Ninth waltz

Sometimes what a musical needs is alchemy. You can have the greatest living composer pouring out gorgeous melodies. You can have the playwright responsible for the books to Gypsy and West Side Story adapting his own fairly solid play. For lyrics, you can have Stephen Sondheim. But if there’s no alchemy, no magic, no secret sauce, all you’re left with is a tasteless muddle.

Do I Hear a Waltz? is now playing at City Center. The fine folks at Encores occasionally slip up, and they miss the mark as badly as they did last time they mounted a Rodgers-post-Hammerstein (No Strings). Music is their specialty, so it’s no surprise Richard Rodgers comes off best. Richard Troxell delivers a delicious performance of the big ballad, Take the Moment, unquestionably the highlight of the evening. And one of my favorite female trios, Moon In My Window, was sumptuous enough. Outside of those, the songs were a string of disappointments.

Stephen Sondheim, one must admit, was simply the wrong lyricist for this project. It required him to write large quantities of comedy songs, and what I’ll call Happy-Love love songs. If I say these are the worst lyrics of his career, that’s taking in the context of the rest of his oeuvre: show after show with excellent lyrics. Do I Hear a Waltz? isn’t bad, lyrically, but comedy songs and Happy-Love just aren’t his strong suits and that’s what he dutifully churned out here. There are plenty of Sondheim songs that make me laugh – Pour le Sport, Instructions To the Audience, that Hail Brooklyn chorale – but, as someone who writes songs that get audiences cackling, I’ve little use for songs that merely get audiences to smile: This Week Americans, What Do We Do We Fly, Bargaining, No Understand, We’re Going To Be All Right – many attempts; none score.*

A song in which someone expresses love for another and is actually happy about it: that’s Rodgers’ thing, not Sondheim. Unhappy love songs he does well. In the title song, “roses are dancing with peonies” which, to my ears, sounds like an attempt at poetry by someone with no real experience of love.

One romantic ballad is even sung from the point of view of a middle-aged shopkeeper and a wine goblet, both lonely, both looking for a mate. “We waited for someone” – “we” being a guy and his glass. Who’s responsible for such a ridiculous idea? One can enjoy the melody but I sure couldn’t feel anything and my heart’s not made of glass.

The last time I saw a collaboration between three writers of such esteem was when Laurents hamstrung Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Nick & Nora – even more lacking in alchemy). Here he’s the source of most of the problems, giving his characters way too little to endear themselves to us. But the more major problem is that there’s nothing major happening in the show. A romance hits a few roadblocks, then the show ends. Good musicals tend to be about larger-than-life characters; here, everyone’s rather smaller-than-life. Someone drinks too much at a party and spills some secrets, threatening a marriage. Big deal.

Now it happens I’m working on a musical about ordinary people and there’s nothing extraordinary about most of the roadblocks along their way. So, it’s my job to make a big deal of things, to rev up the emotion until they burst out in song. What Laurents, Sondheim and Rodgers fail to do is to ratchet up any moment’s feeling in a way that singing seems natural. An example occurs to me: the unseen character who’s the other leg in a triangle: What does the heroine feel about her, imagine about her? Why isn’t there a song there?

For this Encores staging, we get to hear an eleven o’clock number, Everybody Loves Leona, that was cut before the Broadway opening. One can see why – it lands with a thud. There’s a natural tendency to want to write another Rose’s Turn (from a previous Laurents-Sondheim collaboration) but, for a character to have a great big emotional eruption, we have to care about her. We, in the audience, don’t love Leona enough to justify that moment.

I wrote a bit about We’re Gonna Be Alright in a recent post. I liked Sarah Hunt as Mrs. Yeager so much, I was happy to see her get more to do; but the rest of the show doesn’t have these characters expressing sharp-witted cynicism as they do in the song. It’s a sore thumb, though fairly piquant as sore thumbs go. Another performer, Sarah Stiles, enlivened the usually drab No Understand, and, again, I was glad to be in her presence.

But Rodgers sets the would-be wit to some of his dullest melodies. Bargaining keeps banging the same note as if it’s a Jason Robert Brown song. The creator of Do-Re-Mi settles for Mi-Re-Mi in the verses to the song about air travel, which seems awfully uncreative. A lively ensemble late in the show is brought down by a descending chromatic scale interspersed with the tonic – presaging his I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You a few years later. It seems like he knew a day when he was out of good ideas.

I see I’ve said not a word about the leading lady, Melissa Errico. To say she is completely wrong for this role is to indulge in understatement. Her persona is that of an alabaster princess, not a New York noodge. She over-articulates everything like she’s been to finishing school. The script has her calling everyone “Cookie” but it seemed wrong every time she said it. “Petit four,” I’d believe, not “Cookie.” Opera star Richard Troxell gets referred to as “molto bello” umpteen times in the script, but is he? His body language is stodgy and unsexy; his line readings are dreary. His Italian accent is believable, unsurprisingly, but it was never clear why Leona found him irresistible.

Do I Hear a Waltz? was a sad experience for its creators, recalled fondly by none. But the idea of an unsophisticated American falling in love with a native in Italy: there could be something truly romantic and dramatic about that. I know: I saw The Light in the Piazza with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers’ grandson.

*If you want to hear comedy songs that cause paroxysms of laughter, I humbly suggest you attend The Things We Do For Love, a collection of my songs May 25 at the Duplex in New York, June 13 at the Gardenia in Los Angeles.

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