Stephen Sondheim turned 90 last Sunday. This year, as Broadway is scheduled to remain dark through April 12, it seems especially important to honor Sondheim’s vast and enduring contribution to American musical theater.
Sondheim’s songs take us deep into the psychology of the character. Gradually, they reveal layers of meaning in a way similar to the puzzles that have been a source of lifelong fasciation for the composer and lyricist.
One such song is The Miller’s Son, which occurs near the end of the second act of A Little Night Music (1973), a dreamy, waltzing, virtual operetta, suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night. In The Miller’s Son, the maid Petra contemplates an imaginary future with three hypothetical husbands: the miller’s son, the business man, and the Prince of Wales. The song fluctuates between thoughts of the future and the present. In the end, Petra resolves to enjoy the pleasures of the moment, and “celebrate what passes by.”
In A Little Night Music, The Miller’s Son occupies the structural position of the “eleven o’clock number,” traditionally a show-stopping song in which the drama reaches its resolution. Yet, this song belongs to a peripheral character who only now takes centerstage. She has been a spectator to the mayhem around her. In a way similar to Susanna, the maid in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, she possesses a wisdom and insight that is missing in the upper class. Following the dark melancholy of Send in the Clowns, and Petra’s own tryst with the manservant, Frid, The Miller’s Son finds meaning in a surreal world of detachment. A Little Night Music is centered around human folly on a Scandinavian summer night of unending daylight. Ultimately, the final act fades into nature—the ultimate detached observer—with the magic of the purely instrumental Night Waltz.
The musicologist Kim Kowalke delves into all of this in a fascinating analysis of The Miller’s Son. Additionally, he outlines the technical and psychological intricacies of the lyrics, as well as the song’s uncanny obsession with groups of three. The quiet opening vamp begins amid Nordic shadows, yet as the song progresses, there are echoes of the shimmering exoticism and rhythmic vivaciousness we hear in the music of the twentieth century Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. The song’s meter shifts between 3/4, 2/4, and 3/8, with cross rhythms in the bass pulling the 2/4 towards triplets.
Here is Diane Langton’s performance from the 1975 London cast recording:
- Sondheim: A Little Night Music (Original London Cast Album) Amazon