Seeing Do I Hear a Waltz?
Emily Skinner headlined a San Francisco staging of Sondheim's 1965 collaboration with Richard Rodgers
San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon theater company specializes in mounting musicals you've rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to see fully produced elsewhere. Recently (Oct. 1-19, 2014) the company turned its attention to Do I Hear A Waltz?, the seldom performed 1965 collaboration between Stephen Sondheim, his book writing colleague Arthur Laurents and Broadway's immortal composer Richard Rodgers.
The origin of the show is well told by Sondheim in Finishing the Hat. He says he took on the show not only because his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II urged him to "consider writing a show with Rodgers, should he ever ask me," but also because, following the nine performance flop of Anyone Can Whistle, he and Laurents needed to "make a ton of money." The result, he reports, "was not a bad show, merely a dead one."
42nd Street Moon's production demonstrated that Sondheim was right about it not being bad. It is a well-constructed charmer telling a fairly interesting story of the conflict between innocence and sophistication – or between naiveté and cynicism, depending on your view – using intelligently assembled scenes from Laurents's play The Time of the Cuckoo. The score features some glorious Rodgers melodies as well as the verbal dexterity we have come to expect of Sondheim. Indeed, it is the music that tends to remain in the head and heart longer than either the book or lyrics.
The original Broadway production eked out a 220-performance run in a season that included the debut of the megahit Fiddler on the Roof. It generated a lovely original cast album from Columbia records that's been re-released on CD. A 2001 revival at California's Pasadena Playhouse also received a cast recording on CD (Fynsworth Alley). The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization, which licenses productions of the show, reports that there has been "an uptick in licenses" since that production and recording.
With the San Francisco production, the pleasures of both Rodgers' melodies and Sondheim's lyrics were available in a performance dominated by the show's leading lady, Tony Award nominee Emily Skinner, who played the American spinster on vacation in beautiful Venice. She brought a radiance and a touch of Broadway magic which no one else in the cast could approach. But she avoided grandstanding and supported the cast of local performers who frequent 42nd Street Moon's stage.
That supporting cast included a smooth voiced Tyler McKenna as the married Italian for whom the American tourist falls, and a sharp Stephanie Rhoads as the owner of the pensione where the American visitor stays. Skinner and McKenna nicely developed the humor in Sondheim's clever lyrics for "I Was Thinking," and McKenna's rendition of "Take the Moment" gave equal weight to the loveliness of Rodgers' melody and the clarity of Sondheim's lyric. Throughout, McKenna delivered with clarity Sondheim's broken-syntax lyrics for an Italian man who is less than fluent in English, especially "Stay" when the character's language difficulties are exacerbated by his emotions: "Did you wish a duke? / At least a duke you should have. / If I could have been a duke, / For you, I would have."
Skinner's solos, however, shone brightest with her work on the opening "Someone Woke Up" and her big Act II number: the title song. Then, her lovely lead-in to the concluding duet with McKenna, "Thank You So Much" brought the show a final touch of musical magic.
Sondheim's lighter lyrics sparkled. "Perfectly Lovely Couple" proved a charmer, but "What Do We Do? We Fly" hasn't exactly survived the years unscathed as it seems a bit strange to sing a complaint about "airline food" in the second decade of the 21st century when some airlines barely serve snacks.
The production, as is the way with 42nd Street Moon, was played out before a colorful set made up mostly of painted flats, one of which hid the piano of the company's resident musical director Dave Dubrosky. On Broadway, the show sported a cast of 10 named characters plus 15 singers and 10 dancers. 42nd Street Moon had a cast of just 10 with limited choreography. Still, for those of us who have never before had the pleasure of seeing Do I Hear A Waltz?, we can now add it to our list of Sondheim shows we've enjoyed. [TSR]