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Forgive Me, Stephen Sondheim

By Peter Filichia

So I celebrated Stephen Sondheim’s eighty-fifth birthday on March 22 in a way in which he wouldn’t have approved.

I played the original cast album of Do I Hear a Waltz?

Once again, for the hundredth or so time that I listened, I was struck with the 1965 musical’s beauty, tunefulness and sophistication.

Sorry, Steve.

Actually, I’ve been playing Do I Hear a Waltz? quite a bit since March 10, which was the fiftieth anniversary of my seeing the show during its tryout at the Shubert Theatre in Boston. This was the first time I’d sat in a loge, by the way, for it was all that I could get. When a new Richard Rodgers musical was announced, tickets disappeared quickly.

And that’s one reason why Sondheim doesn’t like the show – because it was “a Richard Rodgers musical” in every way. Not only did Rodgers write the music, but he also produced, which meant he was the boss. His being nearly twenty-eight years Sondheim’s senior (and fifteen years older than bookwriter Arthur Laurents, too) made Rodgers the eminence grise — and made for some grisly times.

The noun he used to describe one of Sondheim’s lyrics – in front of the entire company, yet – rhymes with “hit” and includes that word but starts with a letter a bit lower in the alphabet. In return, Sondheim began calling Rodgers “Godzilla.”

Sondheim didn’t want to do the musical in the first place, but given that Laurents sought him – and had recommended him for West Side Story when he was a novice — he accepted. Also a factor was that his now-deceased mentor Oscar Hammerstein had recommended that he succeed him as Rodgers’ lyricist.

And just as it’s hard to be poor but much harder after being rich, Sondheim wasn’t happy to be relegated to the just-lyricist status he was in his first two shows (West Side Story and Gypsy) after he’d been a composer-lyricist for his previous two shows (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle).

I’ve attended at least a half-dozen Sondheim seminars that ended with a Q-and-A session at which an audience member asked “Mr. Sondheim, what’s your favorite of the shows you’ve written?”

He’s always answered “I don’t have a favorite, but I have a least favorite: Do I Hear a Waltz?”

It’s hardly my least favorite. On disc or download, Elizabeth Allen remains a lovely Leona Samish on vacation in Venice. Her opening song jauntily observes that “Someone Woke Up” one day to create this unique city, and she’s ready to have a unique experience in it.

That means “hearing a waltz” – or, to be more specific, falling in love, which would be a “magical, mystical miracle.” Enter Renato Di Rossi (Sergio Franchi, then a popular easy listening star). He’s a merchant who tells Leona that she shouldn’t simply pay what’s on a goblet’s price tag but should engage in a little “Bargaining.”

It’s a nifty song in which he plays both himself and, via falsetto, his female customer, too. But when the show was revived in New Jersey in 1999, Laurents and Sondheim dropped this number – which was a mistake, for it made us immediately like Di Rossi. Without this song, we don’t know enough about him. This revival’s resulting cast album suffers for not including “Bargaining,” making the original cast album essential.

To be fair, the 1965 recording offers a much-truncated version of “We’re Gonna Be All Right,” sung between a young couple whose marriage is already fading. The full song, which showed what Sondheim really felt about their marriage, finally surfaced in 1973, when Sondheim: A Musical Tributeunearthed it. This far more acerbic take not only appears on that album, but also shows up on Side by Side by Sondheim. Needless to say, both recordings are worth having.

Leona has a hard time trusting Renato, although he does praise “Someone Like You,” which contains one of Rodgers’ trademark “wrong notes” that sounds just right. Our heroine needs to spend time “Thinking” whether or not she’ll accept Renato’s invitation for a night on the town. “Tête-à-têtes for two so often fall flat,” she sings, to which Renato rebuts “Tête-à-têtes for one are flatter than that.”

Only later does Leona realize that he’s right: “Here We Are Again,” she sings, definitely using the royal we, for she is once again alone. And it’s such a nice Venetian night, as Rodgers and Sondheim convey.

The next day Renato staunchly urges her to “Take the Moment” via a gorgeous Rodgers melody. But not until he gives her a garnet necklace does she feel that she does indeed hear a waltz. They begin singing the glorious title tune and, need I add, soon waltzing around the entire breadth of the stage.

“Leona is a very American person,” Laurents said. “She’s rather frozen to release herself and really fall in love. Instead, she considers material things as proof of affection.”

And from where did that quotation come, you ask? From an April 25, 1965 episode of Camera Three,then a weekly series dedicated to the arts. Moderator James MacAndrew hosted Laurents, Sondheim and set designer Beni Montresor five weeks after the show’s March 18, 1965 debut.

(Noticeably absent was you-know-who. Did Rodgers refuse to appear with his adversaries? Had he already washed his hands of the experience? Did he even watch the broadcast?)

For the first nine minutes and twenty seconds, Sondheim doesn’t say a word. True, MacAndrew was directing most of his early questions to Laurents and Montresor (whose thick Italian accent makes him sound very much like Waltz’s star Sergio Franchi). But Sondheim appears to have been in no hurry to join the conversation. He’s so tight-lipped that I brought out my trusty iPhone’s stopwatch and found that in the twenty-seven minute, twenty-three second show, he only speaks for three minutes and one second of it.

However, Laurents is loquacious. “The whole cast is singing very well, which is very rare in a musical these days” he says, later adding that the show sports “the best acting company that’s ever been in a musical.” He pats himself on the back for his script, too. “I’ve never heard an audience laugh as much and as loud and as long.”

Sondheim didn’t feel that he was responsible for much of that laughter because “Audiences don’t listen to lyrics very much because they have so much to take in.”

I certainly listened that March 10, 1965 afternoon and gratefully took in the words. Signora Fioria (the inimitable Carol Bruce), owner of the pensione where Leona is staying, is happy that “This Week, Americans” will be visiting. As she sings, “No narcissistic Greeks – they’re worse than the Italians – with overblown physiques and St. Christopher medallions.” Her conclusion? “I’d much prefer the millions from the U.S.A.” (Nice double meaning of “millions,” no?)

I laughed when the tourists began discussing how they would have wanted another viable travel alternative, but “What Do We Do? We Fly!” One complains about the food: “The shiny stuff is tomatoes; the salad lies in a group; the curly stuff is potatoes; the stuff that moves is soup.” Actually, considering what we now get on flights, all that “stuff” sounds pretty good. But it’s still a sharp Sondheim lyric.

(Is there any other kind?)

“Steve’s lyrics always have development of what has been said in the scene,” says Laurents on the broadcast. “They always carry it further. They’re always written in the diction of the character. It’s easier to be clever than it is to carry a character further and he’s the only one who can do it today.”

And so went the banter, which both Laurents and Sondheim got in between lighting cigarettes and smoking. (My, those were simpler times!) Sondheim did reiterate Laurents’ earlier point when saying that Leona — “a lady having her last chance at romance” — was “a very attractive girl” who makes us wonder “how she can possibly have any problems … We’re not dealing with the problem of age at all but a problem of what Arthur calls the frozen emotions that can happen at any age.”

Leona and her suspicions do freeze out Renato, who eventually tells her that “The feeling is gone.” That prompts both to sing a most bittersweet number: “Thank You So Much” is now the best they can say to each other.

In concluding the broadcast, MacAndrew confidently says “We’ll have you back on the first anniversary of Do I Hear a Waltz?” That wasn’t to be, for the show managed to simply mark a half-year anniversary. But listeners – if not Sondheim – have enjoyed it for a half-century thanks to this magical, mystical musical’s original cast album.

By the way, check out the graphic for this Camera Three episode on the International Movie Data Base. You might assume you’d see either the logo for Camera Three or Waltz. No — call up the site at www.imdb.com/title/tt3344004/?ref_=nm_flmg_slf_51 and see if you don’t crack a smile. Do you think that Sondheim posted it?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Seasonis now available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.