A Little Night Music

“It should really be an event,” says Patricia Hodge, unnecessarily. With three of our foremost actresses in key roles, the National Theatre’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music could hardly be anything else.

Alongside Hodge and Sian Phillips, both seasoned musical performers, will be Dame Judi Dench, making only her second appearance in a musical: the first was when she created the role of Sally Bowles in the 1968 London production of Cabaret.

That’s not the only singing she’s done, she insists. “I sang in The Good Companions after that,” she says, “And Trevor Nunn’s Comedy of Errors. And then I was meant to be in Cats, playing Grisabella, but I broke my Achilles tendon.”

But even Cats was in 1981. Clearly, there has been something of a hiatus in Dame Judi’s singing career. “I’m trying to tell myself it’s not much different from speaking,” she says, admitting to finding the prospect a little daunting. “But I find everything I do daunting. I find it frightening. The more I do, the older I get, the more frightened I think I am.”

Adding to the burdens — and attractions — of the role is the fact that her big song, “Send In The Clowns”, is Sondheim’s most popular, as near as this rather rarefied songwriter has ever come to a hit with the Karaoke community.

“It’s like doing ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ ” says Dame Judi. “I hope people aren’t going to sing along,” she says, then changes her mind. “No, maybe I hope they will sing along.”

In the end, though, the singing is only one aspect of the role. “It’s an acting part. And where that song comes is a terrific acting piece too. You must take it in context. If I thought ‘Oh, here it comes’, I’d faint with fright.”

Dame Judi can take some reassurance from Sian Phillips, who has already played that role, of Desirée, in a recording (“A tip or two could come my way,” says Dame Judi). She has never, however, played Sondheim on stage. For her debut she plays Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother, a part made famous by Hermione Gingold.

“There’s something about musicals that’s easier to do than a play,” she says. “Nearly all straight actors who do musicals take to it, and want to go on doing musicals: they really want to go on singing. Because there’s something about the music, I suppose, that triggers the feelings you’re supposed to have.

“It gives you a very quick kick into it. You know how it is with music, it puts you in the mood. With a musical, the overture puts you in the mood for the show, and then the music helps you all the way through. Whereas in a play, you are just concentrating very hard.”

Having spent most of her career in the commercial theatre, Phillips adores the National. “It’s a real treat to work there on a big show like this,” she says. “Sean Mathias, the director, describes it as being like a spaceship. As the weeks go by the energy mounts and the whole building is behind you. By the time opening night comes it’s like a lift-off.”

In recent years, the National has gained a tremendous reputation for reinterpreting warhorse musicals, wiping away generations of showbiz veneer to find the human drama beneath. A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s country-house comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, is less in need of this treatment than some, but it will be given a rigorous re-examination all the same.

“This particular show is not a piece of cake,” says Patricia Hodge, who plays Charlotte, the suicidal wife of Dame Judi’s lover, Count Magnus Malcolm, who will be played by the French actor Lambert Wilson. “It’s not a breeze. It has some serious emotional issues in it, which is what we are going to address.”

Hodge has been in musicals on and off throughout her career, and they hold few terrors for her. “You’ve got to be in control of the material,” she says. “Particularly material as technically demanding as Sondheim: you’re not singing ‘Let’s Go On With The Show’, or something. You need to be doubly on top of it so that it doesn’t trip you up.”

As a newcomer to the National, Hodge is finding the nine weeks of rehearsals something of a change. Unlike Dame Judi, who was still performing each night in Absolute Hell at the Lyttelton during the first weeks of rehearsals for A Little Night Music, she has had the luxury of concentrating on just the one production. “I’m relying on the fact that the National Theatre knows how to pace itself, because I’ve never worked with this much time before. I’m used to ‘Four weeks and on’.”

The end result, though, should justify all the efforts that are going into it, which include remodelling of the Olivier to accommodate an on-stage orchestra. “It’s a piece that one can celebrate the glory of theatre with,” she says, clumsily but passionately. “It can’t just be commonplace. It’s got to make a bigger statement than that.”