Monday, January 19, 2009

WALTZ TIME

Back in 1973, critics were raving about Sondheim's all-3/4-time score for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC: it was the first time in Broadway history that a score had been written to such tight parameters (although, to be honest, some of it veers into 6/8). But Sondheim could have discovered a thing or two about writing all-waltz scores by perusing WALTZ TIME (1945) by Charles George.

Not that someone like Sondheim would have actually learned from the experience: if anything, WALTZ TIME does for waltzes what THE WILD ROSE does for flowers -- instill a desire to leave the theatre and seriously thump the first Strauss-wannabe that crosses one's path.

Our central charcter is Kirby Stevens, young, gifted, obessed with writing music, one whose tastes (according to the author) "run to melody and beauty rather than swing and syncopated noise". His ambition is to write a great waltz, one that will live in the hearts of its listeners.

Now, there's nothing wrong with ambition. But let us not forget that Kirby lives at home and seems to think he does so free of any obligations. Actual day-to-day chores are witheringly beneath him -- he is an artiste, a humble slave of the demanding god Music. Anything else is just... well, beneath him.

Should you think I'm being cruel here, consider:

MRS STEVENS: Your brother is a hard-working, industrious boy.

KIRBY: (significantly) I'm sure no one expected Sir Arthur Sullivan or Vincent Herbert to have the soul of a laborer.

Yeah, nice kid. He also makes fun of everyone else's tastes in music, which has pretty well ostrasized him from almost all his school chums, with the notable exception of Sue, who seems to think Kirby can write no wrong... even though Kirby's more or less oblivious to her attentions: when he's not at home playing the piano, he's over at Gretchen's... playing the piano (A piano seems a requisite for getting this boy's eye.).

And Sue doesnt like that very much.

Note to Sue: get a piano.

Ah, but the haughty Gretchen doesnt like waltzes very much, leaving Kirby in a conundrum: the girl he wants -- rich, sophisticated, rich, elegant, rich (Did I mention rich?) -- berates his work as old-fashioned, even as he points out that all jitter-bugging does is make you sweat... whereas a waltz, well, it's romantic.

His friends do not share his sentiments.

Well, nuts to them, he decides in a fit of pique. He's going to write the next number one song on the Hit Parade -- and it's gonna be a (wait for it) waltz! Good for you, they reply, as they all head out to enjoy the sunshine. Once they're gone, Patricia, Sue's best friend, tries to clue Kirby in on Sue's feelings for him, but he's oblivous as always: "If only Gretchen felt about my music the way Sue does, I'd be the happiest fellow live."

(Did I mention that Gretchen is rich?)

Well, now we meet Jeff, who's (understandably) tired of his snot-nosed brother. With their father dead, Jeff got put to work immediately after hgh school, while Kirby took his part of the inheritance and went to college -- and never seems to want to let anyone forget it.

KIRBY: I'm sick and tired of him playing the martyr. Father left us an equal amount of money. I took mine to get an education, therefore I have no money. Jeff has the money and no education. So I'm by far the richer.

Honestly, doesnt it make you want to pop this boy in the mouth a few times? Still, his mother and brother are adamant: one more month of this nonsense, and then he has to either find a real job or find another place to live so someone else can support him (Did I mention that Gretchen is rich?).

Well, time for the reversal-of-fortune scene: just as Kirby has accepted his failure, a letter arrives from radio star King Wayne the Waltz King. He got Kirby's manuscript and has asked one of his performers to sing in on his show -- and if it gets a good reception from the audience, he'll pull a few strings and get it published.

Now, of course, everyone just loves Kirby and his work -- even Gretchen. Sue's devastated when she hears Kirby tell everyone that Gretchen was the inspiration for this little ditty, but she almost manages to mask it. And Kirby's mother? Well, she always knew her son would be a success!

Act Two starts the night of the broadcast, and everyone's all excited. Gretchen shows up, looking fabulous (and rich), so delighted to hear HER song that she sent herself flowers to congratulate herself on his success. Ah, but tragedy strikes: King Wayne's performer decided not to sing the song (You'll understand why soon enough). And if Kirby's world couldnt get any bleaker, there's a phone call.

From Sue.

Telling him she's getting married to someone else.

And now the boy figures it out. As he rushes to stop the wedding, the curtain lurches to the stage, and we take a brief breather.

The next morning. Kirby has come to realize Sue's love for him... and if that's not enough, he's visited by a Lester Templeton, a music publisher who just happened to be in Atlantic City during the King Wayne broadcast and who now just happens to be driving through Kirby's town on his way back to New York City so he can offer Kirby a publishing deal.

So all ends happily: Kirby gets Sue, Jeff gets Patricia, Gretchen gets Gretchen. And with a last reprise of Kirby's hit song, the curtain falls once more, this time, thankfully, for good.

Sometimes, when reading these scripts, I honestly wonder if the writers set out to create the nastiest characters possible as a challenge to their young actors. Lord knows, we've seen greed portrayed enough times, but WALTZ TIME punches it up about three or four levels: just about everyone bases their life choices on money, all with an egocentricity so massive that it makes one wonder if the stage is large enough to contain it all. The let's-work-together spirit of World War Two doesnt seem to have touched this afflutent bunch, and it shows, especially in our main character. After all, let's face it: Kirby's not exactly a nice guy. He's the epitome of the spoiled, over-educated little brat -- and shows his complete lack of business sense when he doesnt even bother to read the contracts Templeton tosses at him. Meanwhile, his mother demonstrates quite ably her ability to spin her affections from one son to the other when the money's right. But that seems to be how most of his friends operate as well: before the song's acceptance on King Wayne, Kirby's a laughingstock; once the song is accepted, they cant be close enough to their buddy-buddy and newest, bestest friend in the whole wide world. Only Jeff, the working-class stiff, gets through both acts with some intergity: yes, he congratulates Kirby on his success (which is greeted with a somewhat snarky "I told you so!" response), but it's done with the same blunt honesty he shows in Act One in his exasperation with his free-loading brother.

And all of this comes down on a single song, repeated no less than three times throughout the show. Ladies and gentlemen, Kirby Stevens' masterpiece:

Sweetheart, sweetheart
I love you
Such a sweetheart
I never knew
My arms will hold you
We'll never part
Always enfold you
My sweetheart

I might add that these are all of the lyrics... for the entire song... every bit of it.

(Insert sigh here.)

Musically, it doesnt fare much better. The bulk of the score is written from a rather relentless starting point, the key of F. A few veer ever so slightly into the key of C, sometimes even E-flat, but the tempe are virtually the same throughout, which I'm sure resulted in an evening not unlike the infamous Chinese water torture: drip-drip-drip, drip-drip-drip, drip-drip-drip... OKAY, ENOUGH! I'LL CONFESS! I KILLED HIM WITH A METRONOME IN THE MUSIC ROOM BECAUSE HE WOULDNT STOP PLAYING "SWEETHEART"!!

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