Though Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim are arguably the two greatest writers of American musical theater, their one collaboration — Do I Hear a Waltz? — was a fizzle. Some of the reasons are all too evident in the equally fizzly Encores! production, which is erratic and mild in a way that suggests the show’s history of overcompromise. By 1964, when it opened on Broadway, Rodgers was 62 and almost rigid with fear about the waning of his melodic gift. Bereft of his H’s — Hart, who died in 1943, and Hammerstein, who died in 1960 — he sought out Sondheim, the rising young lyricist of West Side Story and Gypsy, and not incidentally a close friend of his daughter Mary. The two men were temperamentally unsuited, not least because Rodgers was a homophobe, though he’d somehow tolerated Hart. More than that, they brought clashing ideologies to the table. Rodgers was wedded to a form of musical storytelling that Sondheim, in just a few years, would shatter with shows like Company and Follies. Approaching Arthur Laurents’s story for Do I Hear a Waltz? from opposite sides of an aesthetic divide, the best they could achieve was a stalemate.
That wasn’t so inapt, really; a stalemate fits Laurents’s tale, which was stale anyway, having been told in his 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo and the 1955 movie Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn. All versions concern a repressed American spinster (that is, she’s in her early 30s) who comes to Venice filled with vague dreams of romantic rescue. But Leona Samish — the last name suggests that she is meant to be seen as representative of an American type — is the kind of person whose good-time-gal persona masks a Puritan superego, causing her to trip herself up at every opportunity. Pursued by Renato Di Rossi, an Italian who is no prince but a handsome-enough shopkeeper, she grows suspicious of his motives, throws up roadblocks, tears them down overhastily, and screws it all up. Meanwhile the other guests and the staff of the pensione where she’s staying enact contrasting love narratives. A young American couple, the Yeagers, face their marital woes with lies and self-delusion; an elderly American couple, the McIlhennys, demonstrate the death knell of passion in companionship; and the dim maid, Giovanna, is drunk on first love. Overseeing them all, the pensione’s owner, Fioria, casts a worldly eye on all couplings, including her own, from the presumably superior point of view of a country in which “there is not divorce, there is only discretion.”
The supporting players in such a story could straightforwardly be rendered in song: Di Rossi, for instance, gets a clutch of Puccinesque arias as gorgeous as anything Rodgers ever wrote, even if one of them (“Stay”) sounds more Russian than Venetian. Fiora gets snappy charm material, and her guests get effective little Eisenhower-era comedy ensembles. There’s a tango for the maid and lovely atmospheric textures for the Piazza San Marco. (The fine orchestrations are by Ralph Burns.) But Leona is a puzzling heroine for a musical. She is breezy and sour, self-mocking and locked down; Laurents gives her aptly bitchy dialogue that marks both her interest in and mistrust of the Italian sensibility. (To her, a gondola is nothing more than a “floating mattress.”) So what can song, whose purpose in musicals is usually to air longings that boil just beneath the surface, do for her? Everything beneath her surface is frozen. Sondheim’s proposal was not to have her sing at all, until Italy finally changes her in the show’s last beat. But that was not going to fly with Rodgers. So she sings plenty, and it’s all well written, but shows us very little about her that we don’t already know. Even the appealing Melissa Errico can do little to overcome the sense that Leona is the least appealing person on stage.
Beyond that, there is a tension within the songs between two kinds of genius. However melodically fluid, Rodgers is rhythmically square; Sondheim is always detonating little subversive explosions as if to re-route a river. (Often the rhymes are not quite where you expect them.) Rodgers nastily discarded the coruscating lyric for the Yeagers’ duet “We’re Gonna Be Alright” after Mrs. Rodgers recognized in it some unflattering elements of their own marriage:
All is well,
Least as far as their friends can tell.
Please excuse the peculiar smell,
There’s no cause for alarm.
Sondheim replaced it with a blander version, but recent productions, including this one, revert to the original, whose interplay of suave tune and acid words makes it superior in every way — except dramatically. It makes no sense in the show. Nor does the protagonist’s cri de coeur “Everybody Loves Leona,” cut from the original for being too on-the-nose. It still is.
A musical, after all, is more than just its songs. It is also more than just its script, which in the case of this production is based on a revision Laurents wrote years after the Broadway flop. (It solves some problems while creating others.) Many shows that look on paper like they shouldn’t work have nevertheless been brought to glory by terrific stagings. Do I Hear a Waltz? is not one of those; it’s the opposite. The conflicts and compromises that leave their marks on its material are subtractive, not additive, making it very difficult to pull off, especially with the standard Encores! rehearsal period of 11 days. One makes allowances; the performance on opening night was ragged with dropped lyrics and missed cues, and the staging, by Evan Cabnet, was frequently awkward and generally monotonous. It was, of course, sung well, especially by the tenor Richard Troxell (a recent Met Borsa in Rigoletto) as Di Rossi. But of the principals, including the highly American Karen Ziemba miscast but welcome as Fioria, only the newcomer Sarah Hunt, as the self-deluding half of the young Yeager couple, finds a tone that successfully bridges the show’s stylistic gaps.
Sondheim, famously ungenerous to himself, writes of Do I Hear a Waltz? that, because it had “no inner energy,” it was “a failure in every respect.” I disagree, now that the show has become a historical proposition rather than a commercial entertainment. You could have no better record of the clash of old and new, descendant and ascendant, that Rodgers and Sondheim represented in 1964. You can hear the conflict, song after song, as they turn that clash into moments of clever fun or immense but untethered beauty. And you can understand how it came to happen that such moments would never again suffice.
Do I Hear a Waltz? is at City Center through May 15.