Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: JAY's Lady in the Dark

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: JAY's Lady in the Dark LADY IN THE DARK (JAY)

LADY IN THE DARK (JAY)

The 1941 Moss Hart-Ira Gershwin-Kurt Weill hit Lady in the Dark is generally regarded as a musical theatre landmark, yet its performance history has been relatively sparse. Several problems are obviously responsible: The original production starred the ineffable Gertrude Lawrence, a performer so magnetic and entrancing that the Broadway production was shut down and reopened a couple of times to accommodate the irreplaceable star's vacation and touring periods. Straying pitch and performance inconsistency notwithstanding, Lawrence was simply unique, and although Ginger Rogers did well in the 1944 movie version (which uses little of the stage score), few major actresses seemed interested in picking up the role of Liza Elliott once Lawrence had finished with it.

Dolores Gray, Jane Morgan, and Hart's wife Kitty Carlisle did the show in stock, and Celeste Holm starred in the British premiere in a regional production, but, perhaps because no star wanted to brave the New York critics in the show, it was ignored throughout the '50s and '60s when New York's City Center was reviving all of the finest '40s and '50s titles. I caught Angela Lansbury as Liza when Lady was the second half of a Weill benefit at Philharmonic Hall in 1969, but both star and production were underrehearsed, and the event proved a missed opportunity. In the second of three Musical Comedy Tonight PBS specials, Sylvia Fine Kaye offered an excellent reduction of the circus dream sequence, featuring an apt Lynn Redgrave opposite Danny Kaye, one of the original stars of the show and married to the program's host. Until recently, about the best way to see anything approaching a full-length Lady was to view the kinescope of Max Liebman's 1954 TV production; while reduced to about 80 minutes of playing time, it does boast a terrific Liza from Ann Sothern.

Aside from the challenge of stepping into Lawrence's shoes, Lady presents other problems that have prevented it from being a frequent visitor. Credible as are the problems that drive Liza to seek the aid of psychiatrist Dr. Brooks, the relative speed of Liza's cure may appear rather facile (keep in mind, though, that such subject matter was daring for its day). But it has probably been the show's dated depiction of women's roles that has kept it from stages: The strong, relatively unadorned Liza is accused of being afraid to compete as a woman, covering up her fear by appearing mannish and severe. When she finally comes to understand the source of her problem, she gives herself over to her feelings for the co-worker with whom she has been at odds all evening, and indicates that she may be willing to relinquish to him the fashion magazine that she has spent years developing into a success.

The message that to accept one's femininity means giving up power to a man is one that contemporary audiences would find hard to swallow. But I would submit that just a small amount of rewriting could easily smooth over these problems. And they should not be allowed to detract from the fact that Lady in the Dark is a very strong piece with a gripping libretto and a unique musical structure. It's actually not a musical at all, but rather a play interrupted by three lengthy, mini-opera dream sequences and one childhood flashback which contain all the music. Lady got its first significant New York return when it was presented in 1994 as the finale of the first Encores! season. Teresa Stratas was first announced to star, took her usual powder, and Liza fell to Christine Ebersole, an abundantly talented leading lady whose fairly sunny qualities were not an ideal fit for Liza (Glenn Close would have been perfect when she was mentioned for a Lincon Center revival some years back, and these days Donna Murphy would be right). The show finally got its first major, full-scale professional remounting, along with a chance at a renaissance and a rethinking, when, following enormously successful revivals of Guys and Dolls , Carousel , Sweeney Todd , and A Little Night Music , England's Royal National Theatre presented it at the Lyttelton last year. By far the most obscure and trickiest title in the series, it was also the least successful, receiving notices that, while expressing gratitude for the opportunity to see the piece, were otherwise divided on its merits. Neither Francesca Zambello's staging nor Maria Friedman (Sunday in the Park With George , Merrily We Roll Along , Passion )'s Liza triumphed, but at least the show got a major airing, with the work itself holding up well. The production lasted in repertory for about four months, but was not the kind of success that would have given impetus to a full-scale New York revival.

In terms of recordings, Lady has had a lengthy if never fully satisfying history. Lawrence preserved all of Liza's major solos on six 1941 sides (with chorus) that were later transferred to an RCA Victor LP and are now available on Pearl's double-CD Kurt Weill: From Berlin to Broadway set. She is heavenly, putting a stamp on the material that can never be erased, and even making those occasional pitch problems sound like a star's choice. The same year, Kaye set down his own six sides with chorus (his show-stopping "Tschaikowsky," the charming cut song "It's Never Too Late to Mendelssohn," and four of Liza's solos), and they're delightful.

The Sothern TV production was preserved in two forms: There's a very rare RCA Victor LP, made in the studio prior to the live telecast, and last year, AEI issued the actual soundtrack of the production on CD. While the score is heavily cut and the arrangements are new and very '50s, it's enjoyable thanks to Sothern and, of course, the quality of the material.

AEI also has on CD a 1947 radio version starring Lawrence; while this offers an exciting oportunity to hear her actually performing some of the role, the script has been adapted and heavily abridged, and only about 10 minutes of music remains.

The first reasonably comprehensive and authentic recording was Columbia's 1963 studio disc starring opera's Rise Stevens, supported by Adolph Green and the gorgeous voice of John Reardon. Musical theatre fans were thrilled when this first appeared because, even with the score cut to about 45 minutes and Stevens' heavy-handed reading, it was the first time a good deal of the score could be heard in something resembling Weill's original stage orchestration. Last year, a beautifully packaged reissue of this recording was released in Columbia's Masterworks Heritage series, offering Kaye's '41 tracks as a bonus.

But the arrival of JAY's recording of the Royal National Theatre production is a major event: It's the first complete commercially available recording of the score (a 1988 Edinburgh Festival concert production starring the superb Patricia Hodge was broadcast in the U.K.). It's the first full-length cast recording of a legendary title, and restores Weill's full orchestration, which was reduced at the Lyttelton. Wisely sticking to the music and eschewing dialogue from the dramatic scenes, the disc's 70 minutes preserve the three dreams in their entirety, "My Ship" from the flashback, the entr'acte, and the exit music.

Friedman's star turn here takes some getting used to. Her curious vocal production -- an odd mixture of head voice and sometimes squally belt -- was better suited to loony Fosca than to elegant Liza, and her work here is at times overemphatic, making her come off more spunky than sophisticated. And she makes an unnecessary attempt at an American accent (Liza is the kind of cultured woman not likely to speak in standard, flat American tones). But if she is somewhat miscast -- one must still listen to Lawrence and Sothern to hear precisely what the character should sound like -- Friedman is a gutsy and compelling performer, does well by the major solos, and grows on one; by the second or third playing, I found her work here satisfying. American Stephen Edward Moore is an excellent Randy Curtis. James Dreyfus has Kaye's role; an amusing comic best known for his equally campy role on TV's The Thin Blue Line , he's not really a singer, but does well enough. The sound transparency, conducting, and orchestral playing are all top notch.

Weill was as great a composer as the musical theatre has known, and Gershwin was at his peak as a stage lyricist here; the Lady in the Dark score remains utterly fascinating, and it's wonderful to at last have it without cuts. This is a recording that has taken too long to happen, and it's the kind you will want to keep playing, a must-have.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com