I just saw the fantastic production of A Little Night Music on Broadway (with stellar perfromances by Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch) and it just so happened that I’d recently watched Smiles of a Summer Night, the Bergman film upon which it was based. It got me thinking about adaptation and how stories move across generic boundaries and media and literary forms. I was struck by a profound similarity in spirit between the film and the musical play, which I had assumed would be radically different from its 1950s predecessor. The recent New York Times review emphasized the differences between the film and play, but I disagreed: both works found a way to explore the idiocy of romance and the surprising ways in which such silliness shapes lives. Both Bergman and Sondheim are geniuses at revealing how canny and idotic humans really are.
I was curious to find out what Bergman himself thought about the play, which hit the stage in 1973. I didn’t find anything right away, but I did come across this quote, which helps to explain Sondheim’s attraction to the film and the powerful consonance that I felt between the two works:
I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.
I would beg to differ about the intellectual component of movie watching, but I love the idea that Sondheim made the underlying music of Smiles of a Summer Night audible.
Henry Jenkins, a colleague of mine at USC, is at the forefront of transmedia studies and I couldn’t help but think of his work as I was trying to piece together the relationship between Night Music and Smiles. Jenkins argues that the most successful transmedia properties take advantage of the unique affordances of each new media platform. What’s surprising about the transformation of Bergman’s movie into Sondheim’s musical is not the fundamental differences but the weirdly synesthetic similarities.
P.S. As I mentioned above, I thought Elaine Stritch was marvelous: you could never tell whether she was forgetting her lines or just pretending like she was ready to drift off into an octogenarian haze. I guess I wasn’t sitting close enough to tell that the long pauses in her delivery (according to The Village Voice) were because she was, indeed forgetting her lines, and some production assistant was yelling them out to her from backstage. Don’t you love how brutal reality can enhance a work of art?