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Let’s Go Back to the Waltz

Let’s Go Back to the Waltz

By Peter Filichia–

October already. Believe it or not, the year is three-quarters over.

So wouldn’t this be a good time to celebrate songs written in three-quarter time?

Or, as Nanette Fabray sang in Mr. President, “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz.”

The musical theater apotheosis of three-quarter time, of course, occurs in A Little Night Music. Stephen Sondheim wrote most songs in part or full in that tempo: the semi-eerie “Night Waltz,” the tantalizing “Soon,” the sardonic “The Glamorous Life,” the insouciant “You Must Meet My Wife,” the vainglorious “In Praise of Women,” the wistful “It Would Have Been Wonderful” and the nostalgic “Remember?”


Otherwise, Sondheim used multiples of threes for his tempi: 6/8, 9/8 and even 12/8 – the last of which included the show’s big hit, “Send in the You-Know-Whats.” (Hmmm, perhaps Sondheim’s multiples of threes influenced Maury Yeston to include a waltz in his musical whose title is divisible by three: Nine.)

For a while there, the waltz did seem to be an endangered musical species. Some thought of it simply in operetta terms – a la the 1905 “The Merry Widow Waltz,” the most famous of its era. Along the way, some composers tried to jazz up the waltz – such as Cy Coleman, when he and Dorothy Fields in 1966 had Sweet Charity flatter her current beau by proclaiming “You Should See Yourself.” But in early 1968, Your Own Thing condemned things in threes: the three witches in Macbeth, triumvirates — and the waltz.

Nevertheless, by the end of that year, even state-of-the-art composer Burt Bacharach had written two waltzes for Promises, Promises. All right, you might expect a three-quarter tempo for a song about “Christmas Day.” But would you expect it for a song in which a man infatuated with a woman is happy to find that “She Likes Basketball”?

Such a swinging song is a good rebuttal to those who assume that waltzes are automatically and always gentle in nature. Some are, of course: “Edelweiss” (The Sound of Music); “One More Kiss” (Follies); “The Girl That I Marry” (Annie Get Your Gun). But others aren’t genteel at all: “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in Kiss Me, Kate has two singers who seem a little woozy from drink in the way they oom-pah-pah their way through the song. So do the singers who sing “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!

So waltzes can also serve comedy songs. The leprechaun known as Og sings about his penchant for promiscuity in “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” (Finian’s Rainbow). Burton Lane’s melody is as intoxicating as E.Y. Harburg’s lyrics. “When I can’t fondle the hand that I’m fond of, I fondle the hand at hand” is just the tip of Harburg’s iceberg. Avenue Q’s “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” makes clear from its title that it’s a comedy song, but it’s still a waltz. (To be fair, it does take its inspiration from Paul Williams’ marvelous Muppet waltz, “The Rainbow Connection.”) And then there’s the most darkly comic waltz of them all, worthy of the title waltz macabre: “A Little Priest,” Stephen Sondheim’s paean to murder and cannibalism in Sweeney Todd. (For the slightly less demented, Sondheim wrote “The Cookie Chase” in Anyone Can Whistle.)

Sondheim wrote the lyric to a lovely waltz – namely, “Do I Hear a Waltz?” – with the musical theater’s most valuable purveyor of waltzes: Richard Rodgers. We all know “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” (Oklahoma!), “The Carousel Waltz,” “A Wonderful Guy” (South Pacific), “Hello, Young Lovers” (The King and I) and “My Favorite Things” (The Sound of Music) from five of the six hits he had with Oscar Hammerstein II. Their other hit, Flower Drum Song, had no waltz – and it was the shortest-running of their successes.

Okay, we can’t say that the absence of a waltz kept Flower Drum Song from greater success. After all, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s three lesser shows all had waltzes: Allegro’s housewives insisted that “Money Isn’t Everything”; the theatergoers shown at the beginning of Act Two of Me and Juliet often sang in waltz tempo while engaged in “Intermission Talk”; and Pipe Dream’s prostitutes claimed that they had “The Happiest House on the Block.” Much later, Rodgers, at the age of 73, wrote his last great waltz in his penultimate show, Rex. Interesting, isn’t it, that after Sheldon Harnick handed him a lyric called “No Song More Pleasing” that he felt that a song that couldn’t be more pleasing would have to be set in three-quarter time?

At least one waltz offers cockiness: “I Gotta Crow,” a Mark Charlap-Carolyn Leigh waltz, which dispels the myth that all the good songs from Peter Pan were written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne. On the other hand, the more famous team did come up with the delectable “Captain Hook’s Waltz.”

But here’s betting that Jule Styne’s all-time favorite waltz came from Darling of the Day: “Let’s See What Happens.” He had other worthy waltzes from which to choose: “Just a Kiss Apart” (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), the title song from Bells Are Ringing and “If Momma Was Married (Gypsy) – which even includes the world “waltz” in the lyric. All I can say is that after 1968, whenever I was at a party or event where Styne would be called to the piano, he more often than not started his set by playing this song. Who can blame him? Take a listen, and let’s see what happens to your personal list of favorite waltzes.

Some compositions are so proud of being waltzes that they brag about it in the title: “The Liffie Waltz” (Juno), “Shadow Waltz” (42nd Street), “Spanish Waltz” (Magdalena) and the oxymoronically named “The Jitterbug Waltz” (Ain’t Misbehavin’) all had people waltzing on stage. When Dolly Levi sang about “Dancing,” a waltz is what she saw people doing. But at least one dance-oriented waltz wasn’t on the level: “Waltzing in Venice” from New Faces of 1952 is an out-and-out parody. It was supposedly a song that was so terrible that it was dropped from the show: “Waltzing in Venice with you isn’t so easy to do,” the singer pointed out. “If you take one more step than you oughter, you could be doing the waltz under water.”

One underappreciated waltz that deserves much more attention came from How Now, Dow Jones. The show often gets short shrift because creators Max Shulman and Carolyn Leigh painted themselves into a corner (with extremely slow-drying, sticky paint) with the silly libretto. But movie man Elmer Bernstein wrote a top-notch waltz in “Walk Away,” in which a young woman decides not to go for two after a one-night stand. Leigh was her usual adept self here: “Only where was it going? Only one little slip – and it’s showing.”

In conclusion, the waltz isn’t just for unmitigated romance. It offers other emotions and situations from A to Z:

Anticipation: “Wait Till You See Her” (By Jupiter)

Bonding: “My Best Girl” (Mame)

Cautionary Tale: “It’s Better with a Union Man” (Pins and Needles)

Denial: “I’m Not at All in Love” (The Pajama Game)

Exhilaration: “I Feel Pretty” (West Side Story)

Frustration: “She Is Not Thinking of Me” (Gigi)

Greeting: “Shalom” (Milk and Honey)

Haughtiness: “Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress?” (The Rothschilds)

Instruction: “Things to Remember” (The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd)

Joy: “Abbondanza” (The Most Happy Fella)

Knocking Someone’s Character: “You Are Not Real” (The Apple Tree)

Looking Back: “Sunrise, Sunset” (Fiddler on the Roof)

Matter-of-Fact-ness: “Living Simply” (Bajour)

Naughtiness: “I Never Do Anything Twice” (Side by Side by Sondheim)

Optimism: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (Marry Me a Little)

Possession: “Alice Blue Gown” (Irene)

Questioning a Relationship: “Melinda” (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever)

Ruefulness: “Sons Of” (Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris)

Solace: “If You Haven’t Got a Sweetheart” (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)

Togetherness: “Together Forever” (I Do! I Do!)

Usual Situation: “It’s a Typical Day” (Li’l Abner)

Victory: “It’s a Hit!” (Merrily We Roll Along)

Wistfulness: “An Old Man” (Two by Two)

X-citement: “Sunday Afternoon” (Wish You Were Here)

Young Love: “I’m in Love with Miss Logan” (New Faces of 1952)

Zest: “Where, Oh Where?” (Out of This World)

Finally, there’s “The Grand Waltz” that sums up Grand Hotel: “Life Goes On.” And given that we have “Waltz for Eva and Che” right now on Broadway and forever on recorded music, I’d say that the waltz has much more than three-quarters of its life ahead of it.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at His books on musicals are available at