The way director Peter DuBois sees it, the essence of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical “A Little Night Music” boils down to two things: “Sex and death,” he says. “Everyone is chasing and chasing each other around, trying to put off death because they all know it is coming.”
DuBois, artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company, is at the helm of the season-opening production that begins previews Friday and runs through Oct. 11 at the Boston University Theatre. But he didn’t always have such succinct clarity about Sondheim’s classic (which was inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night”). And he didn’t always grasp the throbbing undercurrents of the lascivious tale.
He first encountered the score when he was about 8 years old and listened to the cast album from his parents’ collection of Broadway recordings. He played the iconic tune “Send in the Clowns” over and over again, completely misinterpreting the lyric “Me here at last on the ground/ You in midair,” and inventing a hilariously innocent version of what it meant. “I had this image that the song was about two circus performers who fell off the high wire and died,’’ DuBois says now with a laugh. “The circus barker came on yelling, ‘Send in the clowns!’ ’’
He has, needless to say, re-evaluated that interpretation.
The ballad comes at a pivotal point in the tale, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century and spotlights a group of mismatched couples caught in a web of interlocking love triangles. All of the relationships are dysfunctional, and while there is plenty of action between the sheets (or on the ground), everyone is miserable. When the central character, a middle-age actress named Desiree Armfeldt, sings “Send in the Clowns” to her former lover, the tune aches with a mournful mix of desire and regret.
The song has become a sort of signature piece for the prolific Sondheim, and it has been covered by artists ranging from Judy Collins to Grace Jones. (Dubois thinks the Collins pop version is “weird” and “a little bit shmoopy.”) British actress Haydn Gwynne plays Desiree in the Huntington production, and she is putting aside all the concert versions that have been done over the years. “You can’t think about it as this anthem,’’ she says. “If you sing the song in the context of the piece, what you have is this beautifully and economically written scene. If we do it right, it takes care of itself.”
Her character is an itinerant leading lady of a certain age who has begun to grow weary with the so-called glamorous life of touring. She is a single parent who has sent her pubescent daughter off to live in the country with her mother, an aging matriarch who looks back wistfully on her days as a courtesan.
The actress lives her life on her own terms. “In modern parlance, Desiree is comfortable with her sexuality,’’ Gwynne says. “I don’t think she is promiscuous, but she usually has a lover. She is serially monogamous. Her current squeeze is a married count who has nothing in common with her intellectually, but he is a gorgeous hunk of a man. He suits her needs.”
The character’s emotions are undone when she encounters Fredrik, a former lover who has yet to consummate his marriage with his young trophy bride.
Gwynne, who was in the original cast of “Billy Elliot” in the West End and on Broadway, has worked with DuBois on her home turf, where he directed her in the 2011 London premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw.” She joins a cast that is a mix of New York and Boston talent (including longtime local actress Bobbie Steinbach in the role of Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt). And DuBois is particularly interested in the theatricality of the story, which is central to his production. “I really want to honor what Sondheim wrote,’’ he says. “The time period of the piece is so beautiful and elegant, and you don’t want to mess with that. At the same time, it is highly theatrical and the central character is an actress, so we use the theater as a visual metaphor.”
In the first act, the stage is covered with trunks that could have been used by turn-of-the-century touring theatrical troupes. The set elements, DuBois says, emerge from the trunks, and at appropriate times, the actors perform in the house as well as on the stage. “I didn’t want to approach it from a stuffy, late-19th-century perspective, but from a more human, intimate point of view,” he says. “The piece has to do with the ways in which our head and our heart and our groin come into combat with one another. There are those moments when they find alignment with one another, and that is when love can be found.”
DuBois isn’t shy about staging the sex scenes, and there are quite a few of them. The sex, however, isn’t gratuitous; it drives the plot and defines the characters’ relationships. “We are going for the carnality of it,” the director says. “It is really important to embrace it and not be puritanical about it. It is part of who we are as human beings.”
Costume designer Robert Morgan embraces that aspect of the musical as well, and at the first rehearsal, he assured the cast that his main goal was to make all the actors look ravishing. “They look around, and what do they see?” he says of the characters in the tale. “Someone they want.”
Yet it’s not just the physical attraction that matters in the end. The interlocking couples are seeking that union of heart, head, and groin — that elusive four-letter word known as love. “Love is great, but it gets very messy if you’re with the wrong person,” Gwynne says.
This is not Sondheim at his bleakest (it’s hardly “Assassins”), and things do get resolved at the end, with the right partners ending up together. Yet DuBois cautions against viewing the play as having an undeserved fairy tale ending. The characters suffer because of the poor choices they have made and the opportunities they have missed. In one song, “Every Day a Little Death,” two unhappy wives lament their troubled relationships.
The characters somehow find the right balance. “The book allows for those triangular relationships to get thrown up in the air and to land somewhere else,” Gwynne says. “We are allowing the happy ending. There is resolution and uplift and very beautiful music. You’re allowed to go out smiling, but you’ve been given a lot to think about. It isn’t fluff.”
But this is Sondheim, and the piece is, after all, about both sex and death. One character dies at the end with a heart full of remorse. The other characters waltz around the deceased, making a little night music, but for all the happy partners, there is a feeling that something is missing, something is lost. “There is a grace note of regret,” DuBois says. “There is this sense that death is constantly looming. We are mere mortals, and we have got one shot at it, so we want to make the right decisions.”
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Book by Hugh Wheeler.
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company.
At Boston University Theatre, Sept. 11-Oct. 11.
Tickets: $25-$145, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.