A new London revival opened on October 6, 1989 at the Piccadilly Theatre, directed by Ian Judge, designed by Mark Thompson, and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. It starred Lila Kedrova as Madame Armfeldt, Dorothy Tutin as Desiree Armfeldt, Peter McEnery and Susan Hampshire. The production ran for 144 performances, closing on February 17, 1990.
In 1995, a revival by the Royal National Theatre opened at the Olivier Theatre on September 26, 1995 in a production directed by Sean Mathias, with set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, costumes by Nicky Gilabrand, lighting by Mark Henderson and choreography by Wayne McGregor. It starred Judi Dench (Desiree), Sian Phillips (Madame Armfeldt), Joanna Riding, Laurence Guittard and Patricia Hodge. The production closed on August 31, 1996. Dench received the Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Actress in a Musical.
A Little Night Music will be revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory from November 22, 2008 until March 8, 2009. The production is directed by Trevor Nunn, sets and costumes by David Farley and Jason Carr will be writing new orchestrations. The cast includes Hannah Waddingham as Desiree, Alexander Hanson as Frederik, Jessie Buckley (Anne), Maureen Lipman (Mme. Armfeldt), Alistair Robins (the Count), Gabriel Vick (Henrik) and Kasia Hammarulund (Petra).
Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the play is set in Sweden at the turn of the century. It tells the story of the middle aged Fredrik Egerman, a successful lawyer. He has recently married an 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne, a vain girl who is wholeheartedly in love with Fredrik, but too immature to grasp the concept of marriage. The two have been married for eleven months, but Anne still refuses to sacrifice her virginity. Fredrik sings of his inability to make love to his wife ("Now"). Meanwhile, his son Henrik, who is older than his stepmother by one year, is feeling extremely frustrated with himself. He is a seminary student and, as such, has acquired a rather negative world view ("Later"). Anne is intrigued by his actions, but fails to understand the subtext of what he is saying. The next morning, Anne promises her husband that she will consent to sex shortly ("Soon"). Anne's maidservant Petra, a blunt girl slightly older than the teen herself, offers her rather crass advice on the situation.
Meanwhile, another important character is revealed--Desiree Armfeldt, a prominent actress. She and Fredrik were lovers many years ago. Desiree is a rather selfish woman who has shipped her daughter Fredrika to live with her grandmother, the aging and severe Madame Armfeldt. Fredrika misses her mother, but Desiree continually puts off going to see her ("The Glamorous Life"). Upon learning that her theater company will be performing near Fredrik's estate, the actress cannot resist inviting him to the play. He brings Anne along, and she is instantly suspicious of Desiree's amorous actions. Claiming to have a headache, Anne demands that Fredrik bring her home immediately. At home, Petra has been trying to seduce Henrik.
That night, Fredrik's old memories of Desiree float back to the surface of his mind ("Remember"). He slips out to see her, and the two share a happy but obviously strained reunion. They reflect on their new lives, and Fredrik tries to explain how much he loves Anne ("You Must Meet My Wife"). Desiree responds with a sarcastic tone. She happily boasts of her own adultery--she has been seeing a married count. Upon learning that Fredrik has had to go for eleven months without sex, though, Desiree agrees to accommodate him--as an old favor for a friend.
The scene moves to the home of Mme. Armfeldt, who offers advice to young Fredrika. The elderly woman reflects poignantly on her own checkered past, and wonders what happened to the typical tryst ("Liaisons"). Back in Desiree's apartment, Count Carl-Magnus Malcom announces his arrival in his typical booming voice. Fredrik and Desiree fool the suspicious but gullible count into believing that nothing went on between the pair, but the military man is still suspicious. He takes an instant disliking to Fredrik and goes back to his own wife, the Countess Charlotte. Charlotte is apparently aware of her husband's infidelity, but Carl is too absorbed in his own thoughts about Desiree to talk to her ("In Praise of Women"). When she persuades him to blurt out the whole story, a twist is revealed--Charlotte's little sister is a school friend of Anne's.
Charlotte goes to Anne, who is talking with Petra. Charlotte explains what Fredrik did; Anne reacts with shock and horror. The older woman explains to Anne that such is the lot of a wife, and that no pain is greater ("Every Day A Little Death"). Meanwhile, Desiree goes to her mother and requests that Madame Armfeldt host a party for Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik. Though reluctant, the elderly woman agrees. She sends out a personal invitation; upon receiving it, the Egerman household is sent into a frenzy ("A Weekend in the Country"). Anne does not want to accept the invitation, but Charlotte convinces her to do so to make Desiree look old compared to the teen's youth. Meanwhile, the Count has plans of his own--as a birthday present to his wife, the pair will attend the party uninvited. Carl plans to defeat Fredrik in a duel during the event, while Charlotte hopes to seduce the lawyer into sex to make her husband insanely jealous and end his insalubrious activities.
Act Two opens on Mme. Armfeldt's estate, which is bathed in the golden glow of perpetual sunset due to the summer season ("Night Waltz One and Two"). Everyone arrives, each holding their own purposes and desires--except, perhaps, Petra, who catches the eye of Mme. Armfeldt's fetching manservant, Frid. All of the women begin to act against each other. Henrik meets Fredrika, and confesses his deep love for Anne to her. Meanwhile, in the garden, Fredrik and Carl reflect on how difficult it is to be annoyed with Desiree ("It Would Have Been Wonderful"). Dinner is served, and all characters believe that the future hinges on that meal ("Perpetual Anticipation").
At dinner, Charlotte begins to flirt with Fredrik, while Anne and Desiree trade insults. Soon, everyone is shouting and scolding everyone else--except Henrik, who finally stands up for himself. He shrieks at them for being completely amoral, and flees the scene. Stunned, everyone reflects on the situation and wanders away. Fredrika tells Anne of Henrik's secret love, and the two dash off searching for him. Meanwhile, Desiree meets Fredrik and asks if he still wants to be "rescued" from his life. Fredrik answers honestly--he loves Desiree, but only as a dream. Hurt and bitter, Desiree can only reveal her opinions on the nature of life through the play's most famous song ("Send in the Clowns").
At the lake on the estate, Anne finds Henrik, who is ready to commit suicide. The clumsy boy cannot complete the task, and Anne tells him that she has feelings for him, too. The pair begins to kiss, which leads to Anne's first sexual encounter. Meanwhile, not far away from the young couple, Frid sleeps in Petra's lap. The maid thinks of the joy and freedom that she longs to have before she is trapped in marriage forever ("The Miller's Son"). Henrik and Anne, full of happiness, leave on a train to start a new life together. Fredrik finds out, but is surprisingly calm about the situation. Charlotte confesses her plan to the lawyer, and the two embrace in a goodbye. Carl sees this and is flooded with jealousy. He challenges Fredrik to a game of Russian Roulette, and the lawyer injures his ear. Feeling victorious, Carl begins to romance Charlotte, granting her wish at last. Desiree descends and asks about the situation. Now free of the bonds that once held him, Fredrik is able to confess his love for the actress. Desiree reveals that Fredrika is Fredrik's daughter, and the two promise to start a new life together ("Finale").
In the play's quiet and powerful final moments, Mme. Armfeldt sits alone with Fredrika, and asks about what has happened over the course of that night. She then follows with a surprising question-"What is it all for?" Fredrika sits silently before choosing love as her answer; though it is difficult and causes strange things to happen, it is necessary- "because, in the end, I think that's the only thing that's real". Mme. Armfeldt smiles at this response and comments that the "night has already smiled twice"-on the young, and on the fools. As the two wait for the "third smile", Mme. Armfeldt closes her eyes, nods off to sleep, and dies peacefully.
Harold Prince (producer-director) explained that these characters represent "...people in the show who aren't wasting time...the play is about wasting time." (New York Times, Mel Gussow, p. 54, 3/27/73) Sondheim, Wheeler and Harold Prince (who directed the film version) created a work that is far more complex and sophisticated than first appearances might suggest. The characters, from royalty to bourgeoisie to servant, present a cross section of Swedish society at that particular place and time. The characters' ages range from adolescent (Desiree's daughter) to elderly (Madame Armfeldt). Each character's views on life, love and sex are explored in depth and with great compassion and humor. (Sondheim went so far as to write a song for the otherwise mute manservant Frid, which was cut in previews, because, as Prince barked at him one evening, "Who cares what Frid thinks?")
The "Weekend in the Country" that the characters spend is at the height of midsummer, which in Sweden means that the sun never sets completely. The characters wander around the vast estate and grounds bathed in a golden twilight. This hazy, limbo-like setting allows them to explore their passions and realize who it is and what it is that they truly desire.