Another Turn Around the Floor

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

In hindsight it seems a most improbable theatrical collaboration.

In 1964, playwright Arthur Laurents paired Richard Rodgers, elder statesman of the American musical theater, with Stephen Sondheim, young Turk of musicals, to write music and lyrics for a new version of his 1952 play "The Time of the Cuckoo." The result--"Do I Hear a Waltz?"--was dogged with production problems and a composer and lyricist at loggerheads with each another.

At one point during tryouts, Laurents wrote in his autobiography last year, "Original Story By," Rodgers disdainfully threw down lyrics Sondheim had presented him. Sondheim threatened to quit. Rodgers threatened to quit. Ultimately, though, the show went on--to Broadway, where it ran for 220 performances before quietly disappearing.

Today the work is seldom revived and has been professionally staged only once in the Los Angeles area. But director David Lee and the Pasadena Playhouse have taken up the challenge of bringing it back. "Do I Hear a Waltz?" opens July 15.

Lee carefully sought out a team of highly lauded actors for the parts. Carol Lawrence, who originated the role of Maria in "West Side Story," Anthony Crivello, who won a Tony Award in 1993 for "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and Alyson Reed, known for her role as Cassie in the Broadway and film versions of "A Chorus Line," are all Broadway veterans.

"I've been a Sondheim fan for a long time, and I had played [the recording] 30 years ago," says Lee, best known as co-creator of television's "Frasier." "I sort of fell in love with it."

Lee had thought of doing it--with some changes--five years ago when playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps approached him to direct a play. Instead, Lee ended up directing Moss Hart's "Light Up the Sky."

Putting off the project proved a boon. In 1999, Laurents and Sondheim mounted their own, modest revival of "Waltz" at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. "They had done 95% of what I wanted to do," Lee says. "They took the chorus out, they took the dancers out. They got rid of a couple of numbers, they added back a number ['Everyone Loves Leona']. More than anything, they streamlined the emotional through-line."

"I went to Sheldon and said, 'This is the one I want to do.' "

Now, as before, the story of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" takes place in the 1960s, with Leona Samish (Reed), a spinsterish American from the Midwest, arriving at the Pensione Fioria in romantic Venice. Surrounded by couples, Leona is ready for a little romance of her own. She catches the eye of a local antiques dealer, Renato di Rossi (Crivello), who quickly charms his way into her lonely heart by offering to find "a mate" to a goblet she wants to buy--by singing, of course. Unfortunately, he is married, which shocks Leona.

Her primness is contrasted with the flirtatiousness of Fioria (Lawrence), the owner of the boardinghouse. The widow Fioria makes no secret of her "catholic taste" in men and has her eye on Eddie (Benjamin Sprunger), a young American guest who also happens to be married.

It's a story of cultural clash-- la dolce vita versus the Puritan ethic. Fioria could be seen as an opportunist--her opening song puts down other nationals in favor of Americans, her current lodgers. She sings:

Last week the Germans--

You can keep the Germans.

Always cheap, the Germans

even on a trip.

But Lawrence, the veteran actress whose career took off after "West Side Story," can sympathize with the Italian point of view. "She's reaching out for making her life as good as it can be, as rich, as full," says Lawrence.

Fellow Venetian Di Rossi is also living out this tenet. "Seize the moment when it comes to you," says Crivello. "Some of Di Rossi's songs are reflective of that."

Such pragmatic views can make Leona seem rigid, even unrealistic, by comparison. "It's meeting someone and taking what joy there is in the moment," Lawrence says, "because that idealistic image of the perfect man is probably never going to happen, and a lot of women stay alone because they never got their dream."

Everyone involved with the Pasadena Playhouse production--especially Lee--is well aware of "Waltz's" cumbersome baggage. "All the [original] collaborators had a horrible time working on it," Lee acknowledges.

Laurents wanted Rodgers and his longtime collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II to do the music and lyrics for the revamping of "Time of the Cuckoo." But after Hammerstein's death, the playwright turned to his friend and recent collaborator Sondheim (Sondheim was a family friend and a protege of Hammerstein's). Laurents and Sondheim had worked together on "Gypsy" and "West Side Story"--and they had also laid an egg with "Anyone Can Whistle."

Rodgers, meanwhile, was looking for a new collaborator and was aware of Sondheim's promising resume, so he was game. But during tryouts in New Haven, Conn., and Boston, things began to fall apart, Laurents wrote in his autobiography. He saw problems with the lead actors--Elizabeth Allen was perhaps too young for Leona, Sergio Franchi too stiff for Di Rossi--and with director John Dexter, who kept refusing to hold rehearsals. Then there was the basic gulf between the two men he had brought together. "Dick was twitchy with Steve from their first day of collaboration," Laurents wrote, blaming the disputes on the trajectories of their careers. "[Sondheim] was on the way up and Dick was on the way down." In his autobiography, "Musical Stages," Rodgers says he felt Laurents and Sondheim were ganging up on him. "Any suggestions I made were promptly rejected as if by pre-arrangement," he wrote.

For Laurents, the play "opened to a consensus of disappointment."

Rodgers had described "Waltz" as "a sad little comedy with songs." But, Lee says, "the second I saw the phrase 'sad little comedy with songs,' [in Laurents' biography] I thought, I would love to see that! I would love to see what three great men of the musical theater did!"

Today, Lee says, the landscape of theater has changed. "When this opened on Broadway in 1965, it was 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Hello, Dolly!' territory," he says. "I think that musical theater has morphed."

Modern audiences, he believes, will be more in tune with the bittersweet ironies in Sondheim's lyrics for "Waltz," which foreshadow his work in "Company" (1970) and other musicals. The song Rodgers threw down, for example, was "We're Gonna Be All Right," a duet between the young American couple, Eddie and Jennifer (Merry Simkins). "It was not the expected boy-girl number the tune suggested," Laurents wrote. "It fit the melody for the first deceptive chorus, then played against it for the second chorus with an edge that was sharp, satiric and slightly nasty."

The song remained in the show but in an expurgated form. Now many of the Sondheim stanzas that were axed have been reinstated, including:

Happy endings can spring a leak,

"Ever After" can mean one week,

We're just having a drought.

Smile and sweat it out.

One thing will remain very Richard Rodgers, however. Accompanying "Waltz" will be a 16-piece orchestra, the largest ever for a Pasadena Playhouse production. The set, by Roy Christopher, captures a microcosm of Venice--the garden of the Pensione Fioria, which leads to a bridge over a canal.

Never having seen a staged production of "Waltz," Lee is looking forward to his dream come true. "What I've realized is that I've had horrible times working on things too," he says. "Every so often I'll be watching a rerun of 'Frasier' or 'Cheers,' and I'll remember, 'Oh, that was a hideous week!' But that's totally irrelevant to the product."

*

"DO I HEAR A WALTZ?," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Dates: In previews now; opens next Sunday at 5 p.m. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 19. Prices: $20 to $60. Phone: (626) 356-PLAY.

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