One of the greatest things about the concert presentation of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music that I got to see and hear at the Mann Center in Philadelphia last July was the performance of the great Irene Worth as Madame Armfeldt and as the narrator of the production. Conducted by Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani, the concert boasted a wonderful cast including real-life couple John Dossett and Michele Pawk as Fredrik Egerman and Desirée Armfeldt, Kevin Anderson as Henrik, Marc Kudisch as Carl-Magnus, and Jonathan Dokuchitz as Frid. But the presence of the legendary Worth in a perfect role was a special boon to the audience.
"What can I say?" Marc Kudisch asked rhetorically when I phoned him yesterday to get his comments on Worth, who died on Sunday. "You can ask anyone that worked on Night Music. People in this business all wonder about longevity and hope that it's a possibility for us; then you see someone like Irene Worth, who was in her eighties but still so very smart, sharp, and vibrant. I thought she was just lovely in the show. It was a joy to see someone of that quality and maturity in the part. She really had to work hard because she had a lot of the narration to do as well as her own material. But she was very sweet to me, very complimentary."
Prior to Night Music, Kudisch had the pleasure of seeing Worth in her Tony Award-winning role of Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers in 1991. "I loved that show," he says. "What a cast: Mercedes Ruehl, Kevin Spacey. And there was Irene Worth in the middle of it all, playing this wonderful character of the stern matriarch with a kind of hard-edged vulnerability." Those who felt that the role of the severe, old world Grandma was a departure for the elegant, classically trained Worth may have been surprised to learn from reading her obituaries that she was born Harriet Abrams in Lincoln, Nebraska; she changed her name at an early age on the advice of a Hollywood producer.
"It was so much fun to watch [Worth's] professionalism and polish," Kudisch said further of his Night Music experience. "There are so few people left who are examples of that kind of craft and training. Working with Irene reminded me of when I was fortunate enough to work with Peggy Cass, shortly before she died, in the reading of Auntie Mame that Charles Busch did a few years ago. It's so great to have the opportunity to play opposite these people, even for a moment. Irene Worth spent most of her career in a time that really was a Golden Age of theater. There was so much creativity in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, when we as a country were coming into a sense of American realism in the theater. There was a commitment to the art form, to the spoken word, and not necessarily to oneself. Things have changed.
"That's why I'll never forget doing that show in Philly," says Kudisch, who is now co-starring in Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway and who may be recreating his role of Carl-Magnus in a production of Night Music at the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago this summer. "It was so special to be out there under the stars at the Mann Center, doing such a beautiful musical. And I think all of us felt very privileged that Irene was part of it."