Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 3, 2007
LoveMusik Book by Alfred Uhry. Music by Kurt Weill. Suggested by the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, Bertolt Brecht, Howard Dietz, Roger Fernay, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, Maurice Magre, Ogden Nash, Elmer Rice, Kurt Weill. Directed by Harold Prince. Musical staging by Patricia Birch. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Judith Dolan. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Duncan Robert Edwards. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Cast: Michael Cerveris, Donna Murphy, David Pittu, John Scherer, Judith Blazer, Edwin Cahill, Herndon Lackey, Erik Liberman, Ann Morrison, Graham Rowat, Rachel Ulanet, Jessica Wright.
This song, which pulses with passionate urgency when sung by a deity to her human lover, takes on a considerably different tenor when it appears seconds after the curtain rises on LoveMusik, the Berlin-to-Broadway vocal selections of a musical Manhattan Theatre Club has just opened at the Biltmore. Now it's the statement of Weill himself (Michael Cerveris) and his on-again-off-again wife and muse, the actress and singer Lotte Lenya (Donna Murphy), presented as disenfranchised spirits lost amid the uncertain blackness of time. Yes, one of Broadway's finest sensual duets is now the opening statement of one of the least lovely love stories Broadway has seen in ages.
Viva Harold Prince! One of the maestros of the concept musical has at last returned to Broadway, and with bookwriter Alfred Uhry, who's woven songs written by Weill and 12 collaborators into this chronicle of Weill and Lenya's lifelong affair (based on their own letters), has seen to it that LoveMusik lives to its name, and two of mankind's elemental forces spend three hours grappling for control. Who wins? That might be open to debate. But as Weill and Lenya, soon after cooing "Speak Low" in precisely pinched accents, begin their nearly three-hour task of stripping away the song's sentiments to reveal a lumpy core of irony beneath, one can't help but feel that music - sorry, Musik - will eventually win out.
Despite the bevy of Tony winners and timeless talents involved onstage and off, LoveMusik ranks as both the season's most and least overwhelming musical. A superb cast, which also includes David Pittu and John Scherer, singing nearly 30 sublime Weill songs (very few of which are his most-heard hits), should be a cause for celebration whenever it occurs. But in this frigid, anti-romantic evening, any thrill of musical discovery or reintroduction is equally matched by doldrums so severe, one wonders if Weill or Lenya would want their names associated with it.
To his credit, Uhry has avoided the dreaded disease that so often afflicts songwriter biographies, And-Then-I-Wrote Syndrome. But in his eagerness to tell how Weill and Lenya's rocky, infidelity-pocked relationship began when they were unknowns in Germany, progressed through the establishment of their respective stardoms, then diverted to France when Hitler came to power and eventually wound up in America, Uhry has provided a book with too much context. This is the opposite problem of most shows of this nature, as well as the genre's third cousin the jukebox musical, but it's in no way less severe.
The discordance arising between certain songs and the situations in which they're used here is almost impressive in its sheer audacity. The New York glitz of "Girl of the Moment" (from Lady in the Dark, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin) sung as a paean to Lenya following her triumph in The Threepenny Opera? "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway?", the sleazy come-on from Street Scene (lyrics by Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice), being Weill's pillow-talk proposal he and Lenya move to America? "That's Him," Venus's post-coital reflection about her Rodney's modest virtues, now being sadly spit out by Weill as he fumes about Lenya's latest boy toy?
Cerveris and Murphy bring incisive yet wounded intensity to their portrayals, making them as emotionally brittle and fully rounded as under-detailed caricatures can be, but they can't escape the pervasive silliness of what they're asked to speak and sing. The cloying preciousness of so much of Uhry's dialogue, those bizarre song choices, and the grim pomposity of Prince's nouveau-Brechtian staging (complete with scene titles projected on Beowulf Boritt's bits-and-pieces set) suggest a show suffering from as much of an identity crisis as Liza Elliott, the distraught heroine originated by Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark.
Even so, there are a few pleasant surprises to be found: A haunting number called "I Don't Love You" (lyrics by Maurice Magre) provides a solemn, sober centerpiece for Weill and Lenya's emotions; "Buddy on the Night Shift" is a cheery bit of World War II obscurity that surfaces in the second act with, of all things, an Oscar Hammerstein II lyric; and "The Illusion Wedding Show" is a tuneful, if somewhat ill-conceived, rethinking of the minstrel-show climax of Weill and Alan Jay Lerner's little-known 1948 musical Love Life. Unfortunately, there are enough other moments of barely comprehensible ridiculousness, like Weill and Lenya arriving in a Hoboken that could easily be mistaken for the fairy-tale Manhattan of Guys and Dolls, that dispel any magic created by the rarer songs on offer.
That's to the show's detriment, for it feels most valuable not as a testament to Weill and Lenya's uneasy love, but to the everlasting musical art they gave birth to. Every song, from the most obscure titles to the famous finale, "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday, with Maxwell Anderson's lyric), seems like it now and forever needs to be sung. The trouble with LoveMusik is less that it presents its songs so haphazardly than that it never convinces us the story of Weill and Lenya is one worth telling.