Book by: Hugh Wheeler
Lyrics by: Steven Sondheim
Music by: Steven Sondheim
Suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman
1973 NY Drama Critics Circle Award Winner
Best Musical -- A Little Night Music
Before the houselights are down, some of the actors proceed onto the stage and begin vocalizing. The vocalizing turns into many of the performers drifting on stage and waltzing as the music takes over. ("Night Waltz")
At the end of the waltz, Madame Armfeldt is brought on in her wheelchair by her butler, Frid. She is playing solitaire and being watched by Fredrika Armfeldt, her thirteen-year-old granddaughter, who is a very-contained and formal girl, with the precise diction of the convent trained. The young girl questions the old woman about the "summer night smiling." Madame Armfeldt is quite shocked that her granddaughter doesn't know that the summer night indeed smiles - three times. The first smile is at the young, the second at the fools who know too little, and the third at those who know too much. The girl’s mother is Desiree, a famous traveling actress, and Madame Armfeldt is Desiree’s disapproving mother. As soon as the card game is over, Madame Armfeldt asks Frid to take her for a nap. She tells Fredrika to go and practice her piano, preferably with the soft pedal down. The old woman goes off to bed, and Fredrika goes to her piano.
The scene shifts to the parlor and the Master Bedroom of the Egerman estate. Anne Egerman, a ravishingly beautiful girl of 18, is on the bed. She goes to the vanity table, toys with her hair, and then enters the parlor. Henrik Egerman, her stepson, a young man of 19, is seated on the sofa playing his cello with a book is beside him. It is odd that the boy's stepmother is a year younger than he is, but nevertheless, the two try to talk. However, there isn't much to discuss since Henrik is someone obsessed with the "headier" pleasures in life while Anne is obviously someone who only concerns herself with looks and beauty.
Fredrik Egerman, Anne's husband and Henrik's father, returns from a busy day at court. He is a lawyer. Rather than deal with his son who has just come home from school, he in takes a nap in preparation for a night at the theater. He has purchased tickets to see the famous actress Desiree Armfeldt in a new French comedy. Anne is ecstatic, and Henrik is uninvited. Anne goes to the bedroom. Left alone, the father and son find they have nothing to discuss.
Fredrik goes to the bedroom and finds Anne thinking only of the theater and her chance to see the great Desiree Armfeldt. Fredrik makes romantic advances towards his young wife, but it is obvious that she has no interest in making love with him at this time. He considers all of the ways he could "ravish" her, but she merely waltzes around the bedroom. ("Now") Fredrik ultimately gives up his pursuit and goes to sleep.
Petra, 21, the charming , easy-going maid, enters the parlor. She talks with Henrik and finds out that his father is taking a nap. She teases the rather serious Henrik who is now reading his book, by caressing his hair and wiggling her hips. Henrik pleads with her to stop, but she insists. He rises, captures her, and starts savagely trying to kiss her. She responds rather impassively to his advances, and simply pats his cheek, commenting that he'll soon get the knack of dealing with women. She leaves Henrik alone to ponder his situation. He puts down his book, gets his cello and muses about how he hopes things will start happening for him. ("Later")
In the bedroom, Anne looks at her sleeping husband and promises that soon she won't shy away from him. ("Soon") The sound of Henrik's cello causes Fredrik to stir, and he begins to talk in his sleep. Anne hears the last word Fredrik utters as he blows a kiss into the air..."Desiree." The young woman is left astonished by her husband’s passionate utterances.
Fredrika, still at the piano, is playing scales. Her mother, Desiree, sweeps into the room with Malia, he maid in tow, carrying a wig box, suitcase, and parasol. Desiree has been away on tour for some time, but is too preoccupied with the demands of her career to spend much time with her daughter upon her return. Madame Armfeldt is wheeled in and greets Desiree, who dismisses her as well. It is obvious that Desiree’s life in the theater takes precedent over everything else. ("The Glamorous Life")
The curtain is about to rise on the stage of the local theater and two stage boxes are visible. Sitting in one is Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Nordstom, and Mr. Erlanson. Anne and Frederick enter and go to their box. Anne chatters on about Desiree, wanting to find out everything about her, but Frederick doesn't volunteer any information. As soon as they are seated, the curtain rises, revealing a Louis XIV "salon." After a bit of dialogue between two court ladies, the Countess, Desiree, makes her sensational entrance. A storm of applause greets her. Seeing her, Fredrik claps; Anne does not. During the applause, Desiree curtsies and studies the house. Her eye falls on Fredrick. She visibly notices him and instantly all action freezes. Mr. Lindquist and Mrs. Nordstrom reminisce about a time gone by when Desiree and Fredrik knew each other intimately. ("Remember") The two of them return to their boxes and the action continues as normal. Anne questions Fredrik as to why Desiree looked at them. In a jealous fit, Anne accuses her husband of looking back and she eventually runs from the theater in tears.
Back at the Egerman House Parlor, Petra is lying on the couch calmly rearranging her blouse. Henrik, in a storm of tension, is pulling on his trousers. On the floor beside them is a bottle of champagne and two glasses. It is obvious that the two have been fooling around. As he struggles with his buttons, Henrik comments that they have sinned and it was a complete failure. Petra helps him with his trousers and tells him to rest for a while. Everything will be fine. Anne enters, still crying, and runs to her bedroom. Fredrik tells them that Anne got ill and had to come home. He gives Henrik a look, sizing up the situation approvingly, before following Anne into the bedroom. Henrik starts again towards Petra who avoids him.
In his bedroom, Fredrik talks with Anne who questions him about the women he had between his first wife and her. She reminds Fredrik that when she was a little girl, he first came to her father's house as Uncle Fredrik and told her fairy tales. He seemed so lonely back then that she decided to marry him. She goes on to dismiss the play, comment on Desiree’s age, and then retires to bed. Fredrik decides to go out for a walk. As he prepares to go out, memories of his past - obviously times spent with Desiree - come swirling all around him. ("Remember")
Back in Desiree's quarters, the famed actress is munching on a sandwich and drinking a glass of beer in her robe. Fredrik enters informing her that the people at the theater told him where to find her. Yes, she thought it was he in the audience. It has been fourteen years since they have seen each other. He explains the "walking out" which occurred earlier at the theater. He says that his young bride of eleven months got a bit overexcited at the proceedings and had to go home. He expects Desiree to chastise him for falling for such a young girl, but she doesn't. Instead, she asks him why he came to see her. He confesses rather awkwardly that he had a dream about her in the afternoon - the two of them were basking in the sun on beach all day. Desiree assures Fredrik that although she is touring all the time, her love life is quite satisfactory. He sees a picture of Fredrika on her dressing table, and learns all about her. The daughter used to tour with Desiree until, Madame Armfeldt "saved" her by taking her to live in the country. The two share a bit of schnapps. Not quite knowing where else to take the conversation, Fredrik tells Desiree all about his wife. At first it appears that she is the perfect woman, but as he goes on, he reveals that she is still a virgin who is having a terribly difficult time giving herself over to him. ("You Must Meet My Wife") Desiree is rather shocked and possibly a bit jealous to hear all this - not understanding how any woman could do such a thing. Fredrik finally asks her if she will sleep with him - to which she responds, "Of course. What are old friends for?" The two of them go laughing into the bedroom.
Madame Armfeldt appears and muses about her own situation while still keeping one eye on the bedroom. At one time, she was a woman with a great many lovers - all of the highest level -Barons, dukes, and even kings. Because of those men, she is well provided for today. She doesn't object to people having what she refers to as "liaisons", but it upsets her that today they are so shoddy and tasteless. She longs for the days of old when making love was much more refined and much less complicated. ("Liaisons")
Fredrik and Desiree are interrupted in their lovemaking by the unexpected arrival of Desiree's latest beau, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who is supposed to be eighty miles away on military maneuvers. He is a tremendously jealous fellow, and Desiree, along with Fredrik, greets him with a bit of a giggle. He brings Desiree a bunch of daisies and informs her that his new motor-car broke down and he has twenty hours leave: three hours travel to her, nine hours with Desiree, five hours with his wife and three hours back. Desiree introduces Carl-Magnus to Fredrik. The meeting is a bit awkward since Fredrik is wearing Carl's robe. Fredrik covers this by saying he is Desiree's mother's lawyer and that he needed some signatures on legal documents. While in the bathroom, he accidentally tripped and fell in the tub. He put on Carl-Magnus's robe until his own clothes got dry. Carl-Magnus suggests to Desiree that she return to the bedroom to see if Fredrik's clothes are dry, and off she goes. While she is gone, he impresses Fredrik with his dueling skills by hitting the eye of a picture on the wall with a fruit knife.
Desiree returns from the bedroom with Fredrik's clothes now sopping wet (having dumped them in the tub). Fredrik wants to put on the soaking wet garments; however, Carl-Magnus informs him that he doesn't have enough time for that. Instead, he gives him one of his nightshirts, which Fredrik quickly dons. He leaves wearing the nightshirt - carring the sopping wet clothes. Left alone, Carl-Magnus ponders the situation he has just seen. He can't believe that Desiree would ever cheat on him since fidelity is what a man expects from a wife...and a mistress. ("In Praise of Women")
The next day, Carl-Magnus and his wife, Charlotte, are eating breakfast at their country house. Oddly enough, Carl-Magnus reports the proceedings from the night before, and tells Charlotte how he threw Fredrik out of Desiree's flat. After revealing that Fredrik is a lawyer, Charlotte reminds Carl that her sister Marta’s little school friend, Anne Sorensen, married a Fredrik Egerman. In his own world, Carl-Magnus further muses about the fact that though Fredrik told him he was there to have Desiree sign some legal papers, there were no papers to be found. ("In Praise of Women" - Part II) Charlotte would like to spend some time with her husband (since he only has five hours), but he tells her that he needs a bit of a nap. Rather than wait around for him to get up, he tells Charlotte to go and pay a visit to Anne and "enlighten" her about her Fredrik's dealings since she probably has no idea what her husband is up to. Charlotte asks him if he is really that jealous, and he only responds that “a civilized man can tolerate his wife's infidelity, but when it comes to his mistress, a man becomes a tiger.” The long-suffering wife, Charlotte, goes off to serve her husband while jealous thoughts spin around in Carl-Magnus's head. ("In Praise of Women" - Part III)
In her bedroom, Anne is having her hair combed while talking with Petra. Anne confesses to the maid that she is a virgin - and Petra confesses to her mistress that she is indeed not. What Anne finds so terrifying and disgusting, Petra describes as more fun than riding on a roller coaster. Anne playfully pulls at Petra’s clothing and pulls her onto the bed, asking “If I were a boy would I prefer you or me?” The girls begin wrestling and giggling and before things can go any further the doorbell rings and Petra goes to answer it. It is Charlotte. Anne greets her with excitement and the two sit down to lemonade and cookies. After Charlotte tells Anne that her younger sister, Marta, has renounced men and is teaching gymnastics in a school for retarded girls, Charlotte gets down to business. She asks Anne how she rates her husband as a man. Anne isn't quite sure what Charlotte means, so she gives her more of an example by revealing that her own husband, Carl-Magnus, is a louse, a bastard, a conceited, puffed up, adulterous egomaniac. Soon, Charlotte completely breaks down and tells Anne that ultimately she despises Carl-Magnus - especially for his affair with Desiree. She also reveals to Anne that Desiree has been having an affair with Fredrik as well. Anne realizes that all of her suspicions were well founded and soon she, too, is dissolved into tears. The two women commiserate about their less than perfect marital situations. ("Every Day A Little Death")
Henrik enters and is introduced to Charlotte. He tells her that he is happy to make her acquaintance; Charlotte, however, simply responds that she can't see why anyone would ever be happy to meet her. She leaves. Anne dissolves into tears on the couch. Henrik presses Anne to tell him what's wrong, but all she can do is tell him that her friend, Marta, is teaching gymnastics, and that she finds that upsetting.
Out on the Armfeldt Terrace, Madame Armfeldt is playing solitaire with Frid standing beside her. Fredrika sits at the piano playing scales. Desiree arrives home and greets her mother and daughter. Fredrika is ecstatic to see her mother; however, Madame Armfeldt is rather cold to her. She tells Desiree that if she has come to take Fredrika back, the answer is "no." Madame Armfeldt reminds her daughter that she doesn't object to the immorality of life, merely to its sloppiness. Since she has been able to acquire a sizable mansion with a fleet of servants, it only makes sense that her granddaughter should reap the advantages of it. Desiree tells her mother that she has only come home because the tour is on a hiatus and that she'd like to invite some people out for the weekend - namely Fredrik and his family. Madame Armfeldt obliges Desiree's request and sends a round of formal invitations to them.
When Anne receives the invitation, she is terribly suspicious and insulted. Petra, on the other hand, is ecstatic by the thought of going away to some place fun. Desiree talks with her daughter and asks her if she would like to have a home with her - complete with a father. From that, Fredrika deduces that Desiree is inviting the Egerman family over for that very reason. Fredrik assures his jealous wife that the only reason they are going is to attend to some legal business with Madame Armfeldt though Anne doesn't believe it. Since that is the case, Fredrik tells Anne to simply refuse the invitation. Anne talks with Charlotte and tells her that they are indeed refusing; however, Charlotte tells her that they must accept. That way, Fredrik will be able to see Desiree next to the youthful Anne and naturally choose his young wife. Anne decides that they will go. Desiree discusses Carl-Magnus with her daughter and tells her that he is simply too stiff for her, and that the affair with him is over. However, Fredrika reminds her mother that Carl-Magnus is also terribly jealous, and just might come by if he found out about the Egerman family visit. Desiree is happy to note that it is Charlotte's birthday that weekend, and she is certain that he will stay home with his wife. Charlotte, on the other hand, informs her husband of the weekend's activities at the Armfeldt summer home, and he impulsively decides to go, uninvited, taking his dueling guns along. Everyone prepares for a weekend at the Armfeldt country home. ("A Weekend in the Country")
Before the curtain rises on the second act, the four Liebeslieder Singers enter and sing "The Sun Won't Set" which sets the tone for the weekend visit in the country.
The Armfeldts are enjoying themselves outside on the lawn when they hear a car driving up - honking its horn. Madame Armfeldt is a bit horrified since their arrival is earlier than she expected and things aren't completely set up. The servants gather up everything, and soon a car drives up with Carl-Magnus and Charlotte. No sooner than that happens do Fredrik and his clan arrive. The situation is awkward, to say the least. Desiree is shocked to find Carl-Magnus and Charlotte there. He tells her that they were visiting Charlotte's cousin who lives nearby. Unfortunately, upon their arrival, they discovered that the chateau was quarantined for the plague and they are now in need of a place to stay for the night. Desiree honors their request and greets Charlotte with a very awkward fluster. The Egerman family (complete with the "anti-social" Henrik and their brassy maid, Petra) meets everyone and they all retire to their rooms - except for Carl-Magnus and Fredrik who both have one thing in mind - to get Desiree alone and speak with her. The two men exchange jealous glances and go off to put their cars in the stables, as a panicked Desiree doesn't quite know what to do. She sees the men coming toward her and runs into the house leaving Fredrika to attend to the jealous suitors. The men return, but Fredrika doesn't quite know what to say, and she, too runs into the house. The men finally return to their cars, crank them up, and go to park them.
In the garden, Anne and Charlotte discuss the proceedings. Though Anne initially felt confident about coming to the country and destroying Desiree, she suddenly is losing her courage. Charlotte assures her that everything will work out just fine since she has a plan. Charlotte shall make love to Fredrik and he will succumb. Seeing this, Carl-Magnus will beg forgiveness and swear eternal fidelity. Fredrik will naturally see his wife as being better than the "old" Desiree. In the end, Desiree will be left with no one.
Out in the other part of the garden, Fredrika is talking with Henrik. Fredrika confesses that she is illegitimate and has been raised in the theaters with her mother. This being the case, she is very broad-minded. Henrik confesses that there are times he wishes he had never been born. Even worse, he also confesses that for the past eleven months even though he has been preparing to enter the ministry, he has been hopelessly in love with his stepmother.
On the terrace, Fredrik and Carl-Magnus are dressed and waiting for dinner. Both men individually contemplate how things might have turned out differently if they had never met Desiree. Unfortunately, she is very much a part of both of their lives and they each love her. ("It Would Have Been Wonderful") Fredrika comes and tells Carl-Magnus that Desiree would like a word with him in the Green Salon, and he triumphantly jumps up and enters the house. Desiree enters the terrace and talks with Fredrik. Getting Carl-Magnus in the house was simply Fredricka’s way of helping her mother with a little deception. They talk a bit, but suddenly hear Carl-Magnus's voice calling Desiree. She tells Fredrik to meet her in her bedroom later, and Fredrik hides behind one of the garden statues. The jealous Carl-Magnus enters and confronts Desiree about Fredrik, but she assures him that he is simply attending to her mother's legal matters. Nevertheless, Carl-Magnus assures her that if he so much as catches him touching her he'll come after him with rapiers. He then informs Desiree that he will visit her in her bedroom later that night. Before Desiree can say anything else, Frid announces that dinner is served, Fredrik reappears from behind the statue and the three of them stroll arm in arm into the house.
The guests assemble for dinner as the quartet drifts in and out preparing things. ("Perpetual Anticipation") The dinner conversation starts out rather polite, but soon Charlotte puts her little plan to work and attempts to seduce Fredrik. Carl-Magnus is furious by her behavior. She ultimately gets rather drunk and Carl-Magnus insists that she go to her room. When things appear to be getting more intense than ever, Henrik jumps up from the table and smashes his wine glass - telling them all how they disgust him. He runs from the room and Anne tries to follow him, but Fredrik insists that his wife come back.
Henrik runs out into the garden, and Fredrika goes to talk with him. He feels that once again he has disgraced himself by acting like a madman. Anne calls to him, but hearing her voice he runs away. Anne enters and tells Fredrika that she has come out to scold Henrik. Fredrika simply lays the cards on the table by telling Anne that Henrik is hopelessly in love with her. Anne is actually flattered by hearing this and begins to think about it more deeply. Fredrika is worried about Henrik who has run down to the lake and asks that Anne go with her to find him.
In another part of the garden, the servants, Frid and Petra, are enjoying themselves with some wine and a bit of lovemaking. Fredrika and Anne run across calling for Henrik. The two lovers don't react. Henrik sees them and runs into the house, slamming the doors behind him.
In Desiree's bedroom as she hems her skirt, which was ripped at dinner, Fredrik visits her. He finds it safe since Carl-Magnus and Charlotte are glowering at each other downstairs in the salon. They laugh about the entire situation; but Desiree finally stops. Perhaps Henrik was right? They are a bunch of fools with all of their double-dealings. She then confesses to Fredrik why she really invited him to the country. In a way she was trying to turn back the clock and have him rescue her from a life she wants to leave - reviving their love permanently. ("Send In the Clowns") Unfortunately, Fredrik can't leave his young bride. He leaves Desiree alone in her room.
Henrik emerges from the house, carrying a rope. When Anne and Fredrika run on calling him, he hides. They run off to look for him in the stable and summer pavilion. When they are gone, he emerges and goes to a nearby tree. Standing on a marble bench, he circles the rope around his neck and throws the other end of the rope up to the tree limb. He falls with a loud thud as Anne enters. She pulls him up from the ground with the noose still around his neck and starts to kiss him passionately - realizing that he did this all for her. Henrik declares his love for Anne and she declares her love for him.
In another part of the garden, Petra and Frid are lying on the ground - Frid is still asleep. Petra reflects about her sense of romance in terms of the practical and the real. ("The Miller's Son") She contemplates what the realities might be for her to marry someone ordinary, like the miller's son, or someone out of the ordinary, like the Prince of Wales. When all is said and done, Petra sees herself ending up with someone rather ordinary.
Back in the Armfeldt House and garden, Fredrika is lying on the grass reading. Madame Armfeldt is seated there, too. Desiree is up in her room writing in her diary. Carl-Magnus paces the terrace and then goes into the house. Fredrik enters and sees a figure on the bench. He hurries towards her, thinking it is Anne. It actually is Charlotte. She apologizes to Fredrik and confesses that her behavior at dinner was an effort to make her husband jealous. She also points out to Fredrik that it is so easy for men to be happy, for, they can grow old and still have beautiful, young brides like Anne.
Henrik and Anne emerge from the house carrying suitcases. They head towards the stables to get into the riding gig, which will take them to the train. They walk right past Charlotte and Fredrik who are so engrossed in their own conversation that they notice nothing. After a moment they realize what they have just seen. It is too late to stop them because the horse is already gone from the stables.
Carl-Magnus is meanwhile up in Desiree's bedroom, but she has told him to go away. Not listening to her, he starts to disrobe, and Desiree screams to him that it is over. He still doesn't listen. The only thing that distracts him from Desiree is looking out the window and seeing Fredrik and Charlotte together. He pulls up his trousers and runs to get his dueling pistols.
Madame Armfeldt and Fredrika talk dealing with the realities of love. Madame Armfeldt mostly wonders what it would have been like had she lived her life for true love. She has all the worldly possessions she could ever want, but she never found true love.
Carl-Magnus finds Fredrik and Charlotte together, and challenges Fredrik to a duel. The two men proceed to the pavilion. Charlotte, rather than trying to stop her husband from challenging Fredrik, suddenly realizes that Carl-Magnus really cares about her. The two men go off and a gunshot is heard. Desiree runs to Charlotte asking what has just happened. Charlotte tells Desiree about the duel and Desiree is horrified that Charlotte let them do it. Carl-Magnus enters with Fredrik over one shoulder and dumps his body on the lawn. Fortunately, his ear was only grazed. Carl-Magnus announces to Charlotte that he will forgive her for all that has happened, and they prepare to leave immediately.
Desiree rouses Fredrik from his state. He tells her how Anne and Henrik ran off together. He lost his son, his wife, and almost his life in the course of an hour; however, he almost feels relieved. At last Fredrik and Desiree realize that they are meant to be together. (Reprise: "Send in the Clowns")
Madame Armfeldt talks with Fredrika one last time. The old woman doesn't want to go to bed. She wants to stay awake all night and hear the first cock crow. Fredrika tells her grandmother that she hasn't noticed the night smiling. Madame Armfeldt tells her that young eyes are not ideal for watching - they stray too much. Indeed, the night has smiled twice so far- once for the young, once for the fools. "The smile for the fools was particularly broad tonight." There is only the last to come. With that, Madame Armfeldt dies. All the lovers waltz around her to the "Night Waltz."