Track by Track
There are times when I look around, see a void, and get an itch to fill it. Having posted at the SSS for about a year now, I’ve noticed a void in any real commentary on the CDs of Sondheim’s musicals.
Welcome toTrack by Track, my way of filling that void.
Recordings of Broadway musicals are an odd sort of beast. On the one hand, they are intended to be the permanent record of what a show was like, capturing the music and lyrics so that anyone can listen to them time and again. On the other hand, because they are just recordings of the music and lyrics, they are not the same as seeing the actual show, any more than a radio production of a play could be the same as seeing the play on stage. The performance is strictly one of sound, with the listener’s imagination filling in the gaps.
The best of these recordings are, on their own, wonderful listening experiences. The Original Cast Recording of Sunday in the Park with George is a perfect example of this, a crystalline prism of music that not only evokes what the show is about, but stands as a work of art on its own. The worst recordings are those that don’t trust either the listener or the material, or can’t be bothered to give any better than a workman-like performance.
In Track by Track, I intend to set down an opinion of the Sondheim albums, literally track by track, giving some background on the songs and a comment or two on the performances. Sometimes I may be comparing two versions of a score. (We all know there are differences between the OCR of West Side Story and the soundtrack recording from the film, but what are those differences? And, if you had to choose between purchasing one or the other, how would you choose?) Further down the line, I also plan on reviewing some of the solo and concert albums.
I’ll be honest about myself: I am not a trained musicologist, and the opinions expressed here are exactly that, opinions. I’m hoping to excite a few opinions from other people along the way. I am also a stickler for factual accuracy, but may occasionally blunder. If so, please let me know, so corrections can be made.
That having been said, let’s get started…
It happened on a rainy Saturday afternoon in New York City.
My partner, Der Brucer, and I don’t get to the East Coast all that often, but when we do we have a favorite tourist attraction: the TKTS booth at Duffy Square. Fortunately, we had heard in advance that there were going to be storms, so I had packed my umbrella, with its six-foot span when opened, and he had packed his folding umbrella, barely more than two feet across. “Size queen,” he muttered, looking incredibly soggy. There wasn’t much sense in both of us getting drenched (well, only one of us was getting drenched), so I sent him over to the Virgin Megastore a block or so down the street, where I’d meet him when I got our matinee tickets.
As fate would have it, Virgin had the OCR for Ragtime on sale for just $22. Der Brucer looked at me over his cup of hot chocolate. “Are you nuts? Get it!” So I headed back to where they had their showtunes, picked up a copy, and then could not resist looking over what else was on sale. There on the rack sat a CD with a sickly smog-gray cover, picturing a man and woman dangling from ropes tied to a red-and-white striped pole: the dreaded Do I Hear a Waltz? My curiosity got the better of me. Why is this score so reviled, I wondered? Fortunately, Der Brucer didn’t say a thing when I returned with two purchases instead of one. He did give a long sigh, however, that suggested he thought me completely nuts.
Do I Hear a Waltz? is a musical based on Arthur Laurents’ 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo, with Laurents adapting the material for the book. In 1965, he approached Richard Rodgers to write the music, and Stephen Sondheim was brought in to write the lyrics. Much has been written about how this did not turn out to be a great collaboration. I don’t see a need to elaborate here.
The musical’s story is about Leona Samish (Elizabeth Allen), a 30-plus American tourist visiting Venice for the first time. Unhappily single, she is surrounded at the pensione where she is staying by two other American couples, the older McIlhennys (Madeleine Sherwood and Jack Manning), and the younger Yaegers, Eddie (Stuart Damon) and Jennifer (Julienne Marie).
While shopping alone, Leona meets shopkeeper Renato Di Rossi (Sergio Franchi), who sets out to seduce her. Meanwhile, Eddie, whose marriage is already shaky, is seduced by the owner of the pensione, Signora Fioria (Carol Bruce). Leona is shocked when she witnesses Eddie trysting with Fioria, and is shocked further when she discovers that Di Rossi is already married. Di Rossi accuses Leona of being unrealistic, naïve and puritanical, and offers his love for the short time she will be in Venice. She accepts.
In act two, the Yaegers try to patch things up between themselves, while Leona decides she is in love with Di Rossi when he gives her a garnet necklace. However, when it turns out she has to pay for necklace, for which he gets a commission, she throws him out. Turning to the bottle for solace, she lets everyone know about Eddie and Fioria’s affair, which leads to everyone rejecting her.
The following day, as everyone is leaving, Di Rossi returns to tell Leona that her suspicious nature has crushed any feeling he had for her. Leona sees where she “went wrong,” and would like to try romance again, but it won’t be with Di Rossi. Leona tells Di Rossi that she is grateful for the lessons he has taught her, and they part company.
In other words, Do I Hear a Waltz? is a celebration of male infidelity, and any woman who objects to this state of affairs has something wrong with her. I should note, in the original play Leona and Di Rossi were both middle-aged, and the proposed affair was less about sex than loving and affection. The two characters were made younger in the musical to make them more appealing. Still, the musical took a condescending attitude towards women, and the smug male chauvinism taints the original cast recording as well. However, it took me several runs through the disk before I figured out just why I found this show so disturbing. Also listed in the cast are Giovanna (Fleury D’Antonakis), a maid; Mauro (Christopher Votos), a juvenile tour guide; Vito (James Dybas), Di Rossi’s adult son; with Michael Lamont and Helon Blount as part of the ensemble.
So, how does Do I Hear a Waltz? work as a listening experience? Going Track by Track...
Leona falls in love with the city of Venice. She admits a tendency of crying whenever she finds something romantic, is led through the city by the bratty kid Mauro, and falls into a canal while trying to get the right angle for a photograph. BUT HER SPIRITS ARE UNDAMPENED!
The song starts out fine, with dreamy bells and mandolins, but all too soon Rodgers succumbs to switching to a “modern,” perky tempo, with pulsing strings and bites of staccato brass. Sure, it sounds exciting, but it’s artificial. Sondheim’s lyrics aren’t bad, including some good images of a city as a construct: “Someone drew plans like a set for a stage / Someone spilled colors all over the page”. Leona has a nagging habit of referring to herself in the third person, however, and calling herself by the diminutive nickname “Cookie”. This is fine, if our heroine is middle-aged, as she was in the original play. Here, with a bright, perky heroine somewhere in her thirties, it plays false.
Elizabeth Allen has a fine voice, for the era, with the right amount of brassiness and enthusiasm. Christopher Votos comes across as an early version of Short Round (from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and is fortunately never heard from again on this disk.
Track 2: This Week, Americans
Signora Fioria outlines the personality traits of the various nationalities that visit her pensione.
Ms. Bruce gives a good, rounded Italian accent without garbling her pronunciation. The melody is bouncy, similar to the Countess’ songs from The Sound of Music, but lyrically there’s trouble. We are given nothing but stereotypes, some of them rather nasty (alcoholic Swedes, sweaty Germans). Some of the wordplay is clever (the French are “far more cheek than chic”), but the song finally ends with an attitude of love for the Americans that strikes me as self-serving. Either the Signora is being a jingoistic mouthpiece for the American writers, with her disgust for every nationality other than the Americans, or she is being two-faced and loathes everyone equally, including the Americans. I suspect that it’s the former.
Track 3: What Do We Do? We Fly!
During a party, the hotel guests list why they hate air travel, specifying the long waits, in-flight movies, other people’s children, and the food.
Individually, the cast does well, but they get sloppy when asked to perform as a chorus. The music is, by necessity, bright and bouncy, reminding me a little of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. The lyrics are mostly clever, although the food verse relies too much on standard objections to airline food. I am bothered with the verse about children, however, when Jennifer declares:
There was one on the left who bit
Huh? Well, this was written in 1965. Maybe child abuse was funny back then.
Track 4: Someone Like You
Renato Di Rossi makes a pass at Leona when she visits his shop, telling her she is a “wonderful surprise.” To make sure she understands, he sings the song twice.
The music and lyrics are nice. Actually, it is pleasant to get a slow number, after being continually “bounced” around for the first three, but the song has nothing special within it. Sergio Franchi sings with a good, clear baritone, mushing his pronunciation somewhat, finally coming across as an Italian Robert Goulet. Which he was.
Track 5: Bargaining
Di Rossi teaches the Italian art of bargaining to Leona. Basically, this involves arguing the price down from what the shopkeeper asks to what he really wants to be paid.
This song is absolutely wretched! The lyrics aren’t all that funny, and we’re back to that bouncy music again. The problem is that, in demonstrating bargaining, Franchi has to play both the shopkeeper (in his own range) and the female shopper, who is presented in an unfortunate falsetto. Not only is the device sexist and tired, Franchi is not very good at singing the female part. The best comparison I can find is Mandy Patkinkin’s performance of Buddy’s Blues on the Follies in Concert album: while Mandy’s screeching of the women’s parts is irritating, it’s done in the context of being part of a show. Here, Di Rossi is “performing” to a potential customer and lover. If I were Leona, I would find his act offensive and degrading, and storm out of his shop pronto.
Please keep this song in mind, however. Di Rossi’s numbers are key to what is wrong with the show.
Track 6: Here We Are Again
This is actually two numbers in one. The first is a light, relaxed promenade as Signora Fioria and the married vacationers stroll around the piazza. This alternates with a more American melody, paced more like a walk than a stroll, as Leona observes the couples and tries to accept her own state of being single.
The contrast between the two songs works. Rodgers hits exactly the right tone. His promenade is light and pleasant; one can almost feel the evening breeze. Leona’s melody catches her mental state perfectly, slightly rueful and vulnerable, but realistic and not really depressed. As for Sondheim’s lyrics, he here shows his skill at capturing the characters and what they are feeling with a minimum of fuss. That Eddie is tiring of his wife, for example, shows in a simple “Honey, please,” two simple words. Similarly, Leona’s repeated use of the word “pretty” hints that not everything is pretty for her, and the revealing way her use of the royal “we” twists into “me and I” at the end of her first verse is very satisfying. All in all, this is a highly enjoyable track.
Track 7: Thinking
Di Rossi continues his pursuit of Leona, asking her for a date. She is hesitant, suspecting his motives, but when he threatens to leave, her fears of being alone once again cause her to relent and accept his invitation.
The art of thinking has long been one of Sondheim’s recurring themes. Not only does he put a lot of thinking into his own work, he encourages his audiences to think as well. Further, the characters he writes about often sing about the process of thinking. (A quick glance at the score of Into the Woods gives ample evidence of this.) How strange it is, then, to find the one song in the Sondheim canon titled “Thinking” actually advocates not thinking!
At one point, Di Rossi sings “I was thinking, all this heavy thinking, this is not good,” clearly defining his attitude about life and women. On the one hand, he is offering Leona companionship, but he doesn’t want to accept her as she is, and would have her change, not think about the consequences of their spending time together. It seems preferable to him that she think about what she is going to wear, rather than where they are going in their relationship. Aside from the typical ‘50s notion that sex is a dirty thing that only naughty people think about, there is something disturbing about Di Rossi’s combativeness in this song. It is almost as if he needs to control Leona. Taken with his previous songs, an arc begins to develop regarding what kind of man Di Rossi actually is.
On its own, both musically and lyrically, this is not a very compelling song. With all its stops and stumbles, it ends up as mediocre as the mediocrity De Rossi advocates.
Track 8: No Understand
A tango for three! Eddie has been flirting with Signora Fioria, and the flirtation has gotten hotter than he had planned for. To defuse the situation he tries to give the maid, Giovana, a lesson in English. Fioria is having none of it, of course, so she ups the ante by adding body parts to the words being taught. Eddie soon succumbs, and he and Fioria are off to find a gondola in which to have sex.
I have to admit this number is fun. Sleazy, but fun. Listening to Stuart Damon as Eddie vocally writhe about, knowing he shouldn’t allow himself to be caught by Fioria but unable to resist, and finally giving in with what-the-hey abandon, is a hoot! (Yes, it is the same Stuart Damon who found a day job on General Hospital.) Rodgers himself lets loose with this tango, and Sondheim again shows that skill at capturing a character with just a short phrase. It shouldn’t be, but this song is a winner.
Track 9: Take the Moment
Act One concludes with an absolutely brilliant ballad. Di Rossi proposes that he and Leona have an affair, and with this song convinces her to agree, in spite of her knowing by this time that he is already married.
Rodgers delivers a lush melody equal to Some Enchanted Evening, rich and seductive, crafted to show Franchi’s baritone to its best effect. Sondheim rises to the occasion, with some of the best writing he did for this show. As for Franchi’s performance, he mushes some of the lyrics, but his voice is sonorous and clear, electrifyingly theatrical.
So what is wrong? Only that Di Rossi is supposed to be our romantic hero, when this song proves him to be quite the villain. Consider this part of the lyric:
All the noises
So far, we have gone from Di Rossi making a pass at a woman he has just met, followed by his derogatory portrayal of women in general. He then combatively argues her into agreeing to a date, and now he commands that she not listen to her better instincts and instead have an affair with him. Romantic hero? This guy is a manipulative control freak! That he would take advantage of Leona’s vulnerability, her loneliness and need for romance, is reprehensible.
Which leads me to conclude that the real problem with Do I Hear a Waltz? is that Rodgers, Sondheim, and Laurents were writing the wrong show. In the liner notes, Rodgers is quoted as saying “Unfortunately, when we put our touching, intimate story on the stage, we found that instead of a musical we had a sad little comedy with songs. It simply didn’t work.” Oddly enough, if they had kept Leona a middle-aged woman, instead of making her young and attractive (and kept Di Rossi middle-aged, as well, instead of casting the aggressively testosteroned Franchi), the show might well have kept it’s charm. By casting the leads younger, this is no longer a romantic musical. It instead becomes cautionary, anti-romantic, with the suspense being whether our heroine will escape the clutches of this predator. Which is, of course, a totally different show.
Track 10: Moon in My Window
Act Two opens with a sort of trio for Jennifer, Signora Fioria, and Leona. Jennifer gets to tackle the song first, playing a sad game, telling herself that Eddie will be back by the time the moon reaches “that little dome”, and later “that cloud there”. Signora Fioria next returns from her tryst, unimpressed with the moon’s romantic charms (the hint being that Eddie and the moon have much in common) and wanting only to get to bed. Leona sings the melody yet one more time, disappointed with romance but, joined by the other two women, anticipating exactly that for the following night.
The melody is good enough, the lyrics very good, with performances that are certainly adequate. If this song has a problem, at least here on disk, it is that it is too repetitive and goes on far too long. Dialogue breaks between the verses would have helped, but cast recordings in the mid-‘60s rarely used such techniques as they consumed too much time needed for the music.
Track 11: We’re Gonna Be All Right
Eddie and Jennifer sweep the previous nights indiscretions under the rug with another bouncy song filled with phrases that sound more like they come from successful business seminars than from marriage counseling. Once again, the song is sung twice, the second time softer and closer to the mike, giving this embattled couple a bizarre “Steve and Edie” sweetness.
This song may now be more famous than the title song, due to the release of the scathing original lyric on Side by Side by Sondheim (and before that on Sondheim: a Musical Tribute). While this second, Rodgers-approved set of lyrics lack the acidic punch of the other version, they do convey the crushing corporate mentality that pervaded much of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Even marriage was supposed to march to an established, predetermined beat. This brings up the second real problem with Do I Hear a Waltz? If the show was supposed to be “touching and intimate,” as Rodgers said, then why the recurring nastiness of spirit that shows in so many of the songs? We’ve so far encountered bigotry, abuse, chauvinism, casual adultery, and here we have two people deciding to “just hang on” and pretend everything is fine, rather than work their problems out. I wonder if Sondheim may have subconsciously understood that there was something negative and unromantic about this entire production, because it is in his lyrics that we repeatedly find the chilling, skeptical perspective.
From what I can tell, Rodgers and Laurents still thought they were writing a lovely, romantic show. If they hadn’t liked what Sondheim was writing, they had every opportunity to tell him to go back, rewrite, and take out the acidity. Rodgers’ nixing of this song’s first lyric demonstrates that he had the power of veto. Still, the anti-romantic view that permeates the score remains.
Track 12: Do I Hear a Waltz?
Leona, who has been holding the unfortunate romantic belief that if two people were in love they would hear a waltz, finally does hear that waltz when Di Rossi gives her a garnet necklace. Sondheim’s lyrics for this song are among his best, conveying Leona’s growing amazement and delight in realizing that she is indeed in love, bordering on the deluded and hallucinatory. As for Rodgers, he is here writing music exactly the way he likes: lush, romantic and stiff.
Yes, stiff. I have to digress for a moment here, because an anecdote is in order. A few months ago, Der Brucer and I were invited by an Internet friend of ours to a screening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s television musical, Cinderella. Not the new version with Brandy, but a kinescope of the original version starring Julie Andrews, complete with commercials. Helping to introduce the screening were Edie Adams, who played Cinderella’s magical Godmother, and Jon Cypher, who played her Prince. Cypher (who some of you may remember as the General on the television series Major Dad) told the audience about a small run-in he had with Rodgers about the phrasing in one of the songs, where Cypher was having trouble making the notes flow. Rodgers coldly told Cypher that he had written sixteenth notes, and if he had intended it any other way he would have written it that other way. The song was sung the way Rodgers wrote it.
Do I Hear a Waltz? in this recording suffers from the same stiffness. Rodgers wrote each note to have the same weight and length, so by golly each and every note has the exact same weight and length. As a result, Allen’s performance is stifled and false. If it weren’t for the story Cypher told that night, I would have thought the stiff performance was her fault. I’m glad to say it was not. Unfortunately, the sad result is that Rodgers ended up destroying his own composition.
To bleating oboes and mournful strings, Di Rossi asks Leona to stay with him in Venice, instead of returning to America. How captivating, to be proposed to by a man who is already married, with music that sounds like a dirge and a lyric notable for its total lack of positive thinking.
I am not the dream come true
This is hardly the most wonderful thing to be told by a man who claims to be the love of one’s life, after all.
I’ve read that one way spouse abusers keep their mates from leaving is by telling them they are worthless and that no one else would want them. Di Rossi isn’t far from doing that here. But, of course, in 1965, who knew?
Track 14: Perfectly Lovely Couple
Perfectly unpleasant number is more like it. Leona gives a party, to show off her beau and her garnets, not necessarily in that order of importance. In the process, she has too much to drink, but everyone is too merry to realize that disaster is about to happen. I suppose another “bouncy” song was needed after Stay, if only to get the audience awake again, and Sondheim’s lyric does foreshadow the mess that Leona is about to make of her life and everyone else’s. On the whole, however, this song is pretty distasteful.
I supposed it had to be done. Audiences in the mid-‘60s expected a romantic number at the end of a romantic musical, so Leona and Di Rossi tell each other good-bye and thank each other for a lovely time. The song is, thankfully, not bouncy, and in fact wistful. Rodgers then sweeps us into a lush string and harp filled reprise of the title song, ending with a few notes from Take the Moment.
Time for a Fast-Track, a quick review of what tracks on this CD are worth punching up when you don’t have the time to listen to the entire disk. The best two tracks are Track 6: Here We Are Again and Track 9: Take the Moment. Second tier songs would be Tracks 8, 10, and 12: No Understand, Moon in My Window, and Do I Hear a Waltz? (but the last one is pushing it).
This wasn't the first time either Rodgers or Sondheim wrote shows that weren't successful. Rodgers had his fair share of flops writing with Hammerstein, a fact that too many theatre fans prefer to forget, and Sondheim had already written Anyone Can Whistle. It isn’t the mismatching of Sondheim with Rodgers that concerns me here, however.
Consider, this was Sondheim’s fifth Broadway musical. Of those five shows, four had books written by Arthur Laurents. The first two, West Side Story and Gypsy, are considered musical theatre landmarks. The third, Anyone Can Whistle, achieved cult status due to its cast recording, and so might be considered an artistic success of a sort. Do I Hear a Waltz? is their only collaboration that is considered a failure. Also consider, Laurents was the man most responsible for this show being produced at all. It was Laurents who brought the project to Rodger’s attention, and it was Laurents who insisted that Sondheim be brought in as lyricist. It was his play, and his adaptation. While Sondheim and Laurents have remained friends, with the exception of incidental music Sondheim wrote for Laurents’ play The Enclave they have not worked together since writing Do I Hear a Waltz? I wonder how different the Broadway musical might be if they hadn’t written this show together, if instead they had found a project that was more artistically sound or more attractive to their audience.
On the other hand, the three Broadway shows for which Sondheim has written the lyrics only are all Laurents collaborations. My curiosity is getting the better of me again. I think it’s time for me to take a good, hard look at those shows. I’ll let you know what I discover next time. Until then, if anyone has any comments to make about this column, please write me.
West Side Story
With my best wishes to you and yours,