My girlfriend Linda and I decided to celebrate 25 years of unmarried bliss by going to Venice for Carnevale, the city's annual Mardi Gras celebration. Being there brought five shows to my mind. First, of course, was the 1956 British musical Grab Me a Gondola, one of the most hilarious titles ever. (And if you think that's funny, just listen to the title song.) Yet authors James Gilbert and Julian More had the last laugh, for their show ran a whopping 695 performances in the West End.
Actually, I had grabbed a water taxi, not a gondola, to get me into the Grand Canal -- which naturally had me thinking about Maury Yeston's "The Grand Canal" in Nine. (Never mind how many previews the new production has canceled; I'm still looking forward to it.) As I sailed, I saw the wisdom of Claudia Shear's observation in Dirty Blonde that Venice is unique -- and Ronny Graham's view in New Faces of 1952: "Waltzing in Venice with you / Isn't so easy to do / If you take one more step than you oughter / You will be doing the waltz under water." After I got off the boat and started walking around, I was careful not to fall into the canal the way Leona Samish does in Do I Hear a Waltz?
That, of course, was the other show that came to mind. I indeed wondered how long it would be before I heard a waltz in Venice. Outside the Guggenheim Museum was a kid with a boom-box playing something decidedly unwaltz-like. A flyer on a nearby pole proclaimed "Tonight: Fekal Matter! Live on Stage!" I didn't think I could depend on them to deliver my waltz.
I went into a restaurant for a snack and got James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend." I sauntered into a souvenir shop and heard Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs." Visits to three more such shops resulted in my hearing "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Non Dimenticar," and "I Write the Songs." No waltzes -- but there were plenty of those carmine-colored goblets that so fascinate Leona until she learns that they're a dime a dozen.
I went into a bookstore where a muzak version of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" was playing, followed by someone's version of "Volare." Hmmm. Here I found Shakespeare's Romeo e Giulietta, Antonio e Cleopatra, Amleto, and Molto Rumore per Nulla but no Italian translation of The Merchant of Venice. Maybe the town is ashamed of it, and for good reason: It is anti-Semitic. (I wish someone would do a production where Portia really catches Shylock's ear when she starts her "Quality of mercy" speech. He'd look and listen intently, then walk towards her and, by the time she's finished, would nod in agreement. The scenes of Shylock's intransigence and the Christians' revenge -- dramatically terrific though they are -- would be cut, and the play would resume with the merriment about the rings. I'd even have Shylock show up in the next scene where Jessica and Lorenzo are honeymooning; without adding a word to the text, he could go over and hug her, and she'd hug him back. I admit that this profoundly changes the nature of Shakespeare's play as well as his intentions, but I can't justify contemporary productions of The Merchant of Venice as the play stands, though it is a delight in most every other respect.
The bookstore also had a book about movie musicals that had been translated into Italian. I learned that Silk Stockings had been renamed La bella di Mosca; Finian's Rainbow was Sulle ali dell'arcobaleno; Bells Are Ringing was Susanna agenzia squillo. As Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" invaded my ears, I asked the clerk to translate the titles listed above. In order: The Beautiful One from Moscow, On the Wings of a Rainbow, and Susanna's Ringer Agency. The clerk noted that the last word in that last title has another meaning, for "squillo" is also a term for "hooker." Those familiar with the Styne-Comden-Green hit know that prostitution is alleged to be happening at Susanswerphone, so I commend the translator for getting both meanings in there.
Of course, I had to see a stage production while in Venice. Alas, The Full Monty was due to start the day after I left and Notre Dame de Paris was scheduled to open two weeks after that. So I went to the Teatro Goldoni where, indeed, a Goldoni comedy -- La Bottega del Caffe (The Coffee Shop) was playing. But when I showed up and asked for a ticket to the next performance, they wouldn't sell me one. "We're having a matinee right now," whispered the ticket seller, "and the ticket printer makes so much noise that it would disturb patrons watching the show." Now I'd heard everything -- except a waltz.
I returned the next day and bought my ticket. La Bottega del Caffe started out with a song, but not a waltz. I don't know much Italian, so I can't give an informed analysis of the show; but I will say that from my fifth balcony seat, the performers didn't seem to be overdoing it and seemed to have been directed with integrity. Nevertheless, the audience laughed lightly all of six times and guffawed but twice during the entire performance. Maybe they shouldn't be doing Goldoni at the Teatro Goldoni.
Funny thing; I was recently talking with my buddy Barry Kleinbort, who once musicalized a drama by Frank D. Gilroy. When I brought up that playwright, Barry said to me, "Do you know which of Frank's plays has been the most produced?" I guessed that it was The Subject Was Roses, Gilroy's 1965 Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winner. "Nope, The Only Game in Town," Barry instructed, naming the 1968 flop about two losers in Las Vegas. (It did have an enormous, pre-production movie sale that resulted in an Elizabeth Taylor-Warren Beatty film.) Anyway, Teatro Goldoni is partnered with Teatro Verdi Padova -- located 25 miles away -- so they carried their sister theater's brochure, which had a listing for Frank D. Gilroy's Do You Like Las Vegas? (Yup, they used an English title.) Maybe I should have gone to see it, and maybe there I would have heard a waltz!
But, no, I wanted to hear that waltz in Venice, just as Leona had. The next night, during a delicious meal of squid and scallops, three strolling musicians entered the restaurant and stoked my hopes. But they did "Mrs. Robinson," "Bye Bye Love," and the Beatles' "She Loves You" -- as opposed to something from She Loves Me. (Had they done "Dear Friend," of course, I would have heard my waltz.)
Our final night was the ultimate Carnevale event: The Grand Costume Ball at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta. I started getting into my pirate's costume, all the while singing: "Who's the swiniest swine in the world? Peter F! Peter F!" (Well, certainly, some of the people I've reviewed think so.) I realized that I'd finally heard a waltz -- Captain Hook's -- but I had to provide it myself. That didn't count. I was certain that an elegant ball with live musicians would feature a waltz but, for the first hour, they did 4/4 hits from the '40s ("Chattanooga Choo-Choo"), '50s ("Young at Heart"), and '60s ("Sukiyaki").
Then suddenly, out of the blue, there was my waltz. And it was a show song to boot: "Adrift on a Star" from The Happiest Girl in the World. All right, I'm sure the sheet music identified the song as Jacques Offenbach's "Bacarolle," which it was a century before E.Y. Harburg adapted it for his musical. And while Offenbach originally wrote it in 6/8, the orchestra played it in a 3/4 arrangement. At last! I did hear a waltz, and Linda and I happily danced to it.
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