Liz Smith: ‘A Little Night Music’ Closes to a Riot of Emotion

Our Liz is on hand for one of Broadway’s legendary nights

“I REGARD the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being,” wrote Oscar Wilde.

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THE OTHER night at the Walter Kerr Theater, a long-running and supremely successful version of Stephen Sondheim’s great lyric operetta, “A Little Night Music,” closed with a wizardly bang.

It celebrated the end of a long run, which saw Catherine Zeta-Jones win the Tony Award for her performance as Steve’s heart-breaking and brilliantly sexy heroine, Desiree. And it gave the legendary Angela Lansbury her sixth Tony nomination as Madame Armfeldt. The show then went on to lift the careers of two theater greats who came in after: Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters. These two artists performed at their exalting peak, adding luster to what was already a work of art.

To sit in the audience at the closing matinee of this greatest of long-running musicals was to be on hand for true theatrical grandeur. Many a production of “A Little Night Music” will still be projected in the future of the all-encompassing international theater, but it will never be done better than it was on its last Sunday matinee. Even Mr. Sondheim, wearing his ubiquitous sweater, was on hand at the end to take a bow and to ask his audience to give a salute to Hugh Wheeler, who looked down from wherever. (Heaven —  if you believe!)

The night was a riot of emotion. But it was all within the boundaries of the actors’ enacted professionalism, so a joy in perfection reigned. Tears of sorrow and happiness reigned right alongside at the closing. Miss Stritch, sometimes celebrating her own ragged idiosyncrasies, was a huge success of beautiful old age, saluting the idea of dying and giving advice to the end, bewildering even herself. She was, in the eyes of this viewer who has loved her since the 1950’s, perfect. She is unique in her approaches, incredible in her both unbelievable delivery and her fabulous differences to the rest of us mortals.

Miss Peters is an actress who never ages (although here she played the epitome of overripe middle age.) But she manages ever to show herself as a bonnie lass who can do anything, make anything of herself, and perform to the max so that the theatergoer forgets her grand past while embracing her newest conquest. She is an all-around grand star and fantastic professional who makes you fall in love with her again and again.

The curtain calls went appropriately into eternity. But finally Bernadette herself spoke and reminded the audience that what they had seen was a show of true theater professionals and “artists”– such an unusual word for Broadway these days! But truly, that was what was presented to us in this age of crass popularity, trendiness and crapola passing for entertainment.

And so I bow to Stephen Sondheim, who made it all possible. And to everyone who helped him as he tried and succeeded in carrying on an unimaginably huge tradition.

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I learned this week that the Blackstone financial giant Steve Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, will be living next week in a big rental in Paris’s Trocadero section as they try to “find” themselves outside the Manhattan arena. These billionaires leave behind Steve’s big bequests, which left many New York Public Library locations with different variations of his name.

The Schwarzmans have never been quite themselves since he gave himself a big birthday party in the Armory and hired strangers to assess his life and times and put reproductions of his private apartments on the wall.

Now the Schwarzmans will try, as so many did back in the 1920s, to “find” themselves in Paris. They are two very attractive people, so I hope it works out for them. New York needs rich, generous, civic-minded big deals at its helm, because it is such citizens who help make New York survive in its differences. These people have kept the city going. I am sorry they feel Paris needs them more.

Paris already has everything, including the hubris of never needing anything. New York can always use two pals like Steve and Christine leading the illustrious pack that makes this city great. So I say, come back soon and start leading again. And giving again. And doing again. And stop worrying about what people say about you.

3 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I say cheers to you Liz, for the time and energy you spend bringing NYC and the entertainment industry into new understanding for those of us who are not familiar with your city. Before reading your column, it was something I didn’t hold a desire in knowing. Seeing it and visualizing through your words makes it exciting. Thank you!

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Theatre engages us unlike any other art form.  It draws us in, bares our souls, reaches our hearts, touches our humanity. One could go on and on about theatre. Some theatre is beyond engaging. Some is just, well, magnificent.  A Little Night Music is magnificent.
    We enjoy theatre, by the way, in a theater. A little grammar lesson even those on Broadway forget from time to time.

  3. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    I generally respect your opinion, Liz. But, honestly, seeing Peters was like watching an aging Kewpie doll sing through a half-open mouth. Stritch’s voice was like a screeching, honking, croaking bird. There was nothing charming or melodious about it. I don’t know what it was like when Zeta-Jones was in the role, but I’m mystified by the cult following and raves for Peters and Stritch.