Actresses SARAH WADDELL and JAMIE BIRKETT are currently appearing in All Star Productions’ staging of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre in Walthamstow, London until 31 October. The show reunites the creative team behind last year’s critically acclaimed staging of Into the Woods.
Theatre credits for Sarah Waddell, who plays Desiree Armfeldt, include: Into the Woods (Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre), Cause Célèbre (Old Vic Theatre), The York Realist (Riverside Studios), The Hard Man and State Fair (Finborough Theatre), The Full Monty (Charing Cross Theatre), A Class Act (Landor Theatre) and Girls’ Night (UK tour). Cabaret credits include: Cabaret Confidential (The Pheasantry) and Broadway Baby (Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec).
Jamie Birkett, who steps into the role of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, has appeared in an all-female Macbeth (European tour), Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens (Leicester Square Theatre and Edinburgh Fringe), Cross Purpose (King’s Head Theatre), Rent (Greenwich Theatre), Fame (European tour, Monte Carlo), Merrie England (Finborough Theatre), and Ragtime and The Hired Man (Landor Theatre), The Boyfriend (Her Majesty’s Theatre), Once Upon a Time At the Adelphi (Union Theatre) and Sondheim’s 80th Birthday Prom (Royal Albert Hall).
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s comedy of manners, Smiles of a Summer Night, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning A Little Night Music is a musical of masterful execution and elegance.
Musical Theatre Review contributor Oliver Beatson awarded the production five stars and wrote: “Most of all, director Tim McArthur and cast have created something rare indeed – a believable musical. Perfectly balanced performances, laid out boldly but with care, toying with the farce but always rooted in emotional honesty. The character progression sits so organically inside the plot, and is painted so naturally, that it is hard to resist being moved by the show’s resolution.”
Below, Michael Darvell catches up with Jamie and Sarah and hears all about their experience of the show so far.
Both of you have mainly appeared in contemporary musical shows such as Saucy Jack, Rent, Fame, The Hired Man etc (Jamie) and The Full Monty and A Class Act (Sarah). Do you prefer modern musicals where you perhaps do not already know the score?
Jamie Birkett: No not really, I have a huge love for all genres of music and musical theatre. My taste is quite eclectic in that sense. Having said that, there is something in hearing a song for the first time and not having a preconception with which to perform, so you do get the luxury to come at it from your own non-biased angle if it’s new to you.
Sarah Waddell: For me it doesn’t matter what era the musical is from, it matters if I feel a connection to the piece, that I can relate to the character, and feel that the music is part of the story – not just there to sound pretty or that the action stops for the song, then starts again after it.
A Little Night Music is based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, set at the turn of 20th Century Sweden. Sondheim’s score harks back to that period and is very melodic in a traditional way. Does the music have an instant appeal for you as performers?
JB: I absolutely love the music, as I love the film. There is something very haunting and intense, but also passionate and free about this particular score that really gets under my skin. It’s a real pleasure to perform every night.
SW: Sondheim always writes for the performer, the music is integral to the story and each song is essentially a monologue that happens to be sung. The fact that the A Little Night Music score is as it is only adds to the whole overall story and feel of the piece. So yes, I guess, is the answer!
The show is full of marvellous numbers, such as ‘The Glamorous Life’, ‘Remember?’, ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, ‘Liaisons’ and ‘A Weekend in the Country’ – and that’s just Act I! Is Sondheim particularly complicated to learn and, ultimately, sing?
JB: I used to think more so, but not so much now. Our lovely Madame Armfeldt, Lindsey Murray, gave a lovely quote in our Q&A with the Sondheim Society about, how, like Shakespeare, when something is written so well, it just makes good sense, and I couldn’t agree more – what at first sing seems very complicated and difficult, the more you learn it, the more it naturally falls into place because it just makes sense, like a beautiful poem or sonnet. In my opinion Sondheim is unparalleled.
SW: Sondheim makes it easy for the performer as he has done a lot of the work for you, as it always is with good writing. Not that the music is easy! The timings and harmonies are complex but always fitting and a joy to perform as they are always part of the character and driving the story.
The chorus is fairly important in A Little Night Music. At Ye Olde Rose and Crown do you have a full chorus or do you provide your own chorus by doubling up?
JB: There isn’t a ‘chorus’ per se in this show as it’s written slightly differently. We have a wonderful core of five performers who play the Quintet and who never leave the stage; they sing essentially what would be the full ensemble track between them as per the score and they do a gorgeous job. I only sing in two numbers actually, ‘Every Day a Little Death’ and of course the wonderful ‘A Weekend in the Country’.
SW: The only chorus/company number is ‘A Weekend In The Country’ and everyone, bar Frid and Madame Armfeldt are on stage. They are singing offstage so that’s the full complement of 16 voices. That is the only time anyone sings offstage.
Jamie as Countess Charlotte Malcolm is a character who has become immune to her husband’s philandering, as she explains to the younger Anne in their sad duet ‘Every Day a Little Death’. Do, you, Jamie, find this number a tragic-comic one as it is also imbued with humour?
JB: I have never come at it from the comedic angle, as to me, I see it as the moment the countess lets her mask slip. I think she’s an incredibly vulnerable woman who puts on an incredible front of sardonic humour as her defence, the song to me is always the moment of truth. But I don’t think she would ever ‘break’, so I play the fight to keep the tears back and simply tell the story. The song is so unbelievably well-written and orchestrated that it is beautiful and simple and I’m honoured to sing it.
Sarah as Desiree has the most famous song from the show, the 11 o’clock number of ‘Send in the Clowns’. Is it possible to still make the lyrics sound freshly minted even though the song is so well known?
SW: I sing the song in the moment every night and can only hope that that comes across. I try not to think about how well known the song is and just tell the story. I guess the audience will decide if it sounds freshly minted or not.
Both of you have had experience of Sondheim’s work in the past, Sarah playing Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown and Jamie in the BBC Sondheim Prom. Are there any other Sondheim shows you would like to appear in, given the chance?
JB: All of them, please! I’m not actually joking, but my favourite roles that I am longing to play at some point are The Witch in Into the Woods and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. They are also my two favourite musicals so they’re firmly on the bucket list.
SW: Pretty much any of them! Sunday, Sweeney, Company, Merrily, Woods (again!)
What sort of audiences do they get for these shows – is it a mixture of young and old or just musical fans?
JB: We get a lovely mixture, which is always nice. With Fringe theatre it’s very rarely tourists so to speak, so you get a nice mix of fans of the theatre who want to support smaller companies and see things they might not get to see otherwise.
SW: I can only comment on the shows in which I have performed. There is a mixture, they do have a good local following with some people coming to see every show, a healthy number of young and old musical fans and friends and family of the cast. Last year for Into The Woods there were more young people, i.e. children, not so many this year so far, but that’s just the subject matter.
Both of you have appeared in truly classic musicals, Sarah in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, and Jamie in Edward German’s Merrie England, both at the Finborough and both well worth reviving. Do you think there is a growing audience for these rarities?
JB: Absolutely, there will always be an audience for classic musical theatre because it is simply stunning and harks back to a golden age of theatre and film. I’m sure to a lot of audiences it may take them back to their childhood, to when they first fell in love with theatre. I know I love returning to shows I saw as a child, for the magic.
SW: I think if the show is good and the revival is interesting, especially with the restriction of a small venue where the production has to be inventive, then the audience is there. Audiences like good theatre regardless of how well known the piece is.
The West End theatre seems mainly intent on achieving long runs from big new shows and it is left to the Fringe theatres such as the Landor, the Finborough, the Union, Jermyn Street, Southwark Playhouse and Ye Olde Rose and Crown to take an historical perspective of the musical genre. Would you like to see more revivals of the classic shows of yesteryear?
JB: Theatre is a business at the end of the day and it may not always be the shows we think are the most artistic that run the longest, but they entertain an audience, and as long as they’re fulfilling that, then they are doing their job. The joy that is Fringe theatre is that we get to experiment and play, it really is modern rep and I love working on it. It inspires me both performing on it and watching it, some of the best things I have ever seen were on the Fringe in the venues mentioned above. But that’s not to say I don’t love a big glitzy West End musical, there is room and a market for both.
SW: Of course revivals have as much merit as a new show, but is has to be done well, not just for the sake of it. If a well-known show that people know they enjoy, e.g. Gypsy, Miss Saigon etc gets the audience to the theatre, sometimes for the first time, that is only ever a good thing. Hopefully it will then mean they will go on to see more things and feel confident to try a new show. There seems to have been a number of large-scale new productions that haven’t fulfilled their potential, maybe the audience doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on something they don’t know if they will like.
In the production of Phil Willmott and Elliot Davis’ Once Upon a Time At the Adelphi, a show about the Adelphi Theatre in Liverpool, Jamie, you played Babs in the Union Theatre production. Would you agree that it deserves a full staging in London’s West End, as it was such an impressive piece of musical theatre?
JB: It was my first job out of drama school and I learnt a lot on it. I got to work with some wonderful people on it, all of whom have gone on to do incredible things, like choreographer Andrew Wright, who is absolutely unstoppable now! I would love to see it get a big run, it’s a great show with a beautiful score and a lot of heart.
Sarah, you have appeared in cabaret programmes at The Pheasantry and Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec. Cabaret is now quite dominant in the West End after many years in the doldrums. Are there any plans for either of you to appear in future cabarets?
JB: I’ve worked a lot at The Pheasantry, which I absolutely love. Cabaret is a big passion of mine and I am currently working on a solo show which hopefully will be coming this year, so watch this space!
SW: I really enjoyed doing those cabarets and would love to do more. I love taking songs out of context and changing them up a bit. Fingers crossed more will come along.
You have both done straight plays as well as musicals. Do you prefer one to the other and perhaps miss the music in the performance of a straight play?
JB: I firmly believe that actors should not be put in a box, it’s a real thing of mine. In America actors are not penalised because they can sing, I think here there is still a slight stigma over musical theatre performers being in ‘straight plays’, and I am very lucky that I get to do both, but it is not without its fight. With every role I’ve ever played, whether it be Shakespeare, Camus or Sondheim, I have come at it from the same angle. Everything in my opinion should come from the acting and the storytelling, whether there be music or not.
SW: To me there shouldn’t be much of a difference other that there is singing in one and not the other. A musical is a play with music and the character and story shouldn’t drop when a musical number starts, it should drive the narrative as much as the dialogue. It comes down to writing again. Good writing is a joy to perform so I enjoy both, although if there is a big sing you maybe can’t have as much post-show wine! So maybe I prefer a straight play!
After A Little Night Music, what is on the cards for you both?
JB: I’m currently confirming on my next job, which will be in London over Christmas, but until I’m told, I’m not allowed to say, which is so horrifically stagey of me. I will also be returning to the European tour I am currently on a break from, which is an all-female Macbeth, where I play Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Malcolm. Hopefully I’ll be very busy! I’ve got dogs to feed.
SW: Who knows?? That is the joy and curse of this profession, sometimes you never know what is round the corner!
Compiled by Michael Darvell
* A Little Night Music continues at Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow until 31 October 2015.
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A Little Night Music – Ye Olde Rose and Crown – Review