Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965)

Marsha Mercant is an American looking for love in Venice, and Darren Criss (Glee) is a sympathetic ear in Do I Hear a Waltz?, the charming 1965 musical which was Stephen Sondheim's only collaboration with Richard Rodgers
Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965)

Book by Arthus Laurents
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by Greg MacKellan
Musical Director: Brandon Adams

Playbill Notes

"If Hitler's still alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical." Writer Larry Gelbart made this oft-quoted remark in 1960, still reeling from his Broadway flop The Conquering Hero. While many productions have had reasonably pleasant try-outs, being "out of town with a musical" has often been a chaotic and contentious experience. Do I Hear a Waltz? was one such show, although the creators' only real mistake may have been to open an intimate, bittersweet little musical up against such Broadway behemoths as Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, Half a Sixpence, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Arthur Laurents had long wanted to do a musical version of his 1952 hit The Time of the Cuckoo. He approached Oscar Hammerstein in 1958 and although Hammerstein was enthusiastic, he felt it too soon after the release of the motion picture version (Summertime, with Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi). A few years after Hammerstein's death, Laurents enlisted his erstwhile partner, Richard Rodgers, and along with Rodgers' daughter Mary, the group convinced Stephen Sondheim to sign on as lyricist. (This despite Sondheim's vow no longer to write lyrics for another composer's music.) The group set to work enthusiastically, and signed up a cast including Sergio Franchi as Di Rossi, Carol Bruce as Fioria, and Stuart Damon as Eddie. Elizabeth Allen was chosen to star as Leona Samish, at 30 she would be playing a notably much younger version of the "spinsterish" character that Shirley Booth (in Cuckoo) and Hepburn had essayed.

Elizabeth Allen remarks, "The show was fine in the beginning, but it got very strange. The marriage between the creators wasn't a good one." The Time of the Cuckoo had a dark, at times bitter tone, and the leading role of Leona Samish was problematic. Summertime's director/screenwriter David Lean had softened Leona by down-playing her harsher qualities; the downbeat ending to her romance with the Italian merchant, Renato Di Rossi, was also lightened. Richard Rodgers' instinct was to move the musical more in the direction of the film, while Laurents, Sondheim, and director John Dexter prevailed in their determination to keep the darker tone of the play. Tension was so thick that in a remarkable interview just before the show's opening, Rodgers made the observation that he had seen Sondheim (whom he had known since childhood) "grow from a delightful little boy to a monster."

Do I Hear a Waltz? opened at the 46th St. Theatre on March 18, 1965. The reviews, while decidedly mixed, in fact included several which were near raves, and Elizabeth Allen, Rodgers, Sondheim, and set designer Beni Montstresor were all Tony Award nominees. The show ran for several months, but finally closed early in the following season. Thirty years later, no less an authority than Ethan Mordden (author of Broadway Babies, Better Foot Forward, and Rodgers and Hammerstein) called Waltz "a wonderful show with a really lovely score." Most contemporary critics agree with Mordden that the only real sin of Do I Hear a Waltz? was that of being ahead of its time.

Plot Summary

New York City secretary Leona Samish arrives in Venice, where she is staying at the Pensione Fioria. There she meets Americans Eddie and Jennifer Yeager, who are living in Rome and have come to Venice for a vacation, and the McIlhennys, an older couple on a package tour.

While shopping, Leona sees a ruby glass goblet in a store window and goes inside to inspect it. The owner, Renato di Rossi, tells her it is an authentic 18th century piece, not a reproduction. He offers not only to find her a matching glass to make up a pair, but to show her the sights of the city, as well. Leona refuses his offer and leaves, but returns the next day to buy the goblet. Later that day, a package with a second goblet is delivered to the hotel. Soon after, Renato arrives to invite Leona to join him for coffee in Piazza San Marco that evening. When the McIlhennys show her their purchase of a set of glasses exactly like hers, Leona believes Renato misrepresented their value, but Signora Fioria assures her they are antiques.

Later in the day, a young boy comes to tell Leona Renato will be late for their meeting because one of his children is ill and needs to see a doctor. Realizing Renato is married, she cancels their rendezvous. He comes to the pensione and explains he and his wife have not loved each other for years but divorce is not an option, not only because the country doesn't permit it, but because they have their children to consider, as well. To Leona, his casual attitude about extramarital affairs is wrong, but she still finds herself attracted to him, and agrees to keep their date.

Meanwhile, the Yeagers are facing problems of their own. Eddie, finding himself enamoured with Signora Fioria, announces he wants to put distance between himself and the woman by returning to the United States.

Renato arrives with a garnet necklace for Leona, who is thrilled with his gift and agrees to extend her stay in Venice. She hosts a party in the garden of the pensione, and Renato's son comes to tell his father the jeweler wants his money, which Leona happily gives him. However, when she discovers Renato has received a commission on the sale of the necklace, she accuses him of being interested only in her money, and he leaves.

Fioria and Jennifer attempt to comfort Leona, who drunkenly reveals Eddie and Fioria spent the previous evening together, only to immediately regret her words. The following day both the Yeagers and the McIlhennys check out of the pensione. On hearing Renato had been there before she awoke, Leona goes to his store to make amends, but he tells her a relationship with her would be impossible because of her complicated outlook on life. His affection for her is gone, and they part as friends.

Press Release

SAN FRANCISCO (11 March 1998) -- 42nd Street Moon, San Francisco's only company dedicated to the revival of "Lost Musicals," opens its sixth anniversary season with a concert reading of Do I Hear a Waltz?, an earlier, almost forgotten collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers. Do I Hear a Waltz? premiered in 1965, written by Arthur Laurents (the librettist for West Side Story). The charming musical follows the story of an American spinster, Leona Samish, on holiday in Venice who has a romantic affair with a handsome -- and married -- merchant, Renato di Rossi. Do I Hear a Waltz?, part of 42nd Street Moon's 1998 season celebrating "DELICIOUS DAMES OF BROADWAY!," will play April 8 through May 3 (press opening: April 9) at New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco.

A lonely schoolteacher from the Midwest, Leona Samish splurges her savings on a trip to Venice, for what she hopes will be a romance-filled vacation. Once there, she finds plenty of love and passion -- but only between other couples. Her one friend is a young boy, who takes her around the city of lovers, shows her the sights, and offers a sympathetic ear for her solitary woes. Finally, Leona meets the man of her dreams, an antique shop owner named Renato di Rossi, who sweeps her off of her feet and promises to be the love her life has lacked -- until she discovers he is married. Leona does not return home with the love she had hoped to find, but instead with a greater understanding of love itself, and fond memories of a man who taught her not to settle for less than she deserves.

Originally starring Elizabeth Allen, Carol Bruce, and Sergio Franchi, Do I Hear a Waltz? is a musical version of Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo, which starred Shirley Booth. THE The Time of the Cuckoo was also made into the brilliant and touching film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. The cast of the 42nd Street Moon production will feature Marsha Mercant (42nd Street Moon's Dearest Enemy, As Thousands Cheer; Tune the Grand Up at the Alcazar) as Leona and Joe Giuffre as Renato, as well as Dyan McBride, Steven Rhyne, Robin Steeves, Caroline Altman, Kelly Ground, Sean Sharp, Zac Moon, Rick Wixo, Arwen Andersen, and 11-year-old Darren Criss as Mauro, the Italian boy who befriends Leona.

Although Sondheim admired, and was mentored by, family friend Oscar Hammerstein II, the experience of working with Rodgers turned out to be less than ideal. When asked about the difference between the two great men in a New York Times interview, Sondheim replied, "Hammerstein is a man of infinite soul and limited talent; Rodgers is a man of infinite talent and limited soul." The experience was sour on both ends: Rodgers apparently felt that Sondheim, Laurents, and other members of the production team were joined in a clique against him. In an article prior to the show's opening, he claimed to have watched Sondheim grow "from a sweet little boy to a monster." Despite a Tony Award nomination for his lyrics, the experience more or less convinced Sondheim never to write lyrics for another person's music.

Prior to this show, Sondheim had collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and with Jule Styne on Gypsy. He had recently begun acting as both composer and lyricist, resulting in Anyone Can Whistle and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, when he undertook this final collaboration with Rodgers. After Do I Hear a Waltz?, Sondheim went back to writing music and lyrics, first for his groundbreaking Company (1970) and then Follies (1971), quickly followed by A Little Night Music (1973). Each of these shows brought Sondheim a Tony Award for Best Score, and two more Tony Awards and one nomination for Best Musical (awards - Company, A Little Night Music; nomination - Follies). In 1975 he was awarded a Grammy for Song of the Year for "Send in the Clowns"; the following year brought the unveiling of Pacific Overtures and Sondheim's first revue, Side by Side by Sondheim, earning another two nominations for Best Musical and a nomination for Best Score.

This season, 42nd Street Moon will focus on shows which brought acclaim to the musical stage's "first ladies." Do I Hear a Waltz? was a tremendous hit for Elizabeth Allen, who started show business as the voice which announced, "And away we go!" on Jackie Gleason's television series. She eventually made it to Broadway, starring opposite Peter Ustinov in Romanoff and Juliet. From there she made her Broadway musical debut in The Gay Life, which earned her a Tony Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. In 1963, she won a Laurel Award as the year's most promising film actress; after Do I Hear a Waltz? she went on to work in films, and Broadway lost one of its most wistful "dames."

Do I Hear a Waltz?, with stage direction by Greg MacKellan and musical direction by Brandon Adams, is the first of six shows in 42nd Street Moon's 1998 season. "DELICIOUS DAMES OF BROADWAY!," celebrating composers and performers such as Dorothy Fields, Ethel Merman, Shirley Booth and Ginger Rogers, will include Girl Crazy, Redhead, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Nymph Errant and Call Me Madam.