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Shaping the Sound of “Night Music”

Date: Jan 14, 2010


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As the orchestrator of the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, Jason Carr is serving two masters.

On one hand, there’s Stephen Sondheim, whose score for this tale of sometimes-requited love is considered one of his most elegant. Carr is responsible for how Sondheim’s music will be played. Among other things, he decides which instruments will play which notes and suggests the pace, volume, and intensity of every number. These decisions determine how Sondheim’s music will be translated from the page to the audience’s ears.

But while he’s trying to honor Sondheim, Carr must also respect director Trevor Nunn, who has consciously chosen to reduce the scale of the show, which follows the romantic travails of several couples in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Sweden. “In Trevor’s own words, he’s wanted it to feel like a Chekhov play, where the speech turns naturally into song,” Carr says. “The production is trying not to feel like the ‘big musical.’”

Sondheim’s score is expansive, however, and the original Broadway production was backed by a large orchestra. This puts Carr in a delicate position: How can he acknowledge the music’s sweep while realizing Nunn’s more intimate vision? How can he communicate an orchestra’s worth of ideas through the eight musicians playing in the revival?

Some say he can’t. Naysayers claim that the current vogue for “reduced orchestra” productions is nothing but an attempt to stage Broadway musicals on the cheap, which inevitably damages the score.

It’s worth noting, though, that three of the most prominent reduced revivals—Night Music, an upcoming production of La Cage aux Folles, and a 2008 staging of Sunday in the Park With George—have been orchestrated by Carr and originated at The Menier Chocolate Factory in Britain. That suggests a pattern of conscious artistic choices, and not just a penny-pinching plague.

“You hope there are always going to be advantages to doing something small,” Carr says. “Of course, there’s a financial element, and you can’t pretend there isn’t, and it’s inevitable that in a larger space, some of the most dramatic moments will sound different. But there are other things that you gain.”

In Night Music, for instance, he notes that Sondheim’s score contains “lots of interesting lines underneath the voices, and in a chamber orchestra, you can hear those lines more clearly.”

Carr says he’s particularly pleased with how his orchestrations affect the melancholy ballads “Send in the Clowns” and “Every Day a Little Death.” He adds, “Those are all the more intimate numbers, aren’t they? But they feel very complete, and they really gain something from the intimacy.”

To suggest those quieter emotions, Carr based his orchestrations around the harp, which he calls the “meat and potatoes” instrument of Sondheim’s score. He also included instruments like the bassoon and the cello because they complement the pitch of human voices without drowning them out.

Carr’s musicians must be especially focused, since they are far more responsible for a song than they would be in a full ensemble. “Sometimes the players have to be very aware of when they’re leading or when they’re blending into the line,” he says. “They have to be very aware of when they’re coming to the fore.” He jokes that he’s especially hard on David Young, who plays multiple instruments in the show, saying, “We absolutely think of it as a Broadway specialty that woodwind players play so many instruments.”

The irony, of course, is that all this effort should ideally go unnoticed. Carr says, “I hope that for the audience, the result is that it sounds not like a reduced orchestra, but that it had been written as a nice-sized chamber piece. I hope it feels like a conversation, or a dialogue between the instruments.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor