No Need to ‘Send in the Clowns’ for Madison Opera’s ‘A Little Night Music’
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Cassandra Vasta (Mrs. Anderssen), Benjamin Barlow (Frid), Sarah Day (Madame Armfeldt), Emily Pulley (Desirée Armfeldt), and Maddie Uphoff (Frederika Armfeldt) in Madison Opera's 'A Little Night Music.' Photo by James Gill.
An important concept that resonates with Emily Pulley initially came from her father. Although the man was almost completely blind, he would play television specials and other concerts on PBS and comment that he could still tell how the artists loved the work.
“If the audience can feel how much we are generally enjoying ourselves and that we actually do care for each other, that invites them into the story and makes them care about what happens to the characters,” Pulley says. “It doesn’t matter how spectacular the music is or and how glamorous the costumes are, if you aren’t emotionally invested in the characters, it’s going to fall flat.”
Pulley portrays Desirée Armfeldt, an esteemed actress tangled in a web of love affairs, in Madison Opera’s upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music. When Desirée discovers that she wants to get back together with the true love of her life, lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Daniel Belcher), she invites him and his family for a weekend at her mother (Sarah Day)’s estate. This includes Fredrik’s 18-year-old wife Anne (Jeni Houser) and his 19-year-old son Henrik (Quinn Bernegger). Don’t worry, the fact that Fredrik is married is only a minor setback in Desirée’s eyes.
Of course Desirée’s other lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Charles Eaton), also shows up at the estate with his wife Charlotte (Katherine Pracht). Cue the chaos.
“I think we can all find ourselves somewhere in the cast,” Pulley notes. “There’s Fredrik trying to recapture his youth, or someone with a very idealized version of love, and I think Desirée hits pretty close to home for a lot of people who sought out what they thought was a glamorous existence and are pretty much unfulfilled by it on a deep level.”
Kathryn Smith, general director of Madison Opera describes A Little Night Music as “a comedy of the mind and the heart.” A main challenge of staging the operetta is maintaining the flow behind multiple scenes and locations, with one number “A Weekend in the Country,” taking place over five different settings.
However, Smith says stage director Doug Scholz-Carlson and set designer R. Eric Stone have brilliantly solved this issue by creating screens that glide across the stage to hide or reveal different elements.
“The characters are very witty and interesting, but they are also very human,” Smith adds. “It’s not just brittle sophistication, there’s real heart to the piece and there’s definitely a story arch to every character.”
Even if you haven’t heard of this operetta, you are probably familiar with one of Desirée’s iconic songs, “Send in the Clowns.” Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Judi Dench and Judy Collins are just some of the influential performers who have recorded versions of the number.
Pulley first sang “Send in the Clowns” with her jazz band when she was 18, but admits she didn’t comprehend the song’s deep meaning at that young age. “Send in the Clowns” occurs in Act II as Desirée reflects on some of her regrets and disappointments in life. The phrase is actually a theater reference, which means if everything is going wrong, it is time to “send in the clowns,” or tell jokes to divert attention from the mess on stage.
“I don’t think you quite grasp what the song is about until you have some actual regret to look back on,” Pulley says. “There is such an emotional attachment to this piece. It has enough space and ambiguity about it that you can fill that in with whatever longing you have in your own life.”
A Little Night Music, presented by Madison Opera, runs Feb. 8 and 10 at Overture Center for the Arts’ Capitol Theater. For tickets visit overture.org or call the box office at (608) 258-4141.