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?"
"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."
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