Do I Hear a Waltz?: Encores, Encores! By Peter Filichia
I expect the applause to be pretty titanic at City Center this week when the third and final Encores! production of 2016 gets underway.
Why not? We’ll be hearing a score that was written by two of the most acclaimed geniuses in the entire history of the American musical theater.
One of them primarily worked on Broadway in the first half of the twentieth century. The other started in the second half and was still well represented as the old millennium came to an end. Both have had plenty of Broadway revivals during the twenty-first century, too.
To put it another way, in a span of the last ninety-seven years — from 1919 to now — either one or both of their names have been on Broadway window cards in all but fifteen of those years. That’s a batting average of .845 – which no team in major league baseball has ever achieved.
They wrote together only one time, providing the score for a 1965 musical. As a result of this, the composer received his seventh Tony® mention, which is all the more impressive when one considers that since the Tonys® had been initiated in 1947, he’d done only eight shows. Of those seven, four of them had him walking to the stage after his score or his show had been announced as the Tony® winner.
Conversely, this 1965 show was the first-ever Tony® nomination for the lyricist. He had, however, trotted to the stage in 1963 after the musical for which he provided his first (un-nominated) score had been announced as Best Musical.
In fact, the composer alluded to above won that same year for his music and lyrics: Richard Rodgers for No Strings.
Not to worry: with his very next show, Stephen Sondheim started a Tony® spree that resulted in nine composing and/or lyric nominations and six wins.
To call them Broadway royalty is selling each far too short. Broadway gods is a more accurate way of putting it.
Their one collaboration, Do I Hear a Waltz? was, along with Fiddler on the Roof, arguably the most anticipated musical of the 1964-65 season.
But Waltz? didn’t waltz to the success that Fiddler wound up having. During the week that Fiddler would be celebrating its first of seven Broadway anniversaries, Waltz? was closing up shop after 220 performances.
It started out like a song. Arthur Laurents would adapt his 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo in which Leona Samish, an American woman of, as they used to say, a certain age, takes a vacation in Venice. She frankly would love to find some romance, and soon does with a handsome and charming merchant who keeps his marital status from her.
Sondheim would later say that Leona is too uptight to sing. Yes – when she’s home in smalltown America. But many of us, when we travel to another land where nobody knows us, become completely different people. Therefore, Leona’s singing is very apt for the new, up-for-anything woman that she wants to be.
Who hasn’t looked at Venice – a unique city, to be sure – and not been thrilled by beguiling-looking buildings underlined by water? So Sondheim definitely got it right when he wrote Leona’s opening number “Someone Woke Up.” She’s not referring to her alarm clock; this lady is ready to wake up much that’s been dormant inside her.
There’s a possibility that the famously difficult and sadistic Jerome Robbins, who staged all of Fiddler, wouldn’t have received The Most Hated Director “Award” that season; Waltz’s John Dexter would have won in a walk. After all, no one’s gone on record to say that Robbins used a famous four-letter word that is usually followed by the word “you” to any member of the Fiddler company, but those who worked on Waltz? claim that Dexter said that famous expression to leading lady Elizabeth Allen. What’s more, Dexter added insult to insult by finishing the sentence with “you pig.”
Waltz’s bookwriter Arthur Laurents – who’d written three musicals to that point, two of which were no less than West Side Story and Gypsy – eventually called the hiring of Dexter as “a deadly error.” Choreographic associate Wakefield Poole spilled many more beans by stating that Dexter “called all the boys by their first names; the women’s names he didn’t bother to know. He would stage the show and say ‘Hey, you over there’ or ‘Miss, you go there’ which alienated every woman.”
Yes, Dexter had two Tonys® in his future (Equus and M. Butterfly), but Poole nevertheless maintains that “Any director who can’t communicate with actors is a failure.”
Argue the point if you like or find exceptions to this rule, but Waltz undoubtedly suffered in Dexter’s hands. To create a successful musical, the person at the helm must be a leader, not a divider.
However, let’s not whitewash the fact that Rodgers and Sondheim didn’t get along splendidly, either. But both were professionals who – I insist – delivered a memorable score.
And with this new Waltz? unencumbered by Dexter — Evan Cabnet, who doesn’t have an analogous reputation, will stage it – I expect the score (which is what Encores! is always most intent on trumpeting) will score very well. (That Melissa Errico and Claybourne Elder will be the leads make the prospects all the more appealing.)
Can’t be there? There’s a startlingly fine original cast album that proves that Waltz is really a musical and lyrical gem. Carol Bruce, making one of her all-too-rare Broadway appearances, is wonderfully brittle as the owner of the pension who’s happy that “This Week, Americans” have come to stay.
We hear from other guests at the lodging, one of whom was played by Madeleine Sherwood, who just died a few weeks ago. Yes, we’re talking about that same Madeleine Sherwood who was “Sister Woman” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof both on stage and on screen. She had a voice, however (and even took over as Morgan Le Fey in the original production of Camelot) and sings here along with her fellow travelers who complain about air travel. “What Do We Do? We Fly!” has jokes as strong as the ones Sondheim had previously written in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” and “Impossible.”
Sergio Franchi, who had matinee idol looks, brought a strong voice to Renato Di Rossi, Leona’s possible lover. In “Bargaining,” he teaches her how to haggle with the skill of a gypsy pulling a bajour. Laurents would often say that Sondheim’s songs were “little one-act plays,” and here’s one of his first: Di Rossi portrays both male merchant and female shopper (with a great falsetto) all the way to an opera bouffe ending.
Soon thereafter Renato delivers his first romantic song to Leona: “Someone Like You.” Throughout his distinguished career, Rodgers was famous for writing “wrong notes” – ones that could be sharpened or sometime flatted and yet sound more satisfying than the ones we would have expected. He has a beauty in this song.
Maybe Do I Hear a Waltz? could have never succeeded because we like Leona and Renato so much that we want them to get together – especially after they sing the sensational title song. (You know Rodgers and his waltzes. This was one of his best, and certainly the finest that he wrote in the entire ‘60s.)
Alas, the lovers aren’t meant to be. But if they had continued their relationship, we wouldn’t have had the touching final song “Thank You So Much.” As they part, they acknowledge “Thank you for such a little but lovely time.” I predict we’ll have much more that that this week at City Center.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.