When I think about Denmark, what haunts me the most are the summer nights. The day’s work done, I would walk the streets of Copenhagen, listening to the tourists, watching the locals whiz by on their bicycles, tall blond mothers with their little kids in tow, young lovers… I would slowly stroll to the cafes in the town for dinner, and at 8 in the evening, the sun would paint the grass as green and the roofs as red as afternoon. My dinner done, I would drift back to my hotel. It would be 10:30 in the night, and in the quiet corner of Copenhagen where my 8th-floor hotel room overlooked the ocean, the slowly-descending mist would glow a bright gray. The sun would still be up, though the air would have acquired a nip, and the streets would be empty save for a passing late bus. Every day that I was in Denmark, I went to sleep with the sun still up. That is the memory that remains with me the most.
I am reminded of a line from my favorite musical of all time, Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”: ‘Never marry a Scandinavian; they are all insane. It’s the latitude. A winter when the sun never rises and a summer when the sun never sets are enough to addle the brain of any man.’
This post is about “A Little Night Music”. When I was in my Sondheim phase, I listened to the music completely out of phase with watching the plays. I had great difficulty finding the albums on file-sharing networks, so I either bought the albums or went to the library and rented them out. I fell in love with “A Little Night Music” the first time I listened to it. The entire album was written by Sondheim in waltz tempo (3 beats, 2 unstressed syllables, one stressed), which is fiendishly difficult to pull off.
And Sondheim is at his magnificent best with the lyrics. Just after the middle of the first half, for example, are a pair of beautiful little waltzes about the Scandinavian sun. The first is called “The Sun Sits Low”, and this is how it goes:
The sun sits low
Diffusing its usual glow
Five o’clock – twilight – vespers sound, and it’s
Six o’clock – twilight, all around, but
The sun sits low,
As low as its going to go.
Eight o’clock, twilight – how enthralling!
It’s nine o’clock, twilight – slowly crawling towards–
Ten o’clock, twilight – crickets calling,
The vespers ring, the nightingale’s waiting to sing,
The rest of us wait on a string.
Is rather an unset-
The sun won’t set,
It’s fruitless to hope or to fret,
It’s dark as it’s going to get.
The hands on the clock turn,
But don’t sing a nocturne just yet.
I watched the musical much later, on stage in Boston with Mammo, and I remember I turned to him during this song and remarked, “How many song-writers would use the word nocturne in their songs?”
‘A Little Night Music’ is based on a very beautiful Ingmar Bergman movie called ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’. It is, at its heart, a movie about sex. The action revolves around 3 families: the Egermans, the Armfeldts, and the Malcolms. Frederik Egerman is a middle-aged lawyer, an ex-widower with a nineteen-year-old son. Frederik is married to Anna, who is eighteen, and who he completely loves. Anna, though happy, is still to come to terms with her marriage, and remains a virgin. Frederik’s son Henrik is spiritually-minded and plans to enter the church, but has an unfulfilled, unfulfillable love for his young step-mother Anna. Also in the Egerman household is the young, pretty, free-spirited servant, Petra.
One of Frederik’s old flames is Desiree Armfeldt, an actress. Her mother, Leonora Armfeldt, was a mistress of several noblemen and aristocrats, and is very rich. Desiree’s current lover is the soldier, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, an exceedingly virile and jealous man. The Count’s wife, Charlotte, knows of and hates his infidelity, but is still madly in love with him. Charlotte and Anne were friends from school. And as Frederik, despite his love for Anne, begins to yearn for a woman, he is drawn back to Desiree. So their lives are all linked together by bonds of love, sex and friendship.
The play’s main action is set in the mansion of the old Madame Armfeldt, where all of these people are invited to for the weekend. Each person tries to understand their own love and desire. It is a complex story of relationships, very richly populated, and wonderfully acted.
Having seen both the musical and the movie, and having listened to the songs, I rate the songs the highest, followed by Bergman’s movie, and then the musical. The musical tries hard to transform the Swedish movie to fit the American palate, and has a few moments of inappropriate , almost slapstick humor. The characters are painted very thickly; some of the most important ones become almost one-dimensional. The movie, on the other hand, is a work of incredible beauty, one of the best relationship movies that I have seen in my life. Whenever I listen to the songs from the album now, it is not the musical that I remember; it is always the movie.
And this is the movie on YouTube:
Sondheim is definitely the Shakespeare of our era; I just wish he’d found someone better to write the plays he put his songs in (or even better, I wish he’d written the plays too, and not just the songs).