There's a goose-bump moment right at the beginning of the second act of "LoveMusik," an uneven yet fascinating examination of the highly charged relationship between composer Kurt Weill and actress Lotte Lenya.
The robust pit band segues into a haunting rendition of Weill's classic "September Song" (showcasing violinist Katherine= Livolsi-Landau). It breaks the heart and raises spirits at the same time. Sort of like the musical itself.
The show, which Manhattan Theatre Club opened Thursday at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, has a sterling pedigree. The director is Harold Prince, the man who gave us such high-concept musicals as "Cabaret," "Company" and "Follies," among others. The book writer is Alfred Uhry, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Driving Miss Daisy." And the stars are Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, two of the most skillful musical theater performers on Broadway today.
Yet the production - much of it based on letters between Weill and Lenya - still feels unfinished and uncertain.
It's the story of an unusual marriage, sketchily told in Uhry's episodic adaptation. Prince intersperses biographical material with songs from Weill's musical career in Germany before World War II and in the United States until his death in 1950.
The musical numbers, which often comment on the couple's life together (or apart), are more successful. The songs are from a variety of sources - ranging from such well-known Weill shows as "The Threepenny Opera" and "Lady in the Dark" to more obscure works such as "The Firebrand of Florence" and "Love Life." They are performed with vigor by a small cast that includes Judith Blazer and Ann Morrison, two fine singers infrequently seen on New York stages.
But Cerveris and Murphy dominate. Both have undergone startling physical transformations and both are flawless in their Teutonic accents - which does make the English lyrics a little more difficult to understand.
Take Cervervis' marvelous portrait of Weill. The man who starred as the flamboyantly androgynous rock star in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and as the wild, murderous barber in the recent Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd" exudes Weill's physical drabness, a stolid grayness that masks a man passionate about his music.
Lenya, in Murphy's appropriately direct and raunchy performance, was passionate about other things. Their first meeting, in a rowboat in 1925, is awkward. He is nervous and proper. She is forward, more than a little flirty. "I am not so good with nice boys," says Lenya, talking about her sexual voraciousness.
Yet they forged a relationship, a union whose boundaries Lenya persistently tested. Right from the beginning, when Weill proclaimed, "I do not write popular ditties ". I am a serious composer," she challenged him.
"You cannot be serious and popular?" she asks.
"You wouldn't understand," he replies.
"I am common, Herr Weill, not stupid," she counters, winning the argument hands down.
Prince presents the show as If it were a revue, a series of sketches depicting the lives of these unique people. There is a mock proscenium within the real proscenium of the Biltmore to underscore the artificiality of the storytelling.
And there's a lot of story to tell. Weill's prickly collaboration with a combative Bertolt Brecht during "The Threepenny Opera" gets a quick once-over, although David Pittu scores as the opinionated, apparently unbearable Brecht.
We follow the couple's journey from pre-Nazi Germany to Paris and then to America where Weill readily adapts to Broadway, writing scores with Maxwell Anderson, Ogden Nash, Ira Gershwin and Alan Jay Lerner, among others.
Lenya had a harder time of it in her new country until she was taken in hand by magazine editor George Davis (played here by John Scherer). She starred, after Weill's death, in an enormously successful off-Broadway revival of "The Threepenny Opera" in the mid-1950s.
It's at that point that "LoveMusik" frustratingly ends - never really answering what made this twosome click.
"LoveMusik," the new musical portrait of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, which opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre, is moody, daring and downright bewildering.
If you go expecting to see a glossy love story and a pretty-sounding cabaret of Weill's greatest hits, you'll be disappointed.
The songs underscoring the action tend to be obscure and intense ("I Don't Love You," among them) and aren't sung to be beautiful or even harmonious, which mirrors Weill and wife Lenya's complex relationship. It lasted 25 years and was defined by infidelity, independence and love.
Director Harold Prince ("The Phantom of the Opera") establishes the show's tone and intent immediately. Weill (Michael Cerveris) and Lenya (Donna Murphy), separated on a dark stage, sing of being "like ships adrift, we're swept apart, too soon." The couple was tethered by his music but disconnected nonetheless.
Beginning in 1920s Europe, the story by Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy"), which he based on the book "Speak Low," covers the couple's meeting, courtship (if that's what you can call sharing a few awkward kisses and cactus plants) and successes, particularly with "The Threepenny Opera." Act II covers two decades beginning in 1935, as Lenya's singing career stalls while Weill finds even greater success on Broadway and in Hollywood. After the long - too long, actually - and shadowy first act, the brighter, bouncier second half is almost jarring.
It's hard to imagine "LoveMusik" without Murphy and Cerveris, who are spectacular as they become their complicated characters. She chirps, walks with a loosey-goosey gait and then prowls for her next conquest. He broods, composes and basks in his fame. Nothing they've done in the past, including their Tony-winning triumphs, will prepare you for their performances as this odd couple.
In a supporting role, David Pittu brings a robust randiness to Bertolt Brecht, Weill's collaborator and critic.
Some will view "LoveMusik" as stretching the boundaries of musical art form, while others will deem it an exasperating experiment. Regardless where you fit into that broad continuum (for the record, I'm on the plus side), it is endlessly fascinating. Manhattan Theatre Club deserves credit for showcasing something so unique.
No one in the 20th century wrote music that purred and snarled like Kurt Weill. There was no composer quite like him. Never will be, after Weill's classical music lost its way and popular music took its place. Weill bridged both.
That music, and Weill's love for his muse, Lotte Lenya, is what Alfred Uhry's new musical "LoveMusik" is all about. It opened last night at the Manhattan Theater Club's Biltmore Theatre.
If, in the remarkable - no, sensational - hands of both Donna Murphy as Lenya and Michael Cerveris as Weill, the music comes off more convincingly than the love, that was ultimately the story of their lives.
Uhry had an eye-popping idea for a musical, which, it says, was "suggested by the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya." Maybe.
The book is frankly clunky. But time and time again it is luckily resuscitated by music and the altogether remarkable performances from the whole cast under Harold Prince's inspired direction.
We get such real-life details as their bizarre first meeting - when Lenya was sent to row across a lake to pick up Weill and take him to the house of playwright Georg Kaiser, a possible collaborator - and Weill's fury when Lenya's name was inadvertently left off the program of the Berlin world premiere of "The Threepenny Opera."
Uhry takes the story - in bits and pieces, some more piecemeal than others - right up to Weill's death and Lenya's transformation into the "widow Weill," finally hinting at her triumph (and the real beginning of the Lenya legend) in Marc Blitzstein's off-Broadway version of "The Threepenny Opera." Her name was on that playbill loud and clear.
Prince instinctively understands the period - he was the first to stage "Cabaret," featuring Lenya - and he has coaxed and coached magnificent performances from Murphy and Cerveris.
Murphy doesn't impersonate Lenya - I knew her slightly and admired her enormously - but reaches down to the essence of what she was and how she sang.
Cerveris has, in one sense, an easier task. All most of us know about the composer is that he was bespectacled, owl-faced and stood, quite comfortably, under 5 feet.
But, like Murphy, Cerveris makes the character come alive, as does the fire-crackingly brilliant David Pittu as Weill's major collaborator, the playwright Bert Brecht, here a thoroughly nasty and ruthless character. (The man was always very civil to me, but he would be, wouldn't he?)
And a final word for Prince's own splendid collaborators: Patricia Birch for the musical staging, the scenery by the always clever Beowulf Boritt, the costumes by Judith Dolan, and the lighting by Howell Binkley.
It's a pity about Uhry's loose-paged book, which is no "Jersey Boys." But there's more than enough here to savor and enjoy.
Two luminous, life-infused portraits glow from within a dim, heavy frame at the Biltmore Theater, where “LoveMusik” opened last night. This bio-musical about the marital and professional relationship of the German-born composer Kurt Weill and the actress Lotte Lenya, directed by Harold Prince, is sluggish, tedious and (hold your breath) unmissable — at least for anyone who cherishes stars who mold songs into thrilling windows of revelation.
As Lenya and Weill, Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris turn in stunningly shaded performances that hold their own in a season notable for its surprisingly high standard of celebrity character studies. Like Frank Langella (as Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”) and Christine Ebersole (as Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens”) Ms. Murphy and Mr. Cerveris rise far above broad-stroke impersonation.
How you wish, though, that they weren’t trapped in the struggle between Alfred Uhry’s conventionally sentimental book and Mr. Prince’s self-consciously jaded staging. It’s as if Bertolt Brecht, the master of the theater of alienation and Weill’s most effective collaborator, had directed one of those hoary old Hollywood scripts about great composers that had titles like “A Song to Remember.”
In relating the story of the emotionally tortured but highly functional relationship of its main characters, “LoveMusik,” scored with an eclectic sampler of Weill songs, strives to achieve chilly distance and cozy intimacy in the same breath. As a consequence the show seems to be fighting itself every step of the way, addling and enervating its audience in the process.
A contradictory style is not out of keeping with the work of Weill, whose roster of lyricists, from Brecht to Ogden Nash and Ira Gershwin, is one of the most diverse of any composer. His curse during his lifetime was to be regarded as too intellectual for Broadway and too Broadway for the intellectuals. (“You cannot be serious and popular?” Lenya asks an offended Weill.)
The songs on offer here — which range from popular standards (“Mack the Knife,” “September Song”) to little-known novelty numbers (“The Illusion Wedding Show”) — embody the particular challenges Weill poses to singers whose first instinct is to wow an audience. The songs he wrote with Brecht in Weimar Germany, for shows like “The Threepenny Opera” and “Happy End,” are of course deliberate exercises in disaffection. But even the numbers he later wrote for the New York stage are usually too subtle, too moody to be natural showstoppers.
Fortunately the stars of “LoveMusik” know their way around intricate melodies that wander into darkness. They both forged their names in works by Stephen Sondheim at his most complex: Ms. Murphy in “Passion” and Mr. Cerveris in the recent revivals of “Assassins” and “Sweeney Todd.” And they unerringly locate both a surface cynicism and a deeper ache of anxiety and wistfulness in Weill’s ballads.
This is evident from the moment they first materialize on a dark stage, as disembodied heads in separate spotlights, singing “Speak Low” (from “One Touch of Venus”). There is also an eerie, instant shock of recognition for anyone who has seen films or photographs of the real Weill (1900-50) and Lenya (1898-1981). These heads might have been stolen from a highbrow Madame Tussauds.
That they are not waxworks quickly becomes apparent. As the show follows the phases of the partnership of the reticent Weill, the middle-class son of a cantor, and the frankly sexual Lenya, a former teenage streetwalker and aspiring actress of little education, Mr. Cerveris and Ms. Murphy sustain a sense of the fluid dynamic that keeps these mismatched souls in thrall to each other.
It was an attachment that survived their early shared success in “Threepenny,” the ascendancy of Hitler, exile, dislocation (from Germany to France to the United States), a divorce (and subsequent remarriage) and, on Lenya’s part at least, chronic infidelity. The script by Mr. Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Parade”) details all this with admirable clarity and annoying clunkiness.
Though much of his material comes from the letters of Weill and Lenya, he has arranged it into a singsong pattern of exposition and confrontation that leans perilously toward self-parody. (“You have to do it for the music,” a stage-fright-crippled Lenya is told after Weill’s death. “You owe him that.”)
Mr. Prince, who triumphantly integrated Brechtian technique into the mainstream Broadway musical with “Cabaret” in 1966, here applies the same formula with more literal-mindedness and less grace. The tools of his mise-en-scène include projected titles, deliberately artificial proscenium arches and stylized two-dimensional sets (by Beowulf Boritt), a spirit-establishing chorus and annotative production numbers (choreographed by Patricia Birch).
Unfortunately, aside from David Pittu, who plays an enjoyably egotistical and unhygienic Brecht, the ensemble members lack an essential affinity for the eras they represent. You can understand, for example, the implicit commentary on the Weills’ ménage in “The Illusion Wedding” sequence. (This collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner anticipated the concept musicals that Mr. Prince created with Mr. Sondheim.)
But the number is performed with a leaden perkiness that weighs down the show. “Cut to the chase,” you think, the chase in this instance being the dizzy circles of love, pain and dependency in which Ms. Murphy’s Lenya and Mr. Cerveris’s Weill never stop running.
They draw those circles with such stylistic and emotional precision that the high-concept circus around them feels false and unnecessary. It took me a while to get used to the thick German accents and stilted diction that Mr. Cerveris and Ms. Murphy use throughout. But if that helped lead to the centers of their characters, I’m not complaining.
Mr. Cerveris has the unenviable assignment of portraying a self-effacing man routinely described by his friends and colleagues as unknowable. But whether speaking with stiff decorum or singing with molten ease, this nuanced actor locates the cold-steel will, gnawing fretfulness and warm vulnerability that lie under the scholarly stolidness.
Ms. Murphy demonstrates once again her singular gift for balancing intellect and intuition, research and actorly insight, in musical performance. Clearly she has spent time studying tapes and recordings of Lenya.
Her singing voice, while more naturally mellifluous, still captures the rawness and stridency that made Lenya a shocking and electric presence. Such is Ms. Murphy’s attention to detail that her voice even ages as Lenya’s did, becoming lower and grainier. When this Lenya takes the stage for the opening scene of the original “Threepenny,” narrowing her eyes in contemptuous assessment of the audience, you understand in a millisecond why the show made the impact it did.
But Ms. Murphy’s performance is far from academic. Lenya’s tough bravado and sexual exhibitionism register as the thorny defenses of a wounded woman who despises and adores herself in equal measures. Mr. Prince worked with Lenya on “Cabaret,” and no doubt his knowledge of her has enriched Ms. Murphy’s portrait.
In the final scene of “LoveMusik,” Lenya is reluctantly bracing herself to return to the stage in the fabled 1954 Off Broadway revival of “The Threepenny Opera.” In Ms. Murphy’s hands the act of applying lipstick — hastily, desperately, artfully — becomes an exact record of the inner workings of an actress at a turning point in her life and career. Any show, no matter how uneven, that includes such a moment can be forgiven much.
Add "Lovemusik" to the season's burst of daring new American musicals.
Although Broadway appears to be sinking under the featherweight of movie adaptations and amiable musical comedies, another reality is that "Spring Awakening," "Grey Gardens," and now, "Lovemusik," are insisting that musical theater take back its seat at the grown-ups' table.
Much like the season's earlier breakthroughs, "Lovemusik," which the Manhattan Theatre Club opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre, comes to Broadway by way of a New York nonprofit institution. Unlike those other shows, which have original scores, this more traditional one uses the music of Kurt Weill to relate the unconventional love between the German composer and his muse, Lotte Lenya.
The show has its problems, some inherent in the range of Weill's music, and a few that seem to be almost willfully wrong-headed choices by director Harold Prince and author Alfred Uhry. But its strengths - especially the courageous, ruggedly brilliant performances by Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy - are far more haunting than the flaws are troubling.
What an extraordinary time for singing actors. We have to force ourselves to recognize Cerveris, last season's dashing and scary Sweeney Todd, transformed here into a squat, serious German Jew who appears to have been born to wear heavy, square suits. There is a wonderfully sardonic confidence beneath the maladroit surface of this unprepossessing man, a musical chameleon who made his mark in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and his living in America with middlebrow hits.
Murphy steps out on a limb and explodes as Lenya, the Weimar Republic beatnik with the ugly-beautiful voice and defiantly louche style. Murphy inhabits Lenya as a siren in an urchin's skin - a shrewd, comic, slang-talking Olive Oyl whose legs flop open for any genius who happens into her youth.
When Lenya auditions for "The Threepenny Opera" by singing the "Alabama Song" from Brecht and Weill's "Mahagonny," Murphy turns her impeccable technique and luscious sound into the baby-voice Lenya is said to have had before it was ravaged into the rasp of her later years.
Prince, who directed Lenya as Fraulein Schneider in "Cabaret," obviously knows the emotional territory of the woman. What we cannot understand is why he lets "Lovemusik" end with an anticlimax: an extended scene in which Lenya poignantly puts on her makeup for her belated comeback in the hit 1954 "Threepenny" revival. Mysteriously, Prince doesn't let Murphy leave us with "The Pirate Jenny Song," which remade Lenya's name in America.
And how about those accents? For reasons unknown, these characters speak with a German accent when they're presumably speaking German.
We get the grumbling feeling that this is a show in conflict with itself. Prince, a master who has directed many famously tough shows, gives Weill's early music full-throttled dissonance and irresistibly unrepentant, acidic aggressiveness. But Uhry's book keeps pulling the distinctive characters into sentimentality.
In fact, Weill's musical personality ultimately proved too adaptable to American sensibilities. While Lenya, in exile here, initially suffered from her strangeness, Weill's career flourished. With songs from Weill's Hollywood and Broadway collaborations sprinkled throughout the show, his work with Brecht unintentionally starts to seem better and better.
And what about this Brecht? David Pittu offers an enjoyable swagger as the great subversive playwright. But the script reduces him to a boor and a chick magnet, a thug whose unorthodox love life is flattened into a comic trio of female groupies. While Weill is seen taking the high road in his visit to Brecht's trailer in Santa Monica, Calif., shouldn't it be noticed that, in his 15 years of exile, Brecht managed to create much of his best work, including "Mother Courage"?
The sets by Beowulf Boritt supply just enough distance and handsome spectacle for this chamber musical. Judith Dolan's costumes capture the years in Europe and the years in America with finesse. Choreographer Patricia Birch finds the individual movements that define these characters, but the ensemble numbers with the flappers are generic.
Despite the intelligence of all involved, they can't disguise the fact that this is a rarefied jukebox musical that must elbow the songs into a storyline. Do we mind? A little. Do we really care? Absolutely not.
Emotional ambiguity is almost as characteristic of Kurt Weill's work as the musical discordance that echoes it. It ripples sorrowfully through the melody of the composer's French chanson, "Je ne t'aime pas," and in Maurice Magre's translated lyrics: "For you understand that I don't love you/But don't press my hand or look deep in my eyes." That wounding impulse to abnegate both the love itself and the pain that comes with denial colors every scene of "LoveMusik," an uneven but fascinating portrait of the corrosive relationship between Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya.
While it was developed from the letters of Weill and Lenya by playwright Alfred Uhry and constructed around 27 songs -- both celebrated and obscure -- written by the German composer with various distinguished lyricists, this challenging expressionistic bioplay with music bears the defining creative stamp of Harold Prince.
Returning to Broadway with his first new musical since "Parade" in 1998, Prince has folded performance, design and music into a collage of striking theatercraft that's appropriately Brechtian in its burlesque artificiality. Even when the arty approach feels distancing, the thick German accents muffle the lyrics or the show veers toward melancholic overload, "LoveMusik" is an audacious work that never shies away from taking risks. It remains a beguiling reflection on the complexities of love, unfailingly coherent with its subject matter.
Having worked with the actress, Prince has a history with Lenya. After her return to the stage following Weill's death, she played Fraulein Schneider in the producer-director's 1966 Broadway staging of "Cabaret," which this new show frequently recalls.
Prince as always has surrounded himself with top-notch collaborators. Some are regulars, like lighting designer Howard Binkley, whose dark color palette gives the show a brooding beauty; choreographer Patricia Birch, her musical staging enlivened by its humorous embrace of vintage theatrical styles; costumer Judith Dolan, supplying character-enhancing period garb; and invaluable orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, whose impeccably balanced arrangements of Weill's music for the 10-piece band allow the score to comment on the story without overpowering it.
Working with Prince for the first time is set designer Beowulf Boritt, whose inventive work here -- alternating strokes of witty economy with elaborate detail -- is a constant source of surprise. Constructing distinctively styled variations on the same faux proscenium to mark the shift from the show's European first act to America in act two is a clever, unifying touch.
Then there's the superb cast, helping to counter a certain lack of depth in the way the characters are written.
Following his tormented "Sweeney Todd" last season and his moving Kent in the Public's recent "King Lear," Michael Cerveris continues to extend his range as Weill. With acute sensitivity, the actor disappears into the doughy, physically unprepossessing man, establishing the composer's almost apologetic presence from his first moment onstage, singing in a near whisper of the fleeting nature of passion in "Speak Low."
As the actress and singer with whom he remained intertwined for 25 years despite being profoundly mismatched, Donna Murphy is mesmerizing. As louche and spontaneous as Weill is uptight and reticent, Murphy's Lenya is all cool looks, gangly limbs and swaggering vulgarity. The performance is a brilliant caricature ennobled by truth.
Uhry has the couple meet cute, Teutonic-style, when Lenya pulls up in a rowboat to deliver Weill to a lake house, swiftly seducing him with her no-nonsense provocativeness. Their contrasting characters and backgrounds are sketched in brief scenes or song interludes. Weill is intellectual, while Lenya is instinctive. He's the son of a cantor, raised in a devout Jewish family, while she's from a boozy clan of working-class Catholics, getting by as a maid while going on acting auditions and unashamed to admit she worked the streets at 13. As Lenya points out, however, "I am common, Herr Weill, not stupid."
Liberated by Lenya from his personal restraints, Weill begins to thrive as a composer but suffers from his free-spirited new wife's aversion to monogamy. Around this time, the other key creative partnership in the composer's life is born when he meets political poet Bertolt Brecht (David Pittu).
A fine stage actor who has made consistently incisive impressions in the past two seasons, Pittu here gets an opportunity to shine. With a cigar clamped in his mouth and a jaded leer stamped on his face, he communicates his self-serving character's arrogance instantly. Pittu's lewd, sexy performance of the "Tango Ballad" from "The Threepenny Opera" -- staged as a menage-a-quatre number that takes "Two Ladies" from "Cabaret" one step further -- is one of the show's musical high points.
Uhry avoids the standard bioplay approach of career recap and/or greatest hits, spending more time on Lenya's audition (singing "The Alabama Song") than on the Berlin "Threepenny" premiere, with the "Moritat" included only as a party piece. Likewise, the Nazi rise is chronicled unconventionally, with Weill and Brecht performing a funny vaudeville around "Schickelgruber" as Hitler's birth and childhood are drolly illustrated in a shadow play.
The trans-Atlantic location change, when Weill, Lenya and Brecht all flee to America, heightens the imbalance of the central relationship, already strained by Lenya's affair with a con-man co-star (she and Weill had divorced in Europe but remarried when they became U.S. citizens). Weill finds success as a Broadway composer, only failing when he tries to write for Lenya, for whom the role of hausfrau to a famous husband is an uneasy fit. She lands some exposure as a nightclub singer, yielding Murphy's knockout "Surabaya Johnny."
The suffering caused by Lenya's extramarital excursions is wistfully rendered in Cerveris' song "That's Him," a neatly recontextualized number from "One Touch of Venus." (That 1943 show and 1938's "Knickerbocker Holiday" are well represented, while the successful "Lady in the Dark" is featured only in a snippet from "Girl of the Moment.")
Paradoxically, it's not Lenya's infidelity but Weill's that likely would have severed the relationship had he not died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 50. This section of "LoveMusik" is its most stirring, with Cerveris exposing the pain of someone who needs a different kind of love than his partner can provide, finding it with another married woman in Hollywood.
Prince's staging of Weill and Lenya's final encounter is exquisite. Cerveris sings a haunting "It Never Was You," ending as his suitcase falls open and spills out its contents, tenderly repacked in silence by Murphy.
John Scherer brings debonair charm in the second act to George Davis, the gay magazine editor who became Lenya's friend, professional savior and, after Weill's death, her husband. He's burdened with the awkwardly inserted pastiche number, "The Illusion Wedding Show" (from 1948 tuner "Love Life"), the heavy-handed irony of which slows the emotional build of the final scenes and seems an inferior echo of the "Loveland" sequence in "Follies."
But Davis plays a vital role in coaxing Lenya out of grief and retirement. This is cemented in Murphy's devastating take on "September Song," during which she transforms from a haggard woman in mourning to a trouper, ready to go on as Jenny in the legendary 1954 Off Broadway production of "Threepenny." That Lenya's life after Weill's death remained dedicated to his music is a poignant coda to their complicated, consuming relationship.