A lot of Sondheim fanatics seem to think they’re not allowed to like this show because Sondheim himself doesn’t like it, and so they come up with all sorts of ridiculous reasons why it isn’t the lovely show that it obviously is…basically the same thing they do with Phantom of the Opera, only here they’re always very careful to blame the concept for any fundamental problems, not the authors. In reality, as far as anyone can tell, Sondheim only hates this show because he had a bad time working with Richard Rodgers and has a whole bunch of irrational negative associations it.
In reality, this was a wonderful show…maybe not as substantive a masterpiece as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or most of the stuff Sondheim would do after 1970, but certainly much better in every aspect than his previous cult flop Anyone Can Whistle. The source material is one of Arthur Laurents’ own plays, The Time of the Cuckoo, which had also been adapted into a Katharine Hepburn movie under the name Summertime. It is a sophisticated and characterful piece, richly romantic but with a strong undercurrent of subtle darkness.
The score is glorious—Richard Rodgers would write three more shows after this, but this is the last really top-drawer work he would ever do. “Someone Like You” is a striking ballad, “Take the Moment” could stand up to “Some Enchanted Evening” in the melody department, and the title-song is elegant and sophisticated, with the lyrics deliberately not laying perfectly on the music to create an impression that the singer is not as confident in her sentiments as she seems. Also notable is the gorgeous ensemble sequence “Here We Are Again”, where a lushly romantic chorus number is set again the heroine’s rueful solo.
As for the lyrics, Sondheim is in even better form here than Rodgers, contributing pretty much the best work he had done up to that point. The comedy numbers are exceptionally clever, particularly the dazzling catalogue of the perils of air travel “What Do We Do? We Fly!”, but even better is the the wry wistfulness he brings to “Moon In My Window” or the penetrating honesty of “Stay” (‘I am not the dream come true/but stay/not perfection, nor are you/but stay’). Then, of course, there is the show’s greatest gem, heavily bowdlerized in the Broadway production but thankfully restored in the current edition, “We’re Gonna Be All Right”, which has the rare honor of being possibly the most cynical song that Sondheim, the bard of cynicism himself, ever wrote.
The production was opened up tastefully, with care being taken to keep it on a small scale appropriate to its intimate story. I can’t say for sure why the original production failed despite all of this, but I imagine it had something to do with the seriously miscast leads in that production. Leading lady Leona is supposed to be a neurotic, socially awkward wounded-bird type, and while Elizabeth Allen played her abrasive and obnoxious qualities much more honestly than Shirley Booth in the original play or Katherine Hepburn in its film version, without the necessary vulnerability and helplessness to make her sympathetic, her Leona just came across as a selfish bitch. Meanwhile, Renato Di Rossi, the Italian man she falls for, is supposed to be an older, fairly ordinary man, and while Sergio Franchi sang the part gloriously, his youth and ultra-masculine good looks made no sense in the part.
Fortunately, later productions have featured much more suitable leads, and while the show was not done much for many years due to its creators lacking of interest in revisiting it, it is now slowly becoming more popular, with a City Center Encores production planned for next year, and given who wrote it and its relative lack of compositional problems, I have high hopes that history will eventually vindicate this overlooked gem of a show.