I’ve often seen it happen, soon after Stephen Sondheim has taken the stage and is interviewed by a moderator. Eventually the moderator opens the floor to questions, and inevitably, someone asks, “Mr. Sondheim, of all your shows, what’s your favorite?” Just as inevitably, Sondheim answers, “I don’t have a favorite, but I have a least favorite: Do I Hear a Waltz?”
Listen to the original cast album of the show that opened 45 years ago this week, and you may not understand why Sondheim has little regard for the work. He wrote many first-rate lyrics to some terrific music by Richard Rodgers.
Arthur Laurents, who wrote the 1952 play, The Time of the Cuckoo (later a film called Summertime), adapted it. Laurents and Sondheim were friends of long-standing; indeed, Laurents had jumpstarted Sondheim’s career by recommending him to Leonard Bernstein as a West Side Story lyricist. After that show, Laurents had Sondheim write the lyrics for his Gypsy, to great success, and the score to Anyone Can Whistle, to less success.
What one doesn’t hear on the Waltz cast album is the strife the three endured. Sondheim and Laurents didn’t much agree with Rodgers, but they couldn’t outvote him by a two-to-one margin; Rodgers had another vote, because he was the sole producer over the title.
Rodgers could also play The Experience Card. His music had been represented on Broadway in more than four dozen productions dating back more than 40 years. He’d just had a hit with No Strings, for which he wrote his own lyrics, so he might have felt he didn’t need a lyricist. But Rodgers’ most famous partner Oscar Hammerstein, before he died, did ask him to work with Sondheim, so he took him on.
That’s not all. Sondheim has famously said that Leona Samish, the musical’s centerpiece, is a woman who can’t sing. True, she’s a virginal schoolteacher, but she IS on vacation – a time in which many people behave very differently. Hence, Leona (the appealing Elizabeth Allen) securely sings “Someone Woke Up,” a pulsatingly arresting song in which she shows she’ll seek adventure while here in Venice. Sure, the song would have been better if by the end Leona had told us that she was looking for love, too – and that she believed she’d “hear a waltz” when Mr. Right appeared. Still, the song gets the show off to a rousing start.
Signora Fioria (the brittle but wonderful Carol Bruce) owns the pensione where Leona’s staying. She gets a no-nonsense melody and brass-tacks lyric to sing in “This Week, Americans” – citing them as her favorite customers. They include the young but already-too-long-married Jennifer and Eddie Yaeger (Julienne Marie, Stuart Damon) and the McIlhennys (Jack Manning, Madeleine Sherwood), who have been married so long – and therefore are so dull — that Laurents and Sondheim didn’t even bother to give them first names.
The Americans have one thing in common, though: They complain about air travel in “What Do We Do? We Fly!” Sondheim deliciously mocks everything served from the film to the food. (Little did we know then what we’d endure in airports of the future: Luggage scanners, shoe removal, and no liquids allowed on board. Today the song comes across as almost wistfully nostalgic.)
While shopping, Leona meets the handsome Renato Di Rossi, a shop owner who says he’s been looking for “Someone Like You.” Rodgers was always famous for writing the “right wrong note” in a ballad, and the sharp ones he has here make for arresting listening.
Renato also teaches Leona about “Bargaining” in which he plays both himself and, thanks to a falsetto, a female shopper, too. Leona is charmed (as are we), but also suspicious; aren’t Italian men always looking to hook up with an American woman whom they perceive as wealthy? So, at night’s end, Leona notes “Here We Are Again” – alone — while everyone else is coupled off.
So in her next chance with Renato, both spend too much time “Thinking.” Rodgers and Sondheim smartly inserted intermittent silent measures of music to show how neither Leona nor Renato knows what to say. But Renato later urges Leona to “Take the Moment,” set to a bolt-of-lightning Rodgers melody. (In between, though, comes one of Sondheim’s more endearing lyrics in “No Understand.” It’s a tango in which maid Giovanna has trouble in giving the right English word for drinking glasses; she calls them “windows.”
After the haunting “Moon in My Window,” sung by Leona, Signora Fioria and Jennifer, comes the song that encapsulates the battles the authors suffered. “We’re Gonna Be All Right” shows Jennifer still in love with Eddie, while he can only pretend that his ardor and devotion haven’t faded. It seems like filler, until you hear the unexpurgated version on the 1973 Sondheim—A Musical Tribute benefit or on the 1977 Side by Side by Sondheim. Here’s it’s a much more bitter look at marriage: “Sometimes she drinks in bed / Sometimes he’s homosexual / But why be vicious? / They keep it out of sight.” If these lyrics are an indication of what Sondheim was forced to eliminate at Rodgers’ insistence, we can begin to understand why he was disappointed in the show.
But then comes the lovely title song — a waltz, natch, and the only one in the score. It includes the fetching lyric, “Such lovely blue Danube-y / music, how can you be / still?” Sondheim also took Laurents’ line from the original play – a “mystical magical miracle,” and slightly changed it to “magical mystical miracle.” And all in all, this is a magical mystical musical on disc. The plaintive “Stay,” the tuneful “Perfectly Lovely Couple,” and the bittersweet “Thank You So Much” bring it all to a nice close. Of course this mere musical comedy-drama can’t compare to Sondheim’s, Laurents’, or Rodgers’ trail-blazing hits. But those who appreciate classic musical theater will find much to admire on the recording.
Out of town, Gwen Verdon was considered as a replacement for Allen. That was quite a turnaround, for Waltz was paradoxically conceived to have little dancing. But Herbert Ross was brought on both as new director (replacing John Dexter) and choreographer (succeeding Wakefield Poole), though he didn’t take official credit. Ross had choreographed eight flops in a row prior to directing and choreographing Kelly, which only a month earlier had been Broadway’s biggest-ever one-performance flop. After Waltz, Ross choreographed On a Clear Day You Can See Forever before heading to Hollywood forever. (He and Laurents would team up to do The Turning Point a dozen years later.)
Poole went into the movies, too, albeit as a gay porn pioneer. In his memoir Dirty Poole, he comes down hard on Dexter. “He prevented me from even listening to creative discussions. He was a nasty, insensitive man.” Poole better proved his point by saying that Dexter, in front of the entire company, said to Elizabeth Allen a very famous two word expression that will never be confused with “Merry Christmas,” before adding “you pig” for “good” measure.
Do I Hear a Waltz? wound up playing six months at the 46th Street Theatre. It’s the only time in Sondheim’s 50-plus year career that his work has been heard there. Maybe that’s all for the best, given that the theater has since been renamed for Richard Rodgers.
Peter Filichia writes a column each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia