The last full Broadway run that composer Kurt Weill enjoyed during his lifetime was the 252 performances of Love Life, a self-described "vaudeville" that looked in on a married couple every 30 years or so — from the industrial revolution of 1790 to the then-modern times of 1948. Progress brought calamities to be weathered and challenges to be met, but the one constant amid this churning cavalcade of change was the couple's enduring love.
Manhattan Theatre Club's production of LoveMusik, a new musical with book by Alfred Uhry set to the Weill songbook, which opens this month at the Biltmore Theatre, comes to the same conclusion in its inspection of a single 30-year interval that covered Weill's relationship with the singer–actress who would inevitably become his muse and missus, Lotte Lenya.
Their love fairly leapt off the pages of "Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya," which was gathered up, edited, translated from the German and published in 1996. Harold Prince, who directed Lenya to a Tony nomination for Cabaret and is a member of The Weill Foundation's board, detected "show potential" in the material and phoned up Uhry — a Pulitzer Prize winner for Driving Miss Daisy and a Tony winner for The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Prince's Parade — to "place his order."
"It's the first assignment I ever got I fell in love with instantly," Uhry admits. "Hal said, 'We've both been married a while, and we know that everybody's marriage is different and that whatever it takes to make it work, you do it.' He also said, 'I am assuming your marriage, like my marriage, is not quite as bizarre as theirs. I'd like you to write about long-lasting love, and I'd like it to be a play — with Weill songs. I don't want a revue.'" Weill died at 50 in 1950, far too soon. Nevertheless, he hooked his music up with the leading lyricists of the time — most famously with Bertolt Brecht (Threepenny Opera, Happy End, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, The Seven Deadly Sins) but also with Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life), Langston Hughes (Street Scene), Ogden Nash (One Touch of Venus), Maxwell Anderson (Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars), Ira Gershwin (Lady in the Dark, The Firebrand of Florence) and once even with Oscar Hammerstein II (a war-bond ditty called "Buddy on the Night Shift"). All are in the show.
"It's a jukebox musical — or, rather, a Victrola musical — in that these songs weren't written for this piece," says Michael Cerveris, who is Weill to Donna Murphy's Lenya. "They had a narrative function in the shows they were written for, and that's different from this. It's what the scene leads up to, but it doesn't always carry the story forward in the same way."
Uhry sifted through a huge box of CDs provided by The Weill Foundation, mixing unknowns in with evergreens, sometimes picking numbers that best reflect a given scene. "I just tried to tell the story. When it seemed appropriate, I'd put in a song.
"This is not a two-character epistolary piece where they read letters to each other. It's a play with four main characters — Lenya, Weill, Brecht and the man who became her second husband, George Davis. He was the arts editor of Vanity Fair in the '30s — an openly gay, erudite man-about-town who basically pushed her back into the limelight."
A star abroad, Lenya subordinated her career to Weill's when he fled Nazi Germany for the U.S.; as The Widow Weill, she was such a fierce keeper-of-the-flame she accidentally ignited her own comeback. "When he died, she sank into a depression and didn't want to do anything," says Murphy. "George talked her into a memorial concert, and she fought him on it up to the day they did it. Then, Weill's work became her life's purpose."
The play spans from their 1924 meeting to March 10, 1954, when Threepenny reopened in New York. She insisted on Weill's original orchestrations, and the producers insisted (despite the intervening decades) she do the Jenny she had done in the 1931 film. The original Threepenny ran 12 performances in 1933; its revival at the Theatre de Lys (now Lortel) lasted 2,611 performances (1955–1961), longer than any Off-Broadway revival.
Murphy says that Prince is helping her into the heart of her character. "He has very, very specific ideas of what he sees visually — and, certainly, with this show, he's so passionate about the material. It's very personal for him because he directed her and became her friend and attributes the authenticity of Cabaret to her presence in it. As specific as he is, though, he's open to questions, and changes things because of them."
Cerveris agrees. "Hal's been giving us a fair amount of freedom — more than I expected, given how meticulous he is about the staging. It gives us a chance to play around and explore, and then he'll edit and reshape things so it does feel like a real collaboration."
Lenya and Weill, in Murphy's view, "were an unexpected match. By many standards, this would be considered a very odd relationship — maybe not even a marriage — yet I think the connection was brutally deep for both of them, even though other relationships were happening, too."
"The message is: love'll find its own way," Cerveris says. "It'll create its own expression between two people that will make sense to them — at least some of the time, maybe not always and not to anybody else — but I think it's clear they're truly meant for each other."