Arts

Preview: Jodi Long Talks Role, and More, in Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’ in Pasadena

Jodi Long portrays the shrewd and assertive Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan, in Pasadena Playhouse's production of "A Little Night Music." Photo courtesy of Jodi Long

As the inimitable and incomparable legacy of the late Stephen Sondheim continues to be celebrated at the Pasadena Playhouse, one of the composer’s more underrated masterworks, A Little Night Music, will regale audiences at the Pasadena Playhouse between April 25th and May 28th. Despite arguably not being as renowned as Sondheim’s other juggernauts like Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, or Company, among others, A Little Night Music — which was fascinatingly inspired by the Ingmar Bergman-directed Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night — is absolutely worth paying attention to given that it deservedly won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, when it premiered in 1973.

The Hugh Wheeler-written premise, which takes place around the turn of the 20th century in Sweden, just like its cinematic muse, is a topsy-turvy waltz among orbiting couples who share intertwined histories and relations — both amorous and platonic. Seductions, love triangles, passions, infidelities, jealousy, twists, and ample comedy surround the complexities of life and love and those of any age who might embark on this precarious journey. At the end of the day, is the pursuit of love worth the hassle?

Jodi Long (center) with the cast of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Jeff Lorch

Among the characters are Fredrik (Michael Hayden), a middle-aged attorney, who has been briefly married to the 18-year-old and virginal Anne (Kaley Ann Voorhees) who doesn’t quite reciprocate her husband’s affections. Instead, she is more likely to gravitate toward Fredrik’s 19-year-old son, Henrik (Chase Del Rey), who pines after his stepmother. However, not all is lost for Frederick, who, by “happenstance,” reunites with an erstwhile flame in Desiree Armfeldt (Merle Dandridge), an actress who has gone from the big time to performing in local, less glamorous spots. There is competition for the stage star’s love, though, as the high-society Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Ryan Silverman) has been cheating on his wife, Countess Charlotte (Sarah Uriarte Berry), with Desiree. Moreover, Desiree has a 13-year-old daughter in Fredrika (Makara Gamble) whom she neglects, having prioritized her career in entertainment. As a result, Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt (Jodi Long), a former courtesan with royal connections and liaisons, ends up being her granddaughter’s primary guardian, doling out appropriate guidance and wisdom. As romantic stratagems and reveals come to a head, the Madame invites Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik to her country estate. At the residence and eventual dinner, with the myriad characters and their love-driven intentions at play, the musical climaxes with laughs, drama, meaningful messages, and a worthwhile ending.

In an interview with LAexcites, Jodi Long (Dash & Lily, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), who portrays the commanding Madame Armfeldt with a unique past, discussed A Little Night Music, including what drew her to the show, the deeper message underlying the plot, what it has been like working with her castmates, how important music is to her, being brought up in the industry since the age of seven, and what’s next for her after the musical concludes.

(Foreground, L-R) Jodi Long and Adam James King in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Jeff Lorch

Tell us about your character in A Little Night Music, Madame Armfeldt, a well-off former courtesan, and what drew you to her? It seems like a character you’d have a lot of fun with.

Long: The musical is in part a kind of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A bunch of couples romp around in the country; it continues that lineage even though it’s not specifically A Midsummer Night Summer’s Dream.

My character is the oldest person in the group and has a certain kind of worldliness and understanding about how the world works from her point of view; that was compelling. The story itself is deeper than what it seems, which attracted me to it. And I know that Sondheim, whom I’ve worked with, signed off on this. It will have all the original orchestrations, and a 22-piece orchestra (under the leadership of Jonathan Tunick).

The last revival with Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Desiree Armfeldt) and Angela Lansbury, who played my part, only had a seven-piece band. So, the sumptuousness of Sondheim’s music — and I say that with great awe — is there with this production; it’s right in front of you. That really was one of the biggest factors of why I wanted to do this. We don’t usually get that kind of experience, except in a movie theater with music coming at us in Dolby, but this is live. We’ve been shut away by Covid for so long, but we now have a real vibratory experience with actors and singers. And that’s what theatre is about – it’s about the community of experience. I did my last Broadway musical twenty years ago and there’s really nothing like music floating through that room. It’s also in the writing as this is a comedy. I can hear the words in the script and in the songs, and some of it has made me laugh so much. It’s all very amusing [laughs].

Jodi Long, a respected veteran on the stage and in front of the camera, plays Madame Armfeldt, a confident and worldly woman with an intriguing past, in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of A Little Night Music. Photo courtesy of of Jodi Long

It seems that music is very important you. Do you play any instruments?

Long: I play the guitar, and I used to play the violin when I was in school [laughs].

What can audiences expect with your character’s number, “Liaisons,” in Act I?

Long: Well, I won’t be dancing [laughs]. What they can expect is that this is the first time it will be played this way. Of the women in theatre who have portrayed the character — Angela Lansbury most recently — I wonder how I got to be this old to step into their shoes. But since it’s from my point of view, you definitely won’t be getting a Caucasian in the role [laughs]. Other than that, audiences will have to wait and see [laughs].

Have you been in other Sondheim productions and, if so, how does Madame Armfeldt compare?

Long: I worked with Stephen, but not in a musical, it was in his only non-musical play called Getting Away with Murder in 1995 with all musical-theatre actors, but nobody sang. It was with John Rubinstein and Christine Ebersol and many wonderful actors. I played a different character, a professor at a college. And the play was about the seven deadly sins, and my character embodied jealousy which was her big thing. We only lasted two weeks on Broadway, but it was great working with Stephen.

Do you consider yourself an actor who does mostly plays or primarily a musical-theatre performer?

Long: I am an actor first and foremost who also sings, dances, does comedy, and drama. I guess I do it all [laughs].

The full cast in Pasadena Playhouse’s 2023 production of A Little Night Music. Image courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse

What’s it been like rehearsing with the rest of the cast — notably your character’s daughter Desiree (Merle Dandridge) and granddaughter (Makara Gamble) — and molding your character under the direction of David Lee?

Long: He’s [David Lee] molded his direction around what I’ve been doing; I say that somewhat facetiously [laughs]. I think a good director takes what the actor brings and what their input is. Sometimes you stray a little or maybe that’s not something you want to do, and the director changes it — and that’s it. It’s a collaborative thing and I do feel that’s for the best.

[On working with Makara Gamble] I was a child actor too, and I did my first Broadway show (Nowhere to Go But Up) when I was seven; it was directed by Sydney Lumet. I get to relive my time on stage now with adults [laughs]. She’s [Gamble] not as young as I was, though she’s very talented and I think she’ll do well in this industry. I think the same way about my daughter in the play [Dandridge] but I don’t have as much time with her as I do with my granddaughter.

Having been brought up in the entertainment industry, and now that you’re working with a young upstart in Makara Gamble, would you recommend or not recommend that children go into the business?

Long: It’s ultimately up to the person. My father always told me to do what I loved; you can’t make the singer and actor do something unless they want to do it. Your parents can’t decide that for you; only you can. If I had children, I would just encourage them to do what they had an interest in or loved to do, and see where that goes, and if they have a talent and desire, you would steer them with the best possible support; that’s what my parents did. I took dance lessons when I was a kid, and I quit ballet because I didn’t want to do that, but I had that training. And there’s nothing wrong with being trained; I was trained as a classical actress to do Shakespeare and Chekhov. It’s fun to get back to my roots and do this musical and see all the young talent in the show — with amazing singers and up-and-coming performers. It’s sort of fun to go from being the youngest in the cast on Broadway to being one of the oldest people in this cast [laughs].

Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music will run from April 25th through May 28th. Image courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse

For people who haven’t seen A Little Night Music, what do you think audiences can look forward to from a story and performance perspective?

Long: It’s entertaining! If you love music, you’re going to love it. If you love Sondheim, you’re going to love it. If you love great singing, you’ll love it. If you love a funny story and the deeper aspects of life, it’s all there.

What are some of the deeper aspects of the musical to you?

Long: Life and death are the two most important things that concern all of us, and the journey between that, which involve the choices we make as we travel through it. Some people make good choices, and some don’t; or they make choices based on what others think they should be doing.

The most important thing for anyone is to feel encouraged about what they’re doing because that’s the only way you can become happy.

What’s next for you after this?

Long: I’m the President of SAG-AFTRA in Los Angeles and I’m on the negotiating committee for TV/theatrical contracts that are expiring on June 30th, and after that I’ll do a new play called Just Another Day at the Great Barrington Public Theater in Massachusetts with Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) who wrote the play and was my husband on the TV show, Sullivan & Son. It’s a fun play about two people on a park bench who share stories. We started it at the Durango PlayFest, did a couple readings in New York, and now I will do the play in Great Barrington. I also have the animated film, Monkey King, coming out next year and then another movie called Night Swim with Kerry Condon.

For more information on Pasadena Playhouse’s production of A Little Night Music, and to purchase tickets, please visit pasadenaplayhouse.org. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101.

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