Valdosta Daily Times

June 21, 2013

A Little Night Music

Third show attracts longtime director, PSST! cast

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Peach State Summer Theatre has to find a special production each year to lure Dr. Randy Wheeler out of retirement.

This summer, it took “A Little Night Music.”

The musical is composer Stephen Sondheim’s tale of the lop-sided relationship between a middle-aged man and a young girl. He’s happy in the marriage. She is not. He has a bright spot of love in his past. She has a new love in her future.

“It’s set in 1905 in Sweden, in the

 summer, one of those times when the sun never quite sets,” Wheeler says. “It’s before World War I, people are concerned with their public image. On the surface everyone seems to glide right along, but underneath, everyone is paddling like crazy to keep afloat.”

“A Little Night Music,” Wheeler says, “has a double veneer that makes it funny and touching at the same time.”

Originally produced in the early 1970s for Broadway, the show has Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns,” made famous as a single recorded by Judy Collins a few years later.

“A Little Night Music” is also built around one of the constructs that blend Sondheim’s reputation for quirkiness and genius.

“Evidently, early in his career, Sondheim was intrigued with the notion of writing an entire show in one time,” says Wheeler, referring to the musical time signature of the number of beats per measure. Sondheim wanted to compose a musical set completely to the “rhythmic pattern” of the 3/4 time signature, which is the waltz timing, Wheeler says. But he needed a story line that was smooth, poised and light to work within the framing of the waltz.

While the title, “A Little Night Music,” is inspired by one of Mozart’s German titles, Sondheim found the inspiration for his light, comedic story in the unexpected space of an Ingmar Bergman movie. Known mostly for his dark and existential films, Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” is a comedy that fit Sondheim’s vision of telling a story within the lilting cadence of the 3/4 waltz.

Having previously directed Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music” provided Wheeler with the artistic challenge he reluctantly seeks while falling into his rule of not directing something he has previously directed.

Given his decades of directing plays and musicals, including numerous years with Valdosta State Theatre and now nearly a decade directing PSST! shows, finding something that he has not already directed that also provides an artistic challenge is becoming something of a challenge itself.

Wheeler needs a show that stimulates him, one that will engage his intellect and his intuitive creativity. Wheeler needs something to pull him from his retirement. Given the amount of research (he hunted down and watched the now-obscure Bergman film, for example) and thought placed into a show, Wheeler needs a production worthy of his time.

“There are fewer and fewer shows I’m willing to put the time into,” he says.

Wheeler traditionally directs the more weighty, nuanced, adult, or message show which PSST! presents as the third show for its season. Wheeler’s past PSST! shows include “Gypsy,” “Ragtime,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “The Producers.” So, Randy Wheeler has a strong say in selecting PSST!’s third show each season.

In his view, these are not only shows that intrigue him but the type of show that will attract more talented performers to the PSST! season’s cast. Audiences may buy more tickets to see “The Sound of Music” and tap their toes to the 1950s and ‘60s hits of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” but the actors come to PSST! because of the opportunity to play characters in “A Little Night Music,” Wheeler says.

“To put together a season like this, you’ve got to sell tickets but also do a show that attracts the really strong actors,” Wheeler says. “That’s what a show like ‘A Little Night Music’ will do.” Meaning the cast that wants to do “A Little Night Music” makes for a stronger cast in “The Sound of Music.”