs down the middle of the screen during most of the "Now"/"Soon"/"Later" segment. I will assume that this was the best Hen's Tooth could find (rumors suggest the original negatives have long been destroyed), but it's still highly unappealing.*
The soundtrack is cleaner, thankfully, also still decidedly unimpressive in a Dolby presentation of its original mono format. No subtitles or alternate tracks are offered.
While Sondheim fanatics may want to give it a quick spin for curiosity's sake, there's just nothing here that would clue anyone else in on why the play was such a success in the first place. Skip It.
* Since posting this review, I have received numerous emails from fans of the movie who are happy with the video presentation. Their claim comes from comparisons to older VHS releases that looked much, much worse, if such a thing were possible. (Having now seen screenshots of the VHS versions, I can sadly say it is possible.) Fans may be thankful for an improvement, but I still can't come to call the DVD video passable, despite Hen's Tooth's best efforts.