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Another Turn Around the Floor

Pasadena's revival of 'Do I Hear a Waltz?' intensifies the 1965 musical's bittersweet ironies.

July 08, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | 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."

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