In a departure from a distinguished career that has seen her appear with major opera companies and symphony orchestras worldwide, two-time Grammy Award winner Sylvia McNair will play the role of Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music,” opening Friday, Jan. 25 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.
The musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of a Summer Night.” It premiered on Broadway in 1973 and became one of the most recognized musicals of all time.
Set in Sweden at the turn of the century, “A Little Night Music” is a romantic comedy that centers on McNair’s character, Desiree. She’s an actress that men have always been drawn to, and things get really interesting when two of her lovers and their wives show up for a weekend in the country — all leading to the ignition of some old flames and the lighting of new ones in a plot filled with surprises.
“I am working at an Equity theater for the first time in my life. I have actually done some Equity productions, but this is a real live theater company and its fantastic. If this isn’t a crossover for me, I don’t know what is,” says McNair, who sat down recently with Examiner.com during a break in rehearsals at the IRT.
When asked if she and her character have anything in common, McNair says: “Desiree and I are the same person, except for the fact that I do not have a phenomenally wealthy mother, I don’t have a teenage daughter, and I’m not dating a married man (laughs).
“Other than that, we have a lot in common. By that I mean Desiree and I are in the second half of our careers. We are both single, working women. We’re both dealing with aging, in a profession that doesn’t like to see its women age. It’s OK if men get older, but women don’t get older. Except for Meryl Streep, there aren’t that many busy actresses, even in our day, who are over 50. I don’t know exactly how old Desiree is, but I am over 50. So we are both in the second half of our careers, which is a different challenge for a performer because you are certainly a lot smarter than you were in the first half of your career.”
When asked if Sondheim’s score was far off from the opera she has sung much of her career, McNair replied: “It’s very far from music I have been singing for a long time in that my role is a speaking role. It’s not really a singing role. I sing very few notes. I only sing in four pieces, and the fourth one is so brief it really doesn’t even count. So I sing three pieces, and two of those are 50 percent spoken. It’s not a singing role, so that makes it very different than all the years of singing classical music.”
McNair says she loves the opportunity to stretch her acting chops in this production, and when asked if she enjoys working with her fellow actors, she says: “More than anything, this piece is an ensemble piece. It’s not a star piece. There are nine leading roles and the actors playing them are amazing. My romantic partner in the play, Fredrick, is an actor from Chicago. His name is James Rank, and he is unbelievable. He’s brilliant. He just pulls the level up of everyone who is around him. I am going to school on James Rank every day.”
A faculty member at the Jacobs School of Music, McNair is collaborating with some of her IU colleagues from the school’s department theater who are working on this production in several capacities. One of them is director George Pinney, about whom McNair says: “What I love about how George is directing this piece is that he is a great choreographer, and a lot of these pieces — internal pieces — are set pieces, and he has very interesting choreographic elements, like head turns … things that you think of in a dance number more than directing a dramatic scene, let’s say. He does it all. He knows how to direct human interaction as well as put choreographed elements into a production.”
Had she seen the Bergman film on which the musical is based? “Oh, many times.” What about preparation? “I have always approached everything words first. Even when I used to learn Mozart operas and was preparing recitative, I always spoke recits like they were dramatic scenes rather than songs. In fact, I remember rehearsing the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ — in Salzburg of all places — and instead of singing the recitatives I spoke the recitatives to try to get everybody in the scene to address it more as a conversation rather than showing off our beautiful voices. I never managed to pull anybody into my way of rehearsing it, but it was fun for me to approach it from the spoken word, as actors do.”
McNair says she also does a lot of research when she prepares for a role: “I probably go a little too far, but when I was learning the opera ‘Idomeneo,’ I read ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ I read both volumes because you kind of need to know who these people are. The very first time I did ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ of course, I read the Beaumarchais play. This is really silly, but the first time I was preparing Stravinsky’s ‘The Rake’s Progress,’ there wasn’t any historical information to read, so I went and bought myself a set of the William Hogarth prints on which the story is based. That required less time and effort — and more money (laughs) — but I did it so I could feel like I had something going on behind it to work from.”
“Send in the Clowns” is the show’s signature song, but according to McNair not everybody on the planet has heard the song made popular by Judy Collins when she recorded it on her 1977 album, “Judith.” McNair says: “I have some friends in Kenya who have never heard it (laughs). Someone said to me a few days ago, ‘Oh, “Send in the Clowns” is my most favorite song ever!’ And I said, ‘Really? Have you ever seen “A Little Night Music”?’ They said they hadn’t. Well, hearing and seeing ‘Send in the Clowns’ in context … in the middle of that conversation that Fredrick and Desiree are having where he says, ‘I know I should be with you, but I can’t,’ and he walks out of her life forever … the words make so much sense.”
McNair also says the reason “Send in the Clowns” resonates with so many is because “it’s just a beautiful song.” She adds: “I have to tell a funny story about it. A young girl came up to me once and said, ‘Oh, I love the song “Send in the Clowns.” I used it for my wedding march.’ And I wanted to say, ‘And how is your marriage going, dear?’ — because it is not a happy song. It’s a song about loss of love, and it’s raw and wide-open honesty about how tremendously challenging love is — as any song I have ever sung.”
At the conclusion of the interview, McNair was asked if her participation in “A Little Night Music” signals a big career move or whether it could even be considered an audition for, perhaps, Broadway? “From your lips to God’s ears! (laughs). If it could only be an audition and open up doors, of course I’d be thrilled. Yes, I’d love to do something on Broadway. No, I never have. The Metropolitan Opera happens to be on Broadway at 65th … but no, I have never done a proper Broadway production on Broadway.”
As far as what audiences can expect when they see the production, McNair says: “I hope people realize this is a story about flawed people in flawed relationships, and even if you are with the wrong person in the beginning there is hope that you can end up with the right person. This is a real happy-ending love story, and it’s just got some sweet beautiful music all along the way.”
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