Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch turn up ‘A Little Night Music’

It seems like the brainchild of a marketing genius. Take two of Broadway’s most celebrated living actresses, bringing with them more than 100 years of combined New York stage experience, and cast them as mother and daughter in a show that mines both their glittering history as musical-theater performers and their indelible association with the composer.

It was some casting coup to have Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch step into the Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music,” particularly for a production that had been scheduled to close when original leads Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury finished their contracts. But the idea didn’t come from a marquee-minded producer or from the fantasy casting thread of chat-room show queens.

“Actually, it was mine, I have to confess,” said the composer himself, Stephen Sondheim. “I don’t know why, but it simply hadn’t occurred to anybody to cast anybody as well known as Elaine and Bernadette for the parts.”

“Why didn’t you call Greta Garbo?” he quipped. “Oh, it never occurred to me.”

The deal came together quickly, with less than three weeks of performances before critics were invited back at the end of July.

“It’s a miracle,” said Stritch with a mix of gratitude and fear as she headed into a frenetic weekend of dress rehearsals. “There’s no time to do anything. So you just do one foot at a time.”

“This musical is so difficult, so complex, and so worth it,” she continued. “It’s just thrilling, but it’s got me nuts. I have a feeling we’re going to be good, but I don’t even have time to think about that. I’m too up to my you-know-what in the process.”

In the 1973 show, set in fin de siècle Sweden, Peters takes on the role of Desiree Armfeldt, an actress looking to extricate herself from one lover to rekindle an old flame, who is inconveniently besotted with his child bride. Stritch plays Desiree’s mother, Mme. Armfeldt, a quasi-aristocratic, Proustian figure who observes these and other romantic entanglements from her wheelchair with the same wry detachment she brings to remembrances of her colorful past.

“It’s a wonderful role,” said Peters of Desiree. “Life on the road touring is not what it used to be for her. She discovers how much she likes being with her daughter and then, lo and behold, who walks into her life again but the daughter’s father. And she thinks, ‘Ah, wow, maybe I will have that life.’”

Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn echoed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the show is both a celebration of romantic love and a droll dissection of its failings, commenting on how often Cupid’s arrow hits the wrong target.

If Desiree requires a delicate balance of refinement and brassiness, playful sensuality and rueful self-knowledge, her elderly mother is no less complicated, a woman who toasts “To death!” as a defiant embrace of life.

In “Liaisons,” a full-bodied narrative in a single song, Mme. Armfeldt looks back over her dalliances with kings, barons and dukes, bemoaning the disappearance of taste and style in the art of love. The trick in performing the role is to find the vulnerability beneath all that jaded hauteur.

“She’s so emotional, this Armfeldt woman, that’s why she has to stay on top of everything,” said Stritch. “There’s a great deal of comedy in her, but I think there’s an even greater amount of sadness.”

“But she’s got some exit lines that are killers,” added Stritch, who said she’s probably the only actress ever to channel Groucho Marx under the character’s veil of melancholy. “She has good timing in a wheelchair, and that’s not easy to do!”

The new cast recruits, scheduled to appear in the show through November, have crossed paths with the composer more than once in their careers. And both women acknowledge the gift Sondheim’s work has represented in their professional lives.

“Not just my stage career — my life, really,” said Peters. “Every time I do a Sondheim show and every time I sing one of his songs I learn about life, so he’s taught me. In my concerts I sing a lot of Sondheim. I choose them because I love to reflect on what he’s talking about and on what that means to me. He really nails the human experience.”

A two-time Tony winner, Peters originated Dot/Marie in “Sunday in the Park With George,” and starred in the first Broadway production of “Into the Woods,” and most recently sang Sondheim’s lyrics in “Gypsy,” her last Broadway engagement.

In the original cast of “Company,” Stritch forever claimed ownership of that vodka-soaked anthem of the desperate housewife, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Since then, she has returned to the composer frequently, notably in her Tony-winning solo show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Earlier this year she earned rave reviews in an all-Sondheim cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, adding a special performance to mark her 85th birthday.

While learning standards for the show she had originally planned to do, Stritch says that she began to question herself: “Sure, I can sing all these songs, but why don’t I give myself a challenge? I don’t just want to knock off a pop song here and a pop song there. So I decided to do all Sondheim songs to get me working at something that I didn’t think I could do.”

It’s too early to gauge the new stars’ impact at the “Night Music” box office, but a representative for the production says interest is high in seeing these stage veterans in such textured roles. And for rabid Broadway fans, this is a rare case in which a replacement cast has the potential to draw as bright a spotlight as their predecessors. Even from a single reading, Sondheim says it was apparent that both actresses would bring something distinctive to the table.

“It was just juicy,” he said. “Any good professional actress will find right away little moments that they dig into. Because they are strong personalities but also actresses who can subsume themselves in the roles, I think that you’ll get entirely different flavors.”

Desiree might conceivably be a cousin to Dot, the 19th century artist’s muse played so memorably by Peters in “Sunday in the Park With George,” but Mme. Armfeldt’s old-world European sophistication is a departure from the salty, all-American persona for which Stritch is best known.

“People don’t know, for example, that Elaine early in her career did Molière and high comedy,” said Sondheim. “I think Elaine will stun and surprise everybody because, forgive this phrase, but they don’t know that she has these chops.”

“One thing that I’ve tried to avoid is playing the same part all the time,” explained Stritch, who squeezed herself into a trash can every night in Beckett’s “Endgame” in Brooklyn two years ago. Last month, she scored another Emmy nomination for her guest role on “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy’s acerbic mother, Colleen, having won for the same part in 2007.

“I don’t want to sing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ for 15 years, 30 years, 40 years,” she groaned. “The whole reason I stayed away from that, which probably earned me less money, is that I want to do something different every year. Keep fooling ‘em, keep surprising ‘em, that’s the fun of this business for me.”

Few musicals present such a rich spectrum of the different ages of a woman as “A Little Night Music.” Though the show’s philandering Count reduces them to “a functional but ornamental race,” the variety of women on stage is remarkable, including a precocious sprite, a clueless virgin, a lusty pragmatist and a disillusioned wife. At the center of them all are Desiree in reflective middle age and Mme. Armfeldt deep in brooding twilight. Both actresses said that the show’s emotional charge has them contemplating their pasts.

“I’ve been through so many lifetimes in my own life, in a way,” said Peters, who is now 62 and has been acting professionally since she was a child. “You use everything you know about your self and your life, so it’s a good time for me to play it.”

“I’m very grateful for being able to do this, in the autumn, autumn, autumn of my life,” said Stritch, “because it seems to be that the only thing that makes me feel good is performing. I’m not absolutely sure of anything at this point. I just know that I’m in the midst of doing something that’s good and classy and means something, and it isn’t just a day in the office. Any trip down Sondheim Lane is something.”