ON THE RECORD: Weill & Lenya's LoveMusik and "Carols for a Cure"

News   ON THE RECORD: Weill & Lenya's LoveMusik and "Carols for a Cure"
 
This week's column gives a listen to the original cast album of Hal Prince's Weill-Lenya musical, LoveMusik, and the new edition of the BC/EFA's "Carols for a Cure."
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LoveMusik [Ghostlight 8-4425]
The trouble with coming up with an unconventional and unique concept musical is that the further you get, the more treacherous the footing. Such a path was displayed by the worthy but problematic LoveMusik. This was a musical biography pieced together from what might be termed the Saga of Kurt and Lotte, which opened at the Biltmore on April 12 and limped through 60 subscription performances. Here was a stage-full of talent overflowing with fine music and positively brimming with good and novel ideas. But the songs, which for the most part wove a fascinating tapestry, wound up unraveling the material. Even so, LoveMusik left memories of some startlingly good performances and — now — a CD that works considerably better than the piece on stage.

Musing over "Speak Low (When You Speak Love)," the fascinating 1996 collection of correspondence between Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, Hal Prince came up with the idea of telling the story of the marriage against a background of the music — Weill's music. Prince called in Alfred Uhry, his collaborator on the Tony Award-winning 1998 musical Parade, and the pair have done just that. Weill and Lenya had an unconventional and open marriage, to be sure; fidelity was not part of the contract, and the comrades seem to have eagerly compared notes on their separate adventures. (This type of arrangement, mind you, is not all that unheard of in artistic circles; off the top of my head, I can think of four other legendary musical theatre names with similarly nontraditional but apparently successful marriages that lasted more than 25 years.)

What is good about LoveMusik is very good. Topping the list are performances by Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy. Cerveris, recently of Sweeney Todd, gives an effective and restrained performance as the shy and restrained Weill. Murphy has more to play with, given Lenya's outsized personality, and she makes the most of it. Ms. Murphy, who seems to earn a Tony nomination every time she opens her mouth north of 41st Street, came up with quite a performance; she conveys the essence of Lenya, all right, and she sounds impossibly contrived (just like Lenya). What she doesn't sound like is Donna Murphy. When she steps up to that old devil "Moon of Alabama," or "Surabaya Johnny," you are bewitched.

Cerveris and Murphy have especially good company. David Pittu is coarse and abrasive, and unforgettable, as Bertolt Brecht. This is Brecht as drawn in the letters of Weill and Lenya, a decidedly unflattering version. Pittu's performance was something to see; he's present in several songs on the CD, yes, but the impact from the stage was poisonously astringent. Pittu's Brecht was someone you wouldn't want to be at the same table with, or in the same building. The small ensemble is filled with talent, led by two singing actresses who unquestionably belong in their own spotlight. Judith Blazer is well known to musical theatre audiences, from Me and My Girl, Titanic and others. A strong singer and an increasingly deft comedienne, she was a major asset to the proceedings. The same can be said for the relatively unknown Ann Morrison. She visited Broadway only once before, in 1981 for two weeks (plus previews) of Prince's Merrily We Roll Along. "Now You Know," she sang, and "Old Friends" and "Not a Day Goes By." How someone that good simply walks away, I don't know; but Prince brought her back for LoveMusik. Blazer and Morrison — ensemble or no — were very much present on stage, and can be picked out in numerous places on the CD. Blazer gets her own solo, too, in "Nanna's Lied." Morrison also served as standby to Ms. Murphy.

The trouble with the Broadway musical of Kurt Weill was, strangely enough, the Broadway music of Kurt Weill. Compiling the score for a book musical from preexisting songs brings inherent problems; it seems like the more you depend on lyrics to carry their weight, the more problems you have. Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys are perhaps the best example of the inverse; in these cases, it doesn't seem to matter what the characters are singing about. In LoveMusik, it very much does matter, and that's where story and score parted ways. The early songs worked well enough; they were written in German, to begin with, and fit in with the mood. But Kurt Weill in America was a very different composer. Four of his '40s scores were written with three very deft (and very American) lyricists. These songs were specific to their shows, and to the tone of their shows. They don't sound like Weill; they sound like Weill-and-Gershwin (or Ogden Nash or Alan Jay Lerner). A very different sound, and one that doesn't — with the exception of "Speak Low" — seem to fit LoveMusik.

Yes, Weill and Lenya had an impossibly unconventional marriage; and yes, "The Illusion Wedding Show" (from Love Life) is a satiric indictment of — well, the illusions of marriage. An inevitable choice for a song slot, I suppose, but this satirical wedding number has nothing to do with LoveMusik. Written in a style inspired by American vaudeville, it is caustic but in a Lernerian — rather than Brechtian — manner. The "Madame Zuzu" section, especially, baffles. What is this song doing in the love life of Weill and Lenya? Similarly out of place is "That's Him," a highly effective ballad from One Touch of Venus. This was written for that 1943 entertainment's musical comedy-style heroine, musing over her fella in wartime Park Avenue terms. What happens when you take these words and give them to a cuckolded husband, jealous of his wife's affairs? Here you have Mr. Cerveris as Mr. Weill, singing about how you feel when Antoine does your hair — his head as smooth as a billiard ball — and making jests about plumbers. Ogden's words jar, shouting out that they don't belong. Ira Gershwin lyrics from Lady in the Dark and "Where Do We Go from Here?" are used as filler, rather than important book songs; still the music does not enhance the evening, nor does it sound like it was written by the fella who wrote the rest of LoveMusik.

All of this worked against LoveMusik on stage and, by midway in the piece, more or less scuttled it. (LoveMusik had its admirers, to be sure, but many were the ticketholders who did not return for the second stanza.) On CD, though, these are relatively forgivable lapses. Weill's music has been entrusted to Jonathan Tunick, and that's one of the smartest and most successful choices of the evening. Tunick is limited to a ten-piece ensemble, but that turns out to be no problem; he seems to have listened to some of the vintage Weill recordings — "The Alabama Song" being a good example — and determined to orchestrate LoveMusik in the very same manner. Weill was a fine orchestrator of his own work, and one of Tunick's many strengths is his ability to translate his composer's piano scores for full orchestra. The results, here, are more than splendid; the orchestration sounds like it came from Weill at his most creative, and envelops the Weill-Lenya love life in the sound of Weill.

What we get is an evening of Weill songs, as if sung by Kurt and Lotte. And nowhere does it sound better, and more right, than in the evening's two key songs. "Speak Low" is an American song, with words by Nash, but the lyric fits the occasion as well as the music fits the mood. The same can be said — even moreso — for "I Do Not Love You" ("Je Ne T'Aime Pas," lyric by Maurice Magre), a 1934 chanson written for singer Lys Gauty during Weill's stay in Paris en route from Berlin to Broadway. This is sung in the very good translation by Michael Feingold — who also provided the similarly effective "Surabaya Johnny" — and is, perhaps, the central theme of Weill and Lenya's LoveMusik.

Carols for a Cure: Volume 9 [Rock-it Science PS-752]
Among the side effects of the current Broadway strike is the truncation of the traditional six-week period during which Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS passes around the hat, and the basket, following performances. Last season, the overall total raised was just shy of three million dollars, with the Equity members standing at the back of the house collecting an average of $350,000 per week. This season's total will, obviously, be proportionally slashed.

Among the subsidiary fund-raising activities of the season is the "Carols for a Cure" series of CDs, now in their ninth year. Members of various Broadway and off-Broadway companies — actors, musicians, arrangers, stage managers and the like — gladly donate their services and make a trip to the recording studio. This year's entry, Volume 9, includes 31 selections on two discs.

A list of performers and shows represented would encompass just about every Broadway show presently on the boards, along with a handful of off-Broadway and touring companies and contributions from "Rosie's Broadway Kids"; even our newest musicals, Xanadu, Grease, Young Frankenstein and The Little Mermaid, are present. Selections are mixed between the traditional and special material written specifically for the occasion (like "Tracy Turnblad's Big, Bad Holiday Rap," and "The North Pole Global Warming Surfin' Party" from those puppets at the Golden). Just about everyone from Legally Blonde, Jersey Boys and Curtains (and "Robbin' Hood" as well) gets into the act; in other cases you have a sole voice singing, which can be pretty effective when it's Kerry Butler ("Away in a Manger") or Shuler Hensley ("O Come All Ye Faithful").

"Carols for a Cure" is usually sold during the pass-the-hat season at participating theatres, as an added inducement for contributions to the cause. (The CDs have raised $2.5 million for BC/EFA since the beginning of the series in 1999.) The strike, needless to say, has cut short the window of opportunity. In the meanwhile, "Carols for a Cure" can be purchased online at broadwaycares.org.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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