A Feline Matron, Catnip for Seasoned Actresses
by Matthew Gurewitsch
As conceived by Ingmar Bergman in "Smiles of a Summer Night," the long-retired courtesan Mrs. Armfeldt whom film audiences met in 1955 was not quite the creature we know as Madame Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's latter-day operetta "A Little Night Music." Mrs. Armfeldt, Bergman writes in the screenplay, is "a very small lady," first discovered in a very large room, sitting in her bed, which is also enormous, amusing herself with her morning solitaire. There she receives a fateful visit from her actress daughter, the glamorous, fraying Desirée.
As played in the film by Naima Wifstrand, Desirée's mother is almost a wraith: scarcely of this world until emerging to serve a houseful of Desirée's guests the rare, heady dessert wine that, like Circe's potion, will transform their hearts forever. Legend has it, she notes, that each cask contains a drop of milk from a mother who has just given birth to her first child as well as a drop of seed from a young stallion. "Whoever drinks of it," she warns, "does so at his own risk."
As seen on Broadway, first in 1973 and again in the current revival, the moment plays a little differently. Gone is the list of controlled substances, and with it the note of danger. But in exchange the dialogue by Mr. Wheeler, who died in 1987, has Madame Armfeldt propose a toast with a barb in its tail: "To Life! And to the only other reality — Death!"
In addition she has acquired a rich assortment of other choice bits, scattered through the action like so many baroque pearls. She fires off zingers about lost teeth, lost lovers and the necessity of housing actors in the stables. In between, like a cat, she naps and watches.
"Don't squeeze your bosoms against the chair, dear," she admonishes her granddaughter. "It'll stunt their growth." Pause. "And then where would you be?" Elsewhere she reflects on her dwindling Champagne supply: "One bottle the less of the Mumms '87 will not, I hope, diminish the hilarity at my wake."
Best of all Mr. Sondheim has bestowed on her the music and lyrics of "Liaisons," a five-minute meditation in song on sex, desire, asset management and the dismal showing the present makes against the sophistication of her salad days. Though an alluring voice, elegantly deployed, is an advantage, a canny reading of the lines in time to the music seldom fails in its effect.
Small wonder the part has attracted a roll call of legends, beginning 37 years ago with the smoky-voiced British eccentric Hermione Gingold. Among those who have followed are Margaret Hamilton, best remembered as MGM's Wicked Witch of the West; Claire Bloom, of "Limelight" fame; Zoe Caldwell, a renowned Medea; Regina Resnik, in her time a reigning Carmen of the Metropolitan Opera; and the delightful chanteuse Elisabeth Welch.
The current scaled-down production by Trevor Nunn, imported from London, brought back to Broadway the willowy five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury. Now, in a realignment of stars that has theater aficonados buzzing, the angular, wildly unpredictable Elaine Stritch has assumed the part, with Bernadette Peters taking over from Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desirée.
Thinking back to the original production, directed by Harold Prince, Ms. Stritch confessed that her indelible memory is of Glynis Johns as Desirée. "The way Glynis sang 'Send In the Clowns' was so deep, so deeply emotional," Ms. Stritch said, stopping off after rehearsal at the Algonquin for a skim-milk cappuccino with extra cinnamon before moving on to the Carlyle, her home and sometimes her cabaret stage. "That upstaged everything else for me."
Yet in his review for The New York Times, the critic Clive Barnes discussed Ms. Gingold in the greatest detail. "Hermione Gingold is immeasurably grande dame as the almost Proustian hostess," he wrote, adding, "I haven't loved her so much since she sang about the Borgia orgies 30 years ago." Adding to the list of intriguing Madame Armfeldts, Leslie Caron, the courtesan-in-training — and Gingold's screen granddaughter — in "Gigi," graced the French premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris, in February.
Inevitably, the many contrasting personalities who have played Madame Armfeldt have teased very different nuances, from nostalgia to dry-eyed disillusionment. Some have been sweet, some bitter, and at least one — Vanessa Redgrave, in a concert reading with the Roundabout Theater Company last year — was notably sour. Some have been droll, others severe. While still in rehearsal, the acerbic Ms. Stritch was thinking a lot of Madame Armfeldt's gallows humor: "She jokes about her funeral. Real humor belongs to people like this. Funny comes from feeling things so deeply that you have to protect yourself."
Though "A Little Night Music" maps easily as a chain of interlocking love triangles, it dwells too on the ties between parents and children, which makes for interesting long-term casting opportunities. Sian Phillips, the Welsh actress who held PBS viewers spellbound in the 1970s as the terrifying Roman empress Livia of "I, Claudius," sang Desirée in a British studio recording of the show in 1990, at short notice and not wholly to her satisfaction. Five years later she played Madame Armfeldt at the Royal National Theater in London. (Judi Dench, who is all of a year and a half younger than Ms. Phillips, was Desirée.)
Last month, vivacious at 75, Ms. Phillips revisited the elder character at Opera Theater of St. Louis in an unorthodox but piquant production by the fashion designer and first-time theater director Isaac Mizrahi. Visually it was "A Midsummer Night's Dream" meets "A Little Night Music," set among spreading shade trees, with winged, half-undressed fairies as the quintet of warbling onlookers. But the characters, Madame Armfeldt most of all, played for the real stakes.
"Fifteen years later the idea of mortality isn't as academic," Ms. Phillips said between shows. "The part is short, but quite tricky technically. There's never time to build. You have to come on and hit the right note in each scene precisely. And you have to figure out who she is. She has grand style, and also such spite and venom. She's so successful, so glittering and hard, but then at the end she wonders if she played everything wrong. I don't think I got all that the first time."
"Where is style?/Where is skill?/Where is forethought?" Madame Armfeldt wonders in "Liaisons." "Where's discretion of the heart,/Where's passion in the art,/Where's craft?" Rethinking the song after the long hiatus Ms. Phillips found herself speculating about the more outré aspects of Madame Armfeldt's career among the titled clientele who paid so lavishly for her favors.
"I started thinking about those fire-opal pendants, the ladies in attendance, the assignations through the false chiffonier," she said. "There are hints of perversion, unspeakable acts, not just of elegance and style."
Time being money, basic training for new recruits to most Broadway hits is mercilessly brief, and the incorrigible perfectionist in Ms. Stritch has had to summon up the subtext of Madame Armfeldt's lines on the fly.
"I love rehearsal more than I can possibly tell you," she said. "But everything happens for the best. It's a marvelous part: tough, deep, confusing. And she always appears when you least expect it. The solitaire champion."