Listen my children and you shall hear, of musicals old and dear,
Before Les Miz, Phantom and Cats ran year after year,
Before Sondheim wrote lyrics with clever rhymes,
That put singers’ vocal chords in serious binds.
Weill, Berlin, Gershwin, Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart,
Wrote shows for performers seeking great parts.
And they got them, rehearsed them, played them for a long run,
They also gave their audiences a chance for lots of fun.
Let’s sample a trio of these classic gems,
And hope for new productions breathing fresh life into them.
A good friend of mine sent a message on Facebook recently about a visit to Ohio, where he saw four shows in two days, all of them classics. The Gershwins’ Oh, Kay (recently revised as Nice Work If You Can Get It); Cole Porter’s Can-Can, Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (which has also had a recently revised libretto that was produced at the Goodman Theater in Chicago) and Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus. This got me thinking about Weill’s great, and overlooked, contributions to the American Musical Theater.
Born and raised in Germany, Weill first achieved renown in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, most notably the infrequently produced Threepenny Opera, and another work, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony. Weill escaped Nazi Germany, settling in America with his wife, singer Lotte Lenya (who played Fraulein Schneider in the original 1966 production of Cabaret and dedicated her life to keeping his music in alive). Among his American musicals, there are three of particular note, because the first two have received new, complete studio recordings featuring current theater performers, and the last of these will be produced by the University of Minnesota Opera next Spring at the Ted Mann.
Loosely based on mythology and a forgotten novella by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, One Touch of Venus, has lyrics by poet Ogden Nash for Weill’s music and a script by Nash and S.J. Perelman. It’s the story of a lovesick barber who, afraid to propose to his girlfriend, slips a ring onto the finger of a statue of Venus, bringing it to life. Having fallen in love with the barber, Venus wrecks havoc on his life until sanity is restored. The show, first produced in 1943, starred Mary Martin, who went on create the roles of Nellie Forbush and Maria von Trapp (Julie Andrews played Maria in the movie). For an entire generation, Martin was also Peter Pan after she played it onstage and on television.
One Touch of Venus lampoons romance, fads and changing sexual behaviors of the period. It’s notable because Weill’s evocative musical style would provide a different Broadway sound, enhanced by Agnes de Mille’s choreography, and the beautiful gowns designed by Mainbocher, a popular designer of the period. Several songs were popular on the Hit Parade (a radio series of the era), but one song has endured, the lovely Speak Low. The musical was filmed with Ava Gardner but like many filmed Broadway shows of the period, sadly, most of the score was truncated. If you listen to the recently issued recording (released on Jay Records and including a cast of Tony Award-winners such as Victoria Clark, Melissa Errico and Judy Kaye) mentioned above, you will quickly discover one of the reasons why One Touch of Venus is worthy of serious consideration for revival and, with it’s delightful script and lush, beautiful score, could easily be a lovely evening of theater.
Corrupt politicians and illegal arms sales, the musical
Presented five years earlier, Knickerbocker Holiday is one of two collaborations between Weill and Maxwell Anderson, whose great work, with the possible exception of The Bad Seed and All Quiet of the Western Front, has also largely been forgotten. Set in 1647 New Netherland (New York City), Knickerbocker Holiday is a standard form romance, although the writers test the waters by creating a parable of the era’s politics. Narrated by Washington Irving, on whom the story is based, the populace is waiting for its new governor, Peter Stuyvesant. Bram Broeck is in love with the daughter of a corrupt politician. He’s been selling illegal weapons to the Algonquin Indians, but he’s caught and sentenced to death. Although Stuyvesant is attracted to the same woman, he pardons Broeck. Stuyvesant considers declaring war against corruption, Of course musicals of this era required happy endings, so love conquers before the finale.
Knickerbocker Holiday needs revival for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the music, which included another popular standard, September Song, which has been covered by many singers. (I’m particularly fond of a rendition by Willie Nelson). The recent studio recording includes this year’s Tony Award winner, Kelli O’Hara, as well as Victor Garber and David Garrison. Released by Ghostlight Records, another of the small companies dedicated to preserving classic musical scores, the recording is exquisite.
Like the other musicals discussed in this article, a film version was made. Starring Nelson Eddy, the movie did away with much of this magnificent score. Anderson and Weill would later write Lost in the Stars, a serious musical about apartheid, based on the novel Cry the Beloved Country. Knickerbocker Holiday may not be a first choice for production, but would be a welcome addition to any theaters’ repertoire.
A new era in music theater
Lady in the Dark is, by far, the most unique of these three Kurt Weill classics. With a script by Moss Hart and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, the 1941 musical takes a serious examination of psychoanalysis, when it was still considered faddish and a fraud. The story follows Liza Elliott, the editor of Allure, a popular fashion magazine in a similar vein to Vogue or Harper’s Bizarre. Liza Elliott is rich and successful, but seeks psychiatric help because she’s having trouble making decisions, partly because she can’t get a particular tune, something lingering from childhood, out of her mind.
Unlike many musicals, the production numbers for Lady in the Dark are incomparable, because rather than individual songs, they are presented in three different pods, as dream sequences, referred to as the Glamour Dream, the Wedding Dream and the Circus Dream. They draw the audience into Liza’s therapy. The only exception is My Ship, the tune of Liza’s obsession.
Presented in 1941, Lady in the Dark was given an elaborate production staged by Hart that’s much more than theater as therapy. Originally planned as a straight play for Katherine Cornell, Hart and Weill decided instead that they wanted to create a serious musical similar to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s (no relation to Moss Hart) Pal Joey, which featured a leading character who was not an especially nice guy.
Lady in the Dark is also one of the first musicals to include a gay character, fashion photographer Russell Paxton, who, during one of the dream sequences, launches into Tchaikovsky, a Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter song paying tribute to Russian composers. Sadly, only The Saga of Jenny was kept from the score when a mediocre film adaptation starring Ginger Rogers was released in 1945.
Like others writing in the musical form during the 1940s, Weill, Hart, Gershwin knew they had a show with fresh ideas. Alfred Hitchcock would explore similar themes with his film Spellbound. While the script for Lady in the Dark may be dated, this musical has been revived more than those mentioned above. I, for one, am excited to see what the University Opera will do with it, and hope it finds a place in upcoming local theater repertoire.