Do I Hear a Waltz? is a unique flop in the annals of the Broadway musical: a sole collaboration in 1965 between a waning Richard Rodgers (music) and a rising Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), with a libretto by Arthur Laurents based on his play The Time of the Cuckoo which had already been made into a David Lean movie, Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano (South Pacific) Brazzi.
Nothing with that sort of creative pedigree can be without interest, but none of the writers thought the piece was any good – it had a sort of charm, but no energy, said Sondheim – and a few concert performances and a scantily reviewed revival at the Landor have not alerted us to anything unjustly overlooked; a Jermyn Street revival of another Sondheim and Laurents flop, Anyone Can Whistle, was a different matter altogether.
But the title song, recently anthologised in Putting It Together at the St James, is fairly beguiling: a wide-eyed, 30-something secretary on holiday in Venice, hears an imaginary waltz, sings it and has a little dance. Leona Samish (Rebecca Seale), teeth and eyes unstoppably on the go, fighting spinsterhood, has a vacation affair with a married shopkeeper, Renato Di Rossi (Philip Lee) among the pensiones and piazzas and a crowd of tourists who sing about the trials of air travel.
There's a parallel story of young love going slightly awry in a flirtatious diversion, resulting in the chap learning the difference between a girl and a woman (phew, that's a relief), but the satire of Americans abroad in Europe is woefully trite and songs like "Moon in My Window" and "Take the Moment," sung on the morning after the night before, and gracefully written, suffer from being too all-purpose in content, short on character, milky.
John Savournin's production for the Charles Court company has a touching belief in the material that doesn't try and transform what Rodgers called "a sad little comedy with songs" into a whole lot of hullabaloo. John Dexter's original Broadway production – Dexter "was my idea," said Laurents, "a lousy one" – was beefed up with choreography which helped, said Rodgers, but not enough.
You can see the attraction of dealing with the show as an intimate chamber piece, but it just looks like an underpowered romantic comedy, with not enough local colour or emotional trauma to compensate for the lack of any of the experimental quirkiness you get (plus much better music) in Anyone Can Whistle.
Do I Hear a Waltz? continues at the Park Theatre until 30 March