Sunday, December 27, 2009

Adaptations of Films for Theatre

A.O. Scott is an essay in today's New York Times looks at the differences between Bergman's source material, Sondheim's original production, and the current revival of A Little Night Music.

My own sense is that too many layers of prestige and nostalgia have been laid on to the story, like coats of bright paint. Bergman’s film, though set a half-century before it was made, nonetheless has a present-tense feeling to it, partly because Bergman’s sexual candor remains, at least to Americans, bracing and perhaps a little unsettling. “Smiles of a Summer Night” was his international breakthrough, winning him a prize at Cannes and a worldwide following after an early career of frustration and failure. It was also a touchstone for Americans discovering the worldly pleasures of foreign film.

“A Little Night Music,” when it was first performed on Broadway in 1973, partook of those pleasures and extended them into a new domain. Mr. Sondheim’s worldliness, his skepticism of romantic ideals he nonetheless refuses to abandon entirely, is not exactly congruent with Bergman’s fatalism. But they play off each other nicely, and the show uses period elements as both a distancing mechanism — how odd those people were, with their servants and their linen suits — and a sly way of connecting the past to the present, in how recognizable they are with their neuroses and indecision.

But the past evoked in the revived “Night Music” is less vivid and less specific. It is an era when a story like this, whether glimpsed at the movies or onstage, might have seemed invigorating and revelatory rather than a cultural duty. Which is not to deny its entertainment value, only to note that any other value it might have had is hard to locate.

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