Strains of Love
Early in LoveMusik, the singer Lotte Lenya asks the composer Kurt Weill a pointed question: “You cannot be serious and popular?”
That question is central to Weill’s music, whose bittersweet, discordant melodies somehow managed to bridge the canyon between serious and popular. In a way, it is also central to the predicament faced by anyone trying to make a musical about his life.
LoveMusik, the Manhattan Theatre Club production that opened in May and closed in late June, chronicles the relationship between Weill (Michael Cerveris) and Lenya (Donna Murphy), from their first erotic encounter in a rowboat to the Threepenny Opera days in Berlin with Bertolt Brecht (David Pittu) to her final “September Song” in New York. Lenya was arguably the foremost interpreter of Weill’s music, as well as his lover and two-time wife, and their tangled skein of love and art and lust and showbiz offer a lot of raw material to work with. More than two dozen Weill compositionsfrom “Alabama Song” to “Youkali”provide a sumptuous musical backdrop to the fascinating, if sometimes strained, narrative.
For Harold Prince C’48 Hon’71, the legendary director, producer, and 21-time Tony winner, a musical based on Weill’s oeuvre was a natural outgrowth of a passion that goes back a long, long way.
“It goes back forever,” he said during the show’s run from his office in 10 Rockefeller Center, where he has worked for nearly 60 years. “I’m very influenced by German and Russian theater and music, and it speaks to me. I saw [Weill’s] Knickerbocker Holiday as a child. I saw Lenya in Threepenny Opera at Theatre de Lys, which is where our show closes.
“The melodies are ravishing,” he added. “The music is romantic and melancholy and very often quintessentially Germanand always cultured. And it’s great theater music: Everything invites staging, and that’s the fun of it. I’ve never had more fun than I’ve had staging this show.”
The red curtain rises, and the blackened stage is pierced with shafts of light. Two ghostly, chalk-faced headsfirst the high-domed Weill, then the low-born Lenya (Donna Murphy)begin to sing:
Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift, like ships adrift, we’re swept apart, too soon …
That haunting number was first heard in One Touch of Venus in 1943, seven years before Weill’s early death. It takes on a very differentbut very powerfulemotional resonance in LoveMusik.
The unlikely lovers came from very different worlds. Weill was the well-educated son of a Jewish cantor; Lenya the daughter of an alcoholic father who forced her to work the streets of Berlin at 13. Yet they understood each other, needed each other, and inspired each other. The “piss-poor Catholic,” as she called herself, married the “piss-poor Jew,” as he called himself, in 1926, then divorced him in 1933 when Weill fled Hitler’s Germany to Paris. Four years later, in New York, they married again. But they never exactly settled down, and the strains of their relationship were often reflected in his music.
“The musical essentially says that theirs was a good marriage, because it worked for them,” Prince told BroadwayWorld.com. “You might not approve, but it worked for them.” The stage, he added, “is very good to characters that are larger than life.” As channeled through the passionately controlled Cerveris and the wry, vulnerably tough Murphynot to mention the sardonically swaggering Pittuthose characters were ripe for the staging.
As much as Prince loved Weill’s music, it wasn’t until he read Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya that a klieg light went on over his head. He found the letters “very touching, but often hilarious,” he recalls. “They were outrageously good, bright writers.”
Despite Lenya’s characteristically sharp self-assessment in LoveMusik“I am common, Herr Weill, not stupid”by the end of her life, she was “the least common person I ever knew,” says Prince. “She had elegance and information, great class, and she was bright as hell.” Having worked with her on Caberet in the mid-1960s and remained friends with her until her death in 1981, his judgment carries some weight.
To bring his larger-than-life characters to the stage, Prince called on Alfred Uhry, with whom he had collaborated on Parade. Uhry told National Public Radio’s Jeff Lunden that he spent months listening to Weill CDs while reading the letters, “and gradually it began to find its way into my head, how to do it.”
The show’s better scenes are unforgettable. As Weill is about to leave Lenya and New York for California and a different lover and muse, he sings a heart-ripping “It Never Was You”whereupon his suitcase spills open and his clothes fall out onto the floor. In a charged silence, Lenya picks them up and repacks them.
But the arcs of real people’s lives are seldom designed with a scriptwriter in mind, and at times the narrative of LoveMusikwhich follows a complex personal and artistic relationship that spans two continents and the better part of three decadesis a ship adrift. In the end, the inventive staging, ravishing melodies, and superb acting weren’t enough to keep it running. Sadand yet the very fact that it was conceived and staged with such style makes it a triumph.
“It covers a great many years, so finding the structure for the storytelling is the most interesting challenge,” Prince was saying a week after LoveMusik opened. “What finally emerged is not quite like any other musical anyone has ever seen. Hence, we’ve gotten a huge appreciation from some sources and we’ve gotten brickbats from others.
“That’s what happens whenever you do anything that they don’t feel familiar with,” he added. “But I’ll take thatthat’s about as much as I’ve ever been able to hope for. And shows run with that.” S.H.
Drifting together: Kurt Weill (Michael Cerveris)
©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/07