There are songs that, having accrued interpretations and emotional associations over the years like barnacles, are very easy to screw up. Take "My Way." Murder that song in a Filipino Karaoke bar and you might just get murdered yourself. (This is not an exaggeration; check out the "My Way" killings).
Or "Send in the Clowns," which, like a souffle, can fail to rise if even the slightest adulterant gets in the mix - say middle-aged angst or old-fashioned over-emoting.
So how does Sylvia McNair - the multiple Grammy winner, former opera diva and second-career musical theater star who plays Desiree in the Indiana Repertory Theatre's full-scale production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music - avoid giving a fatally self-centered rendition of "Clowns"? By singing it as a duet, of course.
"Fredrik doesn't have any notes to sing, but it's all about her relationship with him - and the conversation that they have immediately preceding the song," McNair says of "Send in the Clowns," which her character sings to a lawyer with whom she had an affair years before. "And it probably comes from a slightly deeper place emotionally when I'm doing it in context."
That context is Sondheim's quite funny, sophisticated, occasionally sour 1973 operetta/musical, based on Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and possessing that film's (European?) awareness of humankind's propensity toward folly, particularly in the realm of romantic entanglements.
A Little Night Music is, according to IRT Managing Director Steven Stolen, quite probably the IRT's biggest musical production ever, from its casting calls in Chicago and New York for the show's many (and demanding) singing parts, to all the elements of stagecraft unfamiliar to a tech crew accustomed to plays (but perfectly capable of mixing down a stage-full of mics, assures Stolen).
McNair and Stolen found a few minutes to chat during last weekend's 12-hour tech rehearsals. I got the ball rolling by asking about how their relationship helped to pave the way for McNair's involvement.
Steven Stolen: It was a coming together of an idea that, frankly, we had glibly talked about one day.
Sylvia McNair: With the emphasis on glibly!
Stolen: We said, 'Wouldn't it be fun to one day do a show?' Shortly after I started here - this is my seventh season - I asked Janet Allen, the artistic director here, about this folklore about her not liking musicals. And she said, 'It's not that I don't like musicals; I love musicals, but certain musicals are good for certain theaters.' So the idea of doing Carousel on the stage of the IRT just wasn't organic enough for her. She said what she would love to do are 'art musicals.' And I said Little Night Music is perfect for our theater. And wouldn't it be great to have somebody like Sylvia McNair sing that - and this was, like, six years ago.
McNair: No way!
Stolen: Way! And so when we got the opportunity to talk about that in the open air, it sounds really hokey, but I got kind of tingly about it.
McNair: A frisson.
NUVO: You mentioned the term "art musical," Steven, and I wonder, Sylvia, how you distinguish between opera and musical theater and operetta - or if those are even useful distinctions for you.
McNair: Well, they are what they are; they're distinctions and everybody uses them. I did opera for 20 years, and I got to an age where I was going to have to change my opera repertoire anyhow. You can't do the soubrettes forever, can you? You have to grow up and do big girl parts. So I often tell the story that I got to a point in my life, about ten years ago, actually, where it was as though I was standing at the piano - here's the keyboard, here's the music stand - and on one side of the music stand were all the new sets of Mozart and Strauss operas, all the new art songs, the classical music stack that I was going to have to dive into, because in your 40s you have to change what you do.
And then on the other side of the music stand of this figurative piano in my brain was this stack of music that included A Little Night Music, The King and I, The Light in the Piazza: all this Great American Songbook repertoire that I now have totally jumped into with all six feet. I still have a manager that barely speaks to me; he was so upset. I walked away from three seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was in at top fees in those years. I walked away from that because I was tired of doing all that stuff, and I really wanted to jump in and do what my heart was telling me to do.
NUVO: And there's artistry in both - rewards and challenges to both?
McNair: Good lord is there artistry in both! And great music is great music, and I know that's a Duke Ellington quote, but one of the things that always upset me about the opera world is some of them, not all of them, kind of looked down their noses at musical theater. Maybe it isn't as taxing, vocally, to sing musical theater as it is to sing opera, but there are so many other things about doing an art musical that you don't get when you're doing an opera. Let's face it: Operatic singing - and I'm probably going to be quoted as saying this - is cultivated shouting. When you stand on the stage of the Met and try to fill up this immense theater, that's a big job, it's loud singing and there's very little eye to eye contact with people. You can't have a conversation with another character in a scene, face to face, because it will never be heard.
After my very first dress rehearsal at the Met, one of the coaches came to me. I was trying to do an honest theatrical performance, being real, and the coach said, 'Sylvia, whatever you do, just stick your face into the house and sing as loud as you can!' And I thought, 'Great, I finally made it to the Metropolitan Opera, and this is my one note after dress rehearsal.' You know, there's something enormously unsatisfying about that!
Stolen: This is a very intimate show, a comedy, for all intents, and it needs an intimate place. And that intimate feeling is critical because you're never farther than 110 feet from the stage. And it feels that way on stage too.
McNair: I feel like I can connect eyeball to eyeball with the balcony, and I've been working on that. I just want to say one thing: I have worked in some very fancy theaters all over the world, certainly all over Europe. And I am blown away by the IRT and how this theater takes care of not only every single person, but every small detail. There is so much focus on getting it right at this place, and I leave the theater every day thinking, 'This place is magic.'