Stars add buzz to Sondheim revival

When it comes to much-admired Broadway composers, Stephen Sondheim is in a class by himself. But that universal respect doesn’t always translate at the box office.

That makes the current revival of “A Little Night Music,” which opens Dec. 13, an interesting proposition.

At the moment, the show’s prospects look good. In its first two weeks, the production has grossed more than $1.5 million, a solid sum for seven-perf weeks in a smaller house like the Walter Kerr Theater. For the week ending Dec. 6, it played to auds at 96% capacity.

Such sales seem to indicate strong audience interest in the title, which among Sondheim fans has long enjoyed pride-of-place in his lauded canon. And it helps, of course, that the production is toplined by high-profile thesps Catherine Zeta-Jones (in her Main Stem debut) and Angela Lansbury.

But despite fans’ adoration, it’s not often a commercial production of a Sondheim musical makes it into the black. And this version, capitalized at a relatively low $4.8 million, will have to pull off recoupment in an economic climate where auds are far more cautious in their spending.

“A show like ‘Night Music’ is going to benefit a lot from Catherine and Angela, especially now,” says producer Tom Viertel. “It’s a tricky show to sell without huge stars.”

So far, producers — led by the team of Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh and Richard Frankel — are encouraged that advance sales are building from already high numbers, although it remains to be seen if and how reviews will affect sales after the Gotham critics weigh in.

The original 1973 “Night Music,” with a book by Hugh Wheeler based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman pic “Smiles of a Summer Night,” was one of the handful of Sondheim preems to recoup on Broadway, running a healthy 601 performances and earning six Tonys. Storyline centers on the romantic entanglements of actress Desiree Armfeldt (Zeta-Jones), with Lansbury cast as Desiree’s mother.

The new “Night Music” comes to the Rialto with a central change that may rankle Sondheim purists. While the original Harold Prince production was staged on a large scale, this one arrives in Gotham with an orchestra of eight.

Director Trevor Nunn notes that this “chamber musical” version of the show is suggested by the tuner’s title, a literal translation of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the Mozart serenade written for a small chamber orchestra. (Nearly all the score is written in waltz time or variations on it.)

Producers have aimed to maintain the production’s intimate feel by putting the show in the Walter Kerr, often considered a playhouse due to its size of fewer than 950 seats. “We could have had bigger theaters, but the choice of the Kerr was deliberate,” Viertel says.

Though Nunn also directed the revival’s debut at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2008, this edition has some changes, including an almost entirely new cast. (The exception is Alexander Hanson, reprising his London role as the former lover of Desiree.)

Although the tuner has long seemed a desirable revival title, Gotham stagings have been rare: A New York City Opera production bowed in 1990 and was revived in 2003, and this year, a starry Roundabout Theater Company benefit, toplined by Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, caused a surge in interest in the show just prior to Richardson’s death in March.

The current production has been on the minds of its director and producers for several years.

Viertel, who with his partners also produced the recent revivals of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” began talking with Nunn about “Night Music” close to a decade ago, and an initial development process for a revival (at one point tipped to star Glenn Close) fell apart several years ago.

Still, the pair kept “Night Music” in mind over the years. Nunn says it was seeing the 2005 revival of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” (which later played Broadway) at the Chocolate Factory that prompted him to propose the project for that space. The resulting production earned strong press and transferred to the West End in March for a run that ended in July.

At about 200 seats, the Chocolate Factory (where the upcoming Rialto revival of “La Cage aux Folles” also originated) necessitated a smaller-scale vision for “Night Music.” But according to Nunn, he had already been considering a pared-down version.

“I’d seen productions in huge spaces, and I felt that everything was so enlarged to fill the space that the focus couldn’t be on the right thing — which is to say, on a very small group of people,” he says.

Lansbury had been approached in the initial development phase of the revival several years ago. As for Zeta-Jones — who picked up an Oscar for “Chicago” — Nunn had known her from her early stage work in Britain, and Viertel heard she was interested in playing Broadway from the actress’ husband, Michael Douglas, at a gala for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, of which Viertel is chairman.

During Rialto previews, creatives have worked to calibrate the staging elements, particularly the lighting, which those involved argue contributes to the intimate revival’s effectiveness.

“In many respects, they’re very silly people,” Viertel says of the tuner’s often melodramatic characters. “But the closer you get to them, the more you feel their pain.”

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