I trekked all the way to Walthamstow to see A Little Night Music. As usual when reviewing, I had done no research, preferring to see the show cold: but I knew it was Sondheim and I knew I was a fan. I also knew one number, the strange, elegiac, largely spoken, Send In The Clowns (here’s Dame Judi’s definitive version), a song that speaks more strongly to me with every passing year.
Though Clowns is the emotional summit of the show, a tale of romantic mismatches unravelling in the harsh midsummer light on a Swedish estate, another song stood out to me. Petra is a serving girl, a flirt, confident and living in the moment. It’s not a big part, but Stephen Sondheim is never afraid to give really, really difficult melodies to anyone on stage – and so it is with The Miller’s Son (sung here in concert by D’Jamin Bartlett of the original Broadway cast, with lyrics available here).
Amid the wreckage of bad choices echoing down the decades and unconsummated marriages, the song is a glorious paean to the, erm, joy of sex, to the possibilities it opens up (and ultimately closes down) and to a woman’s right to enjoy first-date sex as guiltlessly as any man. It’s a song I had wished that I had heard aged about 23, old enough to know the pleasures of serial seduction, but mature enough to know that the stakes can be asymmetric and, consequently, not everyone will feel that same way.
I shall marry the miller's son
Pin my hat on a nice piece of property
Friday nights for a bit of fun
We'll go dancing, meanwhile
In the framing verse, conventional marriage is contemplated, Petra staying within her class, acknowledging the fact that marriage is as much about property as love though some pleasure may persist. But there’s that ‘…meanwhile…’ – and the song picks up pace.
Petra launches into a hymn to the delights of promiscuity and to the ever so short window available to her. She contemplates using her sexual power to snare a businessman or even the Prince of Wales and, crucially, how much she will enjoy them and all the other men. There’s a hint of gold-digging, but Petra knows that money is not the game. Her game is to know that there’s ‘many a tryst and there's many a bed/To be sampled and seen’.
As Petra looks forward to her bedroom athletics, the music stops and starts, speeds and slows, slides and soars, and the words? Oh my – Sondheim’s verbal pyrotechnics have never exploded with more colour.
It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.
It’s a very short fetch from the push and the whoop
To the squint and the stoop and the mumble
It’s not much of a stretch to the cribs and the croup
And the bosoms that droop and go dry.
It’s a very short way from the fling that’s for fun
To the thigh pressing under the table
It’s a very short day 'til you’re stuck with just one
Or it has to be done on the sly.
Of course, the song finishes on her acceptance of her fate in marrying the miller’s son, but not without all that celebration of what passes by in the interim before her wedding day.
The Miller’s Son is possibly of its time (1973), those fleeting years between the Pill and the advent of Aids, revenge pornography and reality TV shows about Club 18-30 holidays, days and nights when sex really did seem to come with no strings attached. But it’s a glorious affirmation of one of life’s most precious gifts, one that comes with plenty of complications, and one that should never be taken for granted.
The song is perfectly pitched for the show, but also for life, a bold riposte to authoritarianism’s continual campaign to restrict sexual pleasure, particularly for women, to make people pay a price. It took a gay man to write it, and this straight man is glad he did.
It’s a song to return to whenever the world looks too bleak.
Gary Naylor writes about cricket at the Guardian and about theatre at Broadwayworld. He tweets at @garynaylor999