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Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris excel in this ambitious if problematic musical about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. logo
Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy in LoveMusik
(© Carol Rosegg)
Although Harold Prince hasn't absolutely pulled off the smart trick he's tried in LoveMusik, the new Broadway musical suggested by the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, he's to be congratulated for having the chutzpah to try it. As a result, the show is particularly recommended to ticket buyers who would rather watch creative theater professionals take a high-flying risk than attend a show hammered together by show-biz practitioners playing it commercially safe.

The theatrical sleight-of-hand Prince is attempting, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Alfred Uhry, choreographer Patricia Birch, and a bevy of designers working at a feverish artistic level, is a presentation of the 26-year I-love-you-I-hate-you relationship between composer Weill (Michael Cerveris) and his foremost interpreter and two-time wife Lenya (Donna Murphy). The twist is that Prince delivers his classy directorial act in a quasi-Brechtian style, which makes perfect sense when Bertolt Brecht himself (David Pittu), Weill's frequent collaborator, is a character in the piece.

Prince tells the Weill-Lenya story in much the same way he lent a Weimar Republic kabarett-revue look and sound to his 1966 production of Cabaret. To make certain the show-within-a-show point comes across, set designer Beowulf Boritt encloses the action within a false proscenium that travesties Michelangelo sculptures for the sake of 1920s decadence. Boritt then replaces it for the second act with a cubist version of the same suggestively naked figures.

In Uhry's economic presentational scenes, the initial 1924 lakeside meeting of Weill and Lenya is an instance of lust at first sight. The courtship ensues while former teen prostitute Lenya continues to see other men; meanwhile, Kurt's songwriting acclaim begins when the womanizing Brecht (here called "Bidi") supplies poems for musicalizing. Hitler's rise to power in Germany sends the Jewish Weill packing to Paris as stage sensation Lenya remains behind ineptly handling financial matters.

In time she also flees to Paris, and eventually the now-divorced couple later emigrates to New York. There, the musical focuses on Weill's thriving Broadway and Hollywood career, his friction with the America-disparaging Brecht, Lenya's relationship with the homosexual magazine editor George Davis (John Scherer), and the now-remarried pair's extramarital affairs.

What may have seemed inspired in theory has its drawbacks in execution. With LoveMusik, the sort of performance Brecht's Berliner Ensemble achieved only lands occasionally. Too often, Prince's bold choice reduces the seminal personalities into two-dimensional, revue-sketch characters. Indeed, it's possible to walk away thinking that Weill, Lenya, and Brecht have been made the butt of an artistic gag.

The dramatic proceedings are interspersed with selections from the Weill songbook, which are primarily meant to comment on how the characters involved are feeling at any particular time. Prince, Uhry, and Birch mostly succeed on this front. The songs -- from such shows as Threepenny Opera, Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark and the colossal Weill-Lenya flop, The Firebrand of Florence -- are stinging, provocative, even glorious. But too many of the songs aren't done fully, such as "Surabaya Johnny" and "Nanna's Lied."

Not that they're sung inadequately. Far from it, thanks both to the stars and an ensemble that features the superb Judy Blazer. Murphy and Cerveris take big chances with their singing and, indeed, with their entire characterizations. In a succession of Judith Dolan's brilliant outfits and numerous Paul Huntley wigs, Murphy not only adopts Lenya's walk and look -- but assumes the high-pitched vocal style of Lenya's younger years. She has given herself over to Lenya in a manner that might have scared off lesser actors. Her "Surabaya Johnny" is gritty and wistful, and she also wrings tears with "September Song," which is usually considered a man's song.

Since turnabout is fair play, Cerveris -- calculatedly diffident and consistently sympathetic as the dour Weill -- warbles "That's Him," (which Mary Martin introduced in One Touch of Venus) as the rumination of a cuckolded man. His version of "It Never Was You" is also devastating. Meanwhile, a high point of Pittu's hard-edged Brecht turn is "Tango Ballad," which Birch makes a sly homage to Ron Field's "Two Ladies" number from Cabaret.

Giving a legend like Harold Prince and his esteemed associates an "A" for effort for LoveMusik could sound like an insult. Rest assured, it's intended here as a huge compliment.

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