In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner talks to Leeds Playhouse’s James Brining about its collaboration with Opera North on the Stephen Sondheim musical. She also looks at a landmark production that opened this week in a previous year
What is it?
A revival at Leeds Playhouse of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. The 1973 musical, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer Night, features one of Sondheim’s most famous songs – Send in the Clowns. A collaboration with Opera North, the production was due to open on Friday, May 15 and run until June 6.
A Little Night Music was once described as being “whipped cream with knives”, but when it was first suggested to artistic director James Brining, after the Playhouse’s successful collaboration with Opera North on Into the Woods, he wasn’t sure if it was quite to his taste.
“I had the mistaken idea that it was just about a bunch of posh people,” says Brining a little ruefully, “but it was my ignorance, because when I started working on it, I realised that it is an astonishingly compassionate piece about the folly of humanity. It has lightness and fluidity, but it also has a hard knot at its centre – that needs to be untied – about the ridiculous decisions we all make and how we seldom get to right our mistakes. It has got depth and texture, and says it isn’t too late to create the life for ourselves that we want to live, not the one we have been forced into by circumstance.”
Who was involved?
Josephine Barstow was cast as Madame Armfeldt and Stephanie Corley and Quirijn de Lang were playing former lovers Desiree and Frederick. The cast also included Alex Banfield, Amy J Payne, Christopher Nairne, Helen Évora and Jennifer Clark. The conductor was James Holmes, and design was by Madeleine Boyd. “It’s good to collaborate with Opera North – it stretches us both as organisations,” says Brining.
How far did they get?
“Lockdown happened on what would have been the first day of rehearsal. But we had already seen what was coming, and the difficulties, so we knew it wasn’t going to happen. If any of the cast got even a sniffle they would have needed to self-isolate. It is a very strange sensation to have already imagined something in your head and then not being able to realise it. It is very odd when a diary alert pops up on your phone saying you would have been in week five of rehearsals, a point at which I know I would have been really stressed. It’s like getting a glimpse of your ‘Sliding Doors’ life.”
What is Brining doing during the shutdown?
“Most of the staff are furloughed but I’m still working. We are working on six possible scenarios for reopening. If you give each model a tweak there are 650 possible outcomes. I’m busy but I also think this is a moment to be reflective about what we do and why. We don’t have a lot of digital assets so instead we have been concentrating on engagement with our community, working with older people and with refugees. In these difficult times this was the bit of the programme that felt most useful. It forces you to reflect on the all things you’ve taken for granted.
When we reopened the Playhouse after its redevelopment, we always saw it not just as another chapter, but as a change of direction. Shutdown has heightened those questions around who we are, what we mean for the city and what our purpose is. It must be about democratising access to culture and theatre being part of the connections between different groups in the city.”
Will A Little Night Music be seen at a later date?
“I’d like to think so, but there is so much uncertainty at the moment, and work that was appropriate when we programmed it may not feel the same in a different world.”
A Little Night Music was due to have its press night at Leeds Playhouse on May 15, running until June 6. Visit: operanorth.co.uk
Caroline, Or Change opened on May 11, 2017 at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in a production directed by Michael Longhurst and designed by Fly Davis.
This production wasn’t the UK premiere of Jeanne Tesori and Tony Kushner’s musical, which was first seen at the National in 2006.
But this story struck a chord at a time when British society – and theatre – was grappling with its own lack of diversity and opportunity for all.
Set in Louisiana in 1963, it was about the relationship between a young Jewish boy, Noah, and the black maid, Caroline, who is effectively incarcerated in a windowless basement of the house with a washing machine. This was a show that really sang, in every way. Caroline, Or Change reminds how much the past continues to shape the future, and that sometimes change is too slow to bear.
It had an excellent cast and boasted a knock-out performance by Sharon D Clarke as Caroline. She went on to win an Olivier for the role when the production transferred into the West End at the end of 2018. The show, with Clarke in the lead, was due to open at Studio 54 on Broadway on March 13 – the day after the New York theatre shutdown took place.
It is a pity New Yorkers are unlikely to see it, because the production is glorious, with The Stage describing it as “complex yet big-hearted, joyfully exuberant but sharply political”.