The 20-time Tony winner (21, counting the honorary he has just been voted) explores, in two acts and on two continents, Lenya's two marriages to composer Kurt Weill. All was not quiet on the domestic front, as Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris make achingly and abundantly clear in two of the theatre season's most compelling true-life portrayals.
At the after-party held across the street from the Biltmore at The Supper Club, Prince met the press in his standard glasses-on-forehead stance and told what inspired this perusal of The Weills-in-love-and-war, underscored in varying levels of dissonance by Weill's own music: "Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya," which Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke compiled, edited and translated in 1996.
"There was a time when everybody wrote letters," he drolly observed. "I say that with a certain amount of irony. I was very much alive in that time, and I still love writing — and receiving — letters. Lenya and Weill wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters, and I read them with great interest and thought, 'Gee, there's a musical in this.' Their story is so musical, and there was so much music to choose from. It was very much a labor of love."
Prince took his idea to Alfred Uhry to execute. A Pulitzer Prize winner for Driving Miss Daisy, Uhry had won a Tony for Prince's last Broadway outing, 1998's Parade. "Alfred was perfect. We work very well together. We finish each other's sentences, which is always a good way to collaborate. It has been a very happy experience. I can't say it has been anything but that — and very stimulating. Nothing's easy, and this took four years because it's not a structure that I've quite seen before — but that's also what keeps it exciting. It's fun to take chances. If I can't take chances in this business, who can?"
Just under 30 Weill songs — a blend of the known and the lesser-known — have been tossed into the marital mix, hand-picked from a great crate of CDs supplied by The Weill Foundation. "Alfred listened to absolutely everything — I didn't, he did — and then he would suggest some numbers, and I would make some choices. There are two numbers that I particularly love the way they're positioned in the show. One is 'That's Him,' because it was sung by Mary Martin [in One Touch of Venus] — but we heard a Kurt Weill recording of it, and that's what Michael is doing. He's singing and interpreting it exactly the way Weill did when he wrote it, I assume. And the other is 'September Song,' which I heard as a little kid sung by Walter Huston to a girl much too young for him [in Knickerbocker Holiday]. We turned it around and made it for Lenya to sing to a man slightly younger than she is."
The extraordinary performances he extracted from his leads was mutually arrived at, he said. "I just think we all collaborated. I think we were invigorated by each other's input. They are very creative people so you can make suggestions and they'll run with them. I can look in either of their faces, and, if they seemed to be thinking something I wasn't thinking, I'd say, 'All right. C'mon, say it. What is it?' It was that close and that easy. Over a lifetime, you don't get many actors with that amount of talent. You really don't."
That Weill recording of "That's Him" was pivotal for Cerveris in finding his way into the heart of his character. "I read a number of books," he said, "but I also had recordings of Weill demo-ing his songs. He's not a singer. It's just a really light, unsinger-y voice. Many composers, when they sing their own works — you can feel you get so close to the source of the inspiration because it's them singing what they've created. And you just sorta hear the soul of the person, somehow, in the voice. And that was really, I would say, my starting point for trying to find him — the sound of his voice singing 'That's Him.'
"Also, when I heard for the first time Jonathan Tunick's beautiful orchestrations for this production — that was important. They are based on Weill's own orchestrations, and Weill was one of the few Broadway composers — maybe even the only one — who orchestrated all of his own shows. I said to Jonathan afterwards, 'I think I learned more about the soul of Kurt Weill in the last two hours of listening to this than in everything that I've read.'"
Weill's Teutonically tangled way of speaking came easily to Cerveris, he said. "I lived in Germany for a year and a half doing Tommy. We were in Offenbach right outside Frankfurt, so I did learn some German — probably bad-grammar German. And then, when I did Hedwig, I was able to sort of trot out the accent for that. It's been lingering in the backdrop for a long time, and now it's second nature. Stephen Gabis is also a fantastic dialogue coach, and he helped me to fine-tune and polish and get it letter-perfect."
Cerveris, who shaved his head for Titanic: The Musical and never grew his hair back (he wore a wig for his Tony-winning portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in Assassins), manages more than a passing resemblance to Weill, thanks to the wig wizardry of Paul Huntley.
"I have one wig that has its own wig. My wig has a toupee until the second act. We tried to be as faithful as to the outside of the man as we were trying to be to the inside of him."
Huntley went hog-wild with Murphy, bewigging her nine times. "There could have been more," the actress noted with some relief. "We had to find a way to streamline it because Lenya would change her look so much. We looked at photos from 1928 — there were, like, six different hair styles, two different hair colors. I don't even know how her hair grew because they were not wigs, but she loved to change her looks. She loved to play with it."
Costume designer Judith Dolan also keeps her pretty busy with 20 different changes. "Some of it is pieces coming on and off, but that's still a lot. I really don't stop at all off-stage. Even intermission. I get a quick trip to the loo, and then we get back to work."
Like Cerveris, Murphy listened her way into the role. "The range in terms of both age and voice wasn't easy. She had such a different sound as a young woman. When I was given the recordings of early Lenya, I said, 'Oh, my God. Who knew?' because I knew her vocally from Threepenny in the States on. But I have recordings of her from the time she was 26 years old and she sang even higher than I'm singing. The songs that I sing in the show — like 'Alabama Song' — I'm singing in the key that Lenya sang when she did Mahagonny. She sang in this sort of raw, choir-boy kind of voice. She spoke up there, too.
"I love the challenge of this role, playing an actual person. I love that it scared me. Lenya had just an out-there kind of quality about her so I needed to honor that. And her persona shifted. She went through a period, particularly in her early years in the states, where her career wasn't happening, and there was a certain discontent and period of adjustment for her. It was so different from the Lenya we meet early on who's just sorta in-your-face."
Another performer worthy of Tony consideration is David Pittu, abrasively funny as Weill's most famous and cantankerous collaborator, Bertolt Brecht. He plays it with "Miami Vice" stubble ("Most of the descriptions of Brecht was that he was really pretty disheveled-looking so I try to approximate that as much as I can") and no cigar. "We were not allowed to smoke it," the actor explained, "but I turned it into a choice that I actually ended up liking. It's fake, and it feels like a slightly self-conscious Brechtian detail."
The show subscribes to Weill's bias about Brecht, and Pittu suspects there might be truth in that. "I think he'd be really difficult to be around. I find him fascinating, if imperious."
His favorite moment is the one that introduces Brecht as a figure of fun — "Tango Ballad," which he prances out with a help of his harem ( Judith Blazer, Ann Morrison and Rachel Ulanet) and the energetic, comic choreography of Patricia Birch, a six-time animator of Prince musicals who gets a pretty strong workout here staging the musical numbers.
Their method of working remains the same, said Birch: "We meet very early on in preproduction and agree on what we think it should be, and then I go do it." Simple.
"Tango Ballad" is also Birch's favorite moment — and Blazer's as well. "That's a fun moment, and I love the people I'm with very much," the latter admitted. "What we do do is fun, but it's fast, hard work. We change a lot of clothes and a lot of hair. Paul Huntley made me very happy, let me tell ya. Louise Brooks is a good look for me on stage. I originally had another character so there were four Huntley wigs; now there are three."
Morrison is making her first Broadway appearance since her debut in the 16-performance run of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. Prince, who directed her in that, just crooked his finger — and threw in the Donna Murphy understudy job as well. "He said, 'Would you come do this?' And I said, 'Honey, anything for you,'" Morrison said. She has been back to New York for a couple of one-shot Sondheim concerts — Children and Art and the 20th anniversary revival concert of Merrily. "What a healing that was! Just 21 years before, I watched an audience walk up the aisle. Now they were on their feet like at a rock concert.
"I didn't want to come back to New York when I had gone off to Los Angeles for a while. My husband and I had split up. We decided to keep a friendship instead. We had a little boy, who was five, and he said, 'Mommy, why is it when people say what they're going to be when they grow up, they never are?' And that changed my life. I knew I couldn't come back to New York at that time. I needed to find out what I wanted to be. And it was also about being a performer, but it was about being here for a purpose — so I spent a good 20 years, creating that. I'm proud of my life. I have two theatre companies for developmental disabilities. I work with brain injuries, autism, all kinds of learning differences, creating theatre, creating art." George Davis, the gay Vanity Fair editor who befriended the newly Americanized Weills and became Lenya's second husband, is played by John Scherer, last seen on Broadway as Bertie Wooster in By Jeeves. Here he doesn't show up until Act II when World War II chases the couple to this country. "It's a little hard not being in the first act," Scherer admitted. "I have a late call. I don't have to be there till the curtain goes up. I always have to check in with the stage manager, who tells me he's not going to start until he knows I'm there. Fortunately, I only live a block away from the theatre. I come in, and I go downstairs and watch over the monitor and listen to what the audience is like and what the rhythm of the piece is. It really is like hopping on a train that is already moving."
Tall and strapping Graham Rowat has the heavily taxing job of playing the lovers in Lenya's life. "It has been a blast, and Donna has been so nice," he said. "I have to manhandle her every night, and that's a strange feeling, but she's very gracious. I haven't actually counted, but I'm sort of the template for all of [Lenya's] lovers. In Act I, I play Otto, who seduces her when she's mad at Kurt — and takes all her money. In Act II, I play Allen Lake. He's an amalgam, actually — but there really was an Otto. I'm the same hunky guy in both acts, which in itself is interesting because who ever sees himself as a hunky guy?"
Erik Liberman is marking his Broadway debut with LoveMusik the hard way — playing 14 roles, both genders and a range that runs from German to American to French. "It's great flexing those character-actor muscles," he confessed. "Working with Hal Prince is like being a link in a chain, and it's just such an honor. He's not only a voice of great tradition, but he's very relevant to today, and I think that's why his success continues."
A number of Tony-winning actresses led the first-night list: Lauren Bacall, Phyllis Newman, Christine Baranski, Sutton Foster and Adriane Lenox (just back from the West Coast where she shot a "Shark" episode). Doubt, which won Lenox her Tony, was just done by another Tony winner, Linda Lavin, and her husband, Steve Bakanas, as the inaugural offering of their brand-new Red Barn Studio in Wilmington, NC. "Here," said Lavin, passing out a flier for the Metropolitan Room where she would start a four-day gig the following night, "put that in your pocket so it doesn't look like I'm advertising."
Fresh from the Westport tryout of All About Us, Kander & Ebb's Skin of Our Teeth, Shuler Hensley plans in mid-May to squeeze in a reading of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the Roald Dahl Estate before rehearsals begin for Young Frankenstein.
Hunter Foster, resting up having wrapped The Producers, said he was gearing up for a show in Williamstown and The Full Monty in Maine — but he won't be giving his all to Maine: "My wife would make me a tenor." That wife, whom he met in Urinetown — Jen Cody — is busy with five different shows. First out of the hopper, May 17, is Don't Quit Your Night Job.
Thoroughly Modern Millie's Tony-nominated book writer, Dick Scanlan, declared that his "whole life right now" is Sherie Rene Scott's performance piece which he co-wrote with her and, with David Drake, will co-direct May 14-15 at the Zipper Theatre.
MTC also invited a couple of playwrights it will feature during the 2007-2008 season: Theresa Rebeck, author of the upcoming Mauritius, and Adam Bock, whose play The Receptionist will be done at City Center, directed by Blackbird's Joe Mantello and starring Well's wonderful Jayne Houdyshell; Bock will also be represented at Playwrights Horizons in the spring of '08 with The Drunken City. From last MTC season came the new Pulitzer Prize winner in town, David Lindsay-Abaire, revisiting the premiere site of his prize play, Rabbit Hole.
Also in attendance: Legally Blonde's somewhat relieved director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Jerry Bock, playwright Charles Busch and his Our Leading Lady, Kate Mulgrew, Sean Elliott (actor-husband of LoveMusik's leading lady), Nellie McKay, Penny Fuller, eternal chanteuse Julie Wilson, Richard Maltby Jr., James Lipton (in the Pat Birch rooting party), Anne Kaufman Schneider, lyricist Susan Birkenhead (waiting for her director, Michael Mayer, to finish with 10 Million Miles at the Atlantic to do a reading of the recent rewrites prior to a big workshop of The Flamingo Kid), Mark Jacoby (starting Ferenc Molnar's The Play's the Thing next week at New Jersey Shakespeare) and, at her usual post at the theatre entrance, The Post's Cindy Adams.