By Rick Pender
Do I Hear a Waltz? was Sondheim’s fifth Broadway musical. Coming on the heels of the brief troubled run of Anyone Can Whistle, he and Arthur Laurents hoped for a hit—for financial reasons and to restore their credibility. Before Oscar Hammerstein’s death in 1962, he urged Sondheim to find a project he could do with composer Richard Rodgers. He decided he could revert to the role of lyricist since Rodgers’s name on a marquee was valuable. They converted Laurents’s 1952 play, The Time of the Cuckoo, into the musical for Do I Hear a Waltz? It is a story about the clash of American spirit and European worldliness, in the form of a love affair in Venice between a naïve woman and a suave Venetian shop owner.
The project was an unhappy venture. Rodgers was also the show’s cautious, conservative producer, difficult from start to finish and unwilling to collaborate meaningfully with Sondheim and Laurents. The playwright mourned that the show “had no style. No concept.” Sondheim called it a “Why? musical”—“a perfectly respectable show, based on a perfectly respectable source, that has no reason for being.” He regretted the experience and added, “Friendship, obligation and greed are not good enough reasons to write anything.”
It’s the 1960s. Leona Samish, a single, idealistic thirty-something secretary from New York City, travels to Venice, Italy, for a stay at the Pensione Fioria. Wandering the canals, alleyways, and piazzas, she is flooded by romantic emotions (“Someone Woke Up”). She recruits Mauro, a nine-year-old urchin, to help her find her way, but not before she falls into one of Venice’s canals and is drenched. At the pensione, the owner, Signora Fioria, greets her — and Leona discovers all the guests are from America (“This Week, Americans”): Eddie and Jennifer Yaeger, an unhappy young couple from Rome who see renewal in Venice, and the McIlhennys, a middle-aged couple on a package tour (“What Do We Do? We Fly!”). Leona tries to be friendly, but they all have dinner plans. She is left behind, wishing for a “wonderful, mystical, magical miracle” to change her lonely life.
Shopping the following day Leona sees a beautiful eighteenth-century Venetian glass goblet in a store window. Renato Di Rossi, the shop’s handsome older owner, tells her it’s authentic, not a reproduction, and offers to locate a match so she can have a pair. He offers to show her the sights of Venice (“Someone Like You”), but she suspects his motives. He tutors her regarding the ins and outs of shopping in Italy (“Bargaining”). She is enticed but not quite enough, so she spends another evening alone (“Here We Are Again”).
Leona returns to the shop the following day, but Renato is not there. She buys the single goblet from his assistant, Vito. Back at the pensione she receives a second goblet from Renato. Soon he stops by with an invitation to a concert. She remains suspicious, but he allays her fears.
Later, the McIlhennys show Leona a set of glasses they have purchased—exactly like hers. She is dismayed and questions whether the wisdom of meeting Renato in Piazza San Marco (“Thinking”). She wonders if he lied to her about the value of the goblets, but Signora Fioria assures her they are antiques.
Vito comes with a message that Renato is late because one of his children is ill. Leona discovers that Vito is Renato’s son. Disillusioned, she cancels their rendezvous. He explains that he and his wife have not loved each other for years. Divorce is not an option in Italy, and they have children to consider. Leona believes extramarital affairs are wrong, but she is deeply attracted to him.
Meanwhile, Jennifer and Eddie’s marital problems continue. He is enamored with Signora Fioria, but delays his flirtation by giving an English lesson to Giovanna, the maid (“No Understand”). Fioria continues her pursuit and convinces Eddie to make love in a gondola. Leona sees their assignation and is shocked.
Leona adamantly rejects Renato’s advances, and he accuses her of being romantic and puritanical. He urges her to accept his affection during her stay in Venice (“Take the Moment”).
Later that evening after her date with Renato, Leona, Jennifer, and Fioria study the moon (“Moon in My Window”). Jennifer is in denial about her marriage, while Fioria is realistic. Leona is wistful, still waiting to hear romantic music.
The next day, while Leona wonders if Renato will return, Eddie and Jennifer fight, then pretend all is well (“We’re Gonna Be All Right”). Renato is late because he stopped to buy Leona a necklace with garnets that she admired. For the first time, she hears music and succumbs to romance (“Do I Hear a Waltz?”).
Renato asks Leona to remain in Venice (“Stay”). She hosts a party in the pensione’s garden to celebrate (“Perfectly Lovely Couple”). Vito arrives with a jeweler demanding the balance for the necklace, which Leona willingly pays. But then Vito returns to give Renato his commission for the sale. He denies being after her money, but she refuses to believe him and throws him out. Wounded by the turn of events, she lashes out at the Yaegers, revealing Eddie’s dalliance with Fioria to Jennifer. Leona is immediately regretful.
The next day the two couples leave Venice, and Fioria is ready to welcome more guests (“Last Week, Americans”). Renato informs Leona that her suspicion has extinguished his affection: she only trusted him when he gave her the expensive necklace. She recognizes how she has failed and hopes to begin again with someone else. Perhaps her encounter with Renato has left her more mature: She has changed enough to express her gratitude (“Thank You So Much”). They part as friends.
Rick Pender previously edited The Sondheim Review and Everything Sondheim. During 2018 and 2019 he assembled The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia for the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. This comprehensive, one-volume resource will be published in 2020.