Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Song's Progress: "We're Gonna Be All Right"

Do I Hear a Waltz?, a 1965 musical adapted by Arthur Laurents from his play The Time of the Cuckoo and with a score by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, is one of those shows that separates the mere Broadway buff from the obsessive Broadway enthusiast. This is a show that had a troubled production, didn't do all that well, was more or less disowned by its creators, and features one of the more unsympathetic heroines in the history of Broadway musicals. Still, the show has a fascination for some of us. The heroine, Leona, is difficult to like, especially since she has a sort of double role of negativity: she's both a realistically bitter and unhappy woman, and a representation of all the stuff that Laurents doesn't like about the American character (materialism, prudishness, hypocrisy, insincerity). But she brings a real and raw quality that is unusual for a musical, and is in its own way fascinating. David Lee, the co-creator of Frasier who directed a revival of Waltz a few years ago, summed it up well on a theatre newsgroup:

Leona is a complex character with a lot of "stuff" that is difficult to like. But that is what intrigues me and many others about the piece. It also, for some may be its downfall. A friend of mine put it this way: "I like Dolly Levi, but I don't have a clue who that woman is in real life. I KNOW Leona Samish. I am Leona Samish."

The score -- available on an excellent and still in-print original cast album -- fascinates and divides people as much as the character of Leona does. Rodgers and Sondheim worked together on the show for various reasons, none of which included getting along (they didn't). Rodgers was a fine lyricist who had successfully written his own words for the show No Strings, but he missed the collaborative process he had with Hart and Hammerstein, and Sondheim -- a protege of the late Hammerstein and a writer with the wit and rhyming skill of Hart -- was the obvious choice for a new project. Sondheim took the job because he was friends with Rodgers' daughter Mary, because he had worked several times before with Laurents, and because it seemed like a likely hit. The two men never liked each other and operated at cross-purposes for much of the collaboration; Sondheim came to the conclusion that musicalizing the play was a mistake in the first place, while Rodgers (who also produced the show) felt that Sondheim and Laurents were making Leona too cold and unsympathetic, and lost an argument with them over a scene where she comes off as particularly mean-spirited.

The score Rodgers and Sondheim turned out doesn't represent either man's best work, but this is a bit like saying that the Atlantic Ocean doesn't represent the world's largest ocean; it's still pretty darn large, and the score of Do I Hear a Waltz? is pretty darn good, especially in the context of the show, where the mix of romance and cynicism (sometimes in the same song, and with Rodgers's music occasionally more acerbic than Sondheim's lyrics) is all of a piece with the story and the characters.

The most famous song from the show is the title song, one of Rodgers's best waltzes and featuring one of Sondheim's best trick rhymes ("Blue-Danube-y/How can you be"). But for the obsessed Broadway fanboy, the most intriguing song in the show is one for the secondary couple, Eddie and Jennifer, called "We're Gonna Be All Right." Eddie and Jennifer are Laurents's caricature of the with-it young couple whose "perfect" marriage is falling apart, but are in denial about it. Fioria, the world-weary Italian woman who has an affair with Eddie (Fioria is Laurents's representation of how much cooler and more sophisticated Europeans are than Americans), describes them as preferring to shut their eyes and pretend that they are living the ideal.

Their big number, "We're Gonna Be All Right," occurs in Act Two, after Eddie has had the affair but before Jennifer has found out. The young couple admit just as much reality as they can stand: they admit that they have problems, but they'll work them out. What the scene needed was a song where they could express confidence that they'd get over their marital problems, while clearly remaining in denial about how deep the problems are.

For the tune, Rodgers came through with a marvelous, bouncy, catchy melody reminiscent of the kind of melodies he'd written for Hart. It's the sort of tune that can sound happy but slightly hollow -- exactly what's needed for these characters in this situation.

Sondheim came back with a lyric, and Rodgers read it and threw it out; it never made it into the show, even in rehearsal. Rodgers, never a nice guy under any circumstances, apparently rejected Sondheim's lyric, as Ethan Mordden put it, "as one smashes an unflattering mirror." The original lyrics were preserved by Sondheim and performed (while Rodgers was still alive) in the successful 1977 revue Side By Side By Sondheim. Because the lyrics are very funny, bitterly cynical, and anticipate the kind of material Sondheim would write about failed marriages for Company and Follies, the standard version of this story is that Rodgers, a fuddy-duddy, couldn't handle the truth of Sondheim's lyrics and made him tone it down. I don't think I agree with this interpretation of the story.

Sondheim's approach to the material, apparently, was to play off the fact that even though Eddie and Jennifer are a couple of naive people living in a bubble, they think they're hip and with-it -- the mid-'60s equivalent of those yuppie couples who tell you that they have solved all the problems with marriage that their parents were too stupid to fix. His original lyric for "We're Gonna Be All Right" took this into account by having Eddie and Jennifer adopt a lighthearted, fake-cynical tone. They sound like they know all about the pitfalls of marriage, but their pose of knowingness is just a pose: the more they try to sound like they know everything, the more they're in denial. Sondheim wrote three introductory verses and three refrains for the song; the first refrain goes:

If we can just hang on,
We'll have compatibility,
You musn't worry,
We're gonna be all right.
One day the ache is gone,
There's nothing like senility,
So what's your hurry?
We're gonna be all right.
Meanwhile, relax,
You'll take a lover,
I'll take a lover,
When that's played-out,
They get the ax,
We can retire,
Sit by the fire,
Fade out.
We'll build our house upon
The rock of my virility,
We'd better scurry,
We're gonna be all night.
Oh boy,
We're gonna be all right.

The song, in its original version, then segues into describing the failed marriages of other people, in a way that is highly reminiscent of the Rodgers and Hart song "He And She" from The Boys From Syracuse (about seemingly perfect marriages that have something wrong with them at the core). Sondheim's original lyric ends:

She once was quite well read,
He once was intellectual,
No one's suspicious,
They're gonna be all right.
She's nice and sweet and dead,
He's tall and ineffectual,
They look delicious,
They're gonna be all right.
Who's on the skids?
She goes to night school,
If it's the right school,
He'll permit her.
They love their kids,
They love their friends too,
Lately he tends to
Hit her.
Sometimes she drinks in bed,
Sometimes he's homosexual,
But why be vicious?
They keep it out of sight.
Good show,
They're gonna be all right.
And so
They're gonna be all right.
Heigh ho,
We're gonna be all right.

The problem with this approach to the number is, first of all, is that it's at odds with the way the characters are written elsewhere in the show; there's some hint that they consider themselves modern and worldly, but you just can't picture those lyrics coming out of those characters. The dialogue that leads into the song includes the line (from Jennifer) "You're supposed to only want me. And we're not supposed to be at each other every minute; we're supposed to be nice! Why aren't we? What's wrong? What happened?" A character who says things like that, and says them without irony, would not turn around and sing lyrics like the ones posted above.

Second, the device Sondheim was trying to use -- having characters be very articulate and apparently worldly-wise while indicating, as subtext, that they're in denial about something -- almost never works. Subtext is great in musicals, but the kind of subtext a song can handle is usually very simple subtext: the character sings about being happy when he clearly doesn't mean it. What Sondheim wanted to do was write a song where the characters sort of mean what they say, but aren't saying other things that are more important, and everything they're singing about is an attempt to dodge those more important subjects. It's the kind of thing an audience can't follow very clearly, not in the context of a three-minute musical number. Sondheim would try very much the same thing five years later in Company, where the climactic number was supposed to be "Happily Ever After," a song where the lead character would express his cynicism about marriage, with the subtext being that he just didn't want to deal with his own loneliness. The song lead-ballooned and the director made Sondheim rewrite it into a song where subtext became text (i.e. a song directly summing up the theme of the show).

So what Sondheim had come up with for "We're Gonna Be All Right" was a song that didn't fit in properly with the way Laurents was writing the characters, or the way producer/composer Rodgers saw the situation. It would never have worked in the context of the show; what it was was a great cabaret number, an example of what can happen when very talented people are collaborating without much reference to each other's ideas.

Rodgers made Sondheim write a new lyric, with a more straightforward subtext: now Eddie and Jennifer would simply proclaim that their marriage was going to be all right, while the audience would know that it wasn't. Sondheim couldn't have had much enthusiasm for the task, because the lyric he came up with, while it gets the subject right, is extremely bland and has that "written under protest" feel:

It may not all be bliss,
But every wound is treatable.
We won't go under,
We're gonna be all right.
Don't see how we can miss,
Our team is undefeatable.
I wouldn't wonder,
We're gonna be all right.
We may have had
Unhappy landings,
We're still growing.
Some years are bad,
We're hale and hearty,
We'll keep the party
Hey, babe, let's have a kiss,
Remember, we're unbeatable.
We're gonna blunder,
We're gonna hold on tight,
We're gonna be all right.

Nonetheless, the actual number works quite well. Eddie sings the refrain once (with a couple of interjections from Jennifer), and then the two of them stand posing like the man and wife in Grant Wood's "American Gothic." They repeat the refrain together, but now, according to the stage directions: "Their faces are dead; their voices are thin." The potential hollowness of Rodgers's perky tune has become part of the number, and the number as a whole becomes quite a bit darker and more involving than Sondheim's wacky fake-dark version would have been.

Revivals of Waltz alternate between using Sondheim's original and the Broadway version. There are things to be said for both versions: Sondheim's original lyrics are too good to lose, and his revised lyric isn't very good at all, but on the other hand, the Broadway version is a better number and more in-character. It is, if nothing else, an example of how a good Broadway musical will drop good material, even great material, in its quest to get a moment exactly right, and how a good number is more than just the song: it's a combination of music, lyrics, staging possibilities, and characterization. But most of all, it's another debate point for obsessive Broadway enthusiasts, and no show has provided more debate points than Do I Hear a Waltz? That's why we love it.

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