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A CurtainUp Review

Speak Low, Darling, speak low
Our moment is swift
Like ships adrift
We're swept apart, too soon

— refrain from Ogden Nash lyric from the 1943 hit musical, One Touch of Venus, and in LoveMusik the mood-setting opening number for the passionate and imperfect relationship of composer Kurt Weill and his lover, wife and muse, Lotte Lenya.
Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy in Love Musik
Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy in LoveMusik
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
When old-time musical theater buffs complain that "they don't make them like they used to any more" they're talking about shows with sensuous, scintillating songs that come bouncing into our ears the minute we hear their titles. Speak Low the opening number of the new biographical musical LoveMusik, is exactly that kind of song. Kurt Weill's lucious sound and Ogden Nash's foreboding lyrics serve as a musical barometer for the unconventional relationship between Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill it depicts. That song is also a stunning introduction to LoveMusik's utterly enthralling leads, Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris.

Both come to the acting and vocal challenges of these complex roles with a background that includes interpreting some of composer Stephen Sondheim's off the beaten musical path characters ((Murphy as Fosca in Passion; Cerveris as John Wilkes Boothe in Assassins and the Demon Barber in Sweeney Todd). LoveMusik puts them in the panthean of contemporary musical theater treasures. Murphy IS Lotte Lenya — street smart and sexy, independent and vulnerable. Cerveris IS Weill—uptight, bespectacled and awkward, yet seething with passion about his music and Lenya (in that order!). As played by Cerveris the work obsessed and love possessed Weill is never too off in his own world to evoke sympathy. Murphy, though much better looking than Lenya, actually manages to look like her and lets us hear her voice changing and deepening with time.

While the beyond superb leads are the foundation stone for this marvelously original and intimate musical, there are many other reasons for anyone who values artistic excellence more than feel good fun to put this on the top of their to see list. The actors are buoyed by a gifted director (Hal Prince whose stellar credentials include having worked with Lenya). They are also well supported by a splendid ensemble, most especially David Pittu, a much employed featured actor who has finally been given a really memorable role as Weill's most significant collaborator, Bertold Brecht.

To add to the virtues of this production there's the book based on Lenya and Weill's published correspondence by Alfred Uhry. As the long list of musical numbers below indicates, this could easily have turned into an art-y jukebox musical or glorified concert. Instead, Uhry has judiciously and sparingly allowed the epistolary element to occasionally take front and center stage and used the songs to illustrate the biographical story rather than tack a forced story line onto Weill's extensive song catalogue.

The fact that Weill, though best known for his darker German works like The Three Penny Opera collaborated with many lyricists and wrote for Broadway and Hollywood does present a built-in problem of telling a story with elements that don't always mesh smoothly. Granted that neither Prince or Uhry or musical stage director Patricia Birch overcome these difficulties completely, they have approached the problem as an opportunity for giving the show a Brechtian sensibility,, complete with projected titles to establish time and place. The bumps that remain are hardly sufficient to diminish the pleasures of this artfully devised, staged and performed musical journey through thirty years of the Lenya-Weill story.

After the knockout "Speak Low" opening that has Cerveris and Murphy emerge from a black background in a circle of light (one of Howell Binkley's many brilliant lighting effects), the story moves into a lighter mode as a young Lenya, working as a maid for playwright Georg Kaiser, picks up an equally young but older looking Weill at a lakeside dock to row him to the home of her employer and his potential collaborator. She seduces him before the boat even reaches its destination and when his glasses fall into the water, it's an obvious metaphor for his being blinded by passion from that moment on. Their two marriages (one in Germany, a re-marriage after they move to the United States), her compulsive infidelities (as well as his in Hollywood) and his premature death. Her countering his declaration that he's a serious composer who doesn't write popular ditties with "You cannot be serious and popular?" is another omen of things to come, in this case his successful and very profitable work for Broadway and Hollywood.

The love affair of these two very different people (he a cantor's son, she an admitted pre-teen streetwalker) moves forward, on Beowulf Borritt's many fluidly inventive sets, all cleverly framed by a three-dimensional prosecenium (musical angels for the first act in Germany turning into glittery Art Deco motifs during the American second act). Kudos too to fellow designer Judith Dolan for her costumes.

There are enough memorable scenes for everyone to come away with their own favorites. For me the first act highlights included Murphy's's "Alabama Song" audition (see the song list below for the show sources for all the songs), the haunting "I Don't Love You" Murphy-Cerveris duet and the shadow play illustrated "Schickelgruber" by Cerveris and Pittu. In the second act there's another amusing vaudevillian scene that has Weill a decidedly square peg at Brecht's California menage-a-quatre ("Youkali"). Best of all are the heart tugging moments like Murphy's "Suburayo Johnny", Cerveris's "It Never Was You." And finally, I can't imagine anyone not being blown away and choked by the elegantly staged and moving final Lenya-Will parting with Weill's suitcase spills open (indicating his all too early death at age fifty) and Lenya picking up the spilled contents.

What's most heartening about LoveMusik is that it's a show that risks appealing to a limited audience rather than the crowds that keep more commercial, fun fare running for years. Not that there's anything wrong with those shows, especially if they're well done. But to borrow from a signature title from the recently opened crowd pleaser, Legally Blonde , "O My God, serious theater lovers " it sure is good to see that there's also room for sophisticated adult fare like Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening and now, Love Musik.
Links to other Well/Brecht Shows
the Rise and Fall of the city of Mahoganny/-Los Angelest
Happy End-Off-Off-Broadway (currently running)
The ThreePenny Opera-Jean Cocteau
The Three Penny Opera-Berkshires
The Threepenny Opera-Broadway-2006
Songfest/Eaton, Jonathan adaptation of Kurt Weill music
Here Lies Jenny
Elmer Rice's Street Scene at DiCapo Opera

Book by Alfred Uhry, suggested by the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya
Music by Weill; 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 and Weil
Directed by Harold Prince
Musical staging by Patricia Birch
Cast: Michael Cerveris (Kurt Weill), Donna Murphy (Lotte Lenya), David Pittu (Bertolt Brecht), John Scherer (George Davis), Judith Blazer (Woman on Stairs/Brecht's Woman), Herndon Lackey (Magistrate/Judge/Auditioner), Erik Liberman (Interviewer/Handyman), Ann Morrison (Brecht's Woman/Photographer), Graham Rowat (Otto/Allen Lake) and Rachel Ulanet (Court Secretary/Brecht's Woman/Auditioner).
Sets: Beowulf Boritt
Costumes: Judith Dolan
Lights: Howell Binkley
Sound: Duncan Robert Edwards
Wig design: Paul Huntley
Makeup design : Angelina Avallone
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Additional Vocal Arrangements: Milton Granger
Orchestra Conductor: Nicholas Archer
Musical Supervisor: Kristen Blodgett
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes with intermission
Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200
From 4/12/07 to 6/17/07; opening 5/03/07.
Tickets: $76.25 to-$101.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 4th performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Speak Low/ (Lyrics By Ogden Nash) Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya
  • Nana's Lied (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/ Woman on Stairs
  • Kiddush/Weill's Family
  • 'Song of the Rhineland (Lyrics By Ira Gershwin)/Lenya's Family
  • Klops Lied (Meatball Song) / Kurt Weill
  • Berlin Im Licht (Lyrics By Kurt Weill)/ Lotte Lenya
  • Wooden Wedding (Lyrics By Ogden Nash)/Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Magistrate and Court Secretary
  • Tango Ballad (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/Bertolt Brecht and Brecht's Women
  • Alabama Song (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/Auditioners and Lotte Lenya
  • Girl of the Moment (Lyrics By Ira Gershwin)/Ensemble
  • Die Moritat (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, Otto and Ensemble
  • Shickelgruber (Lyrics By Howard Dietz)/Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht
  • Come to Paris (Lyrics By Ira Gershwin)/Ensemble
  • I Don't Love You (Lyrics By Maurice Magre)/Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya
  • Lust (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/Lotte Lenya
  • Wouldn't You Live to Be on Broadway (Lyrics By Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice)/Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya
  • Alabama Song (Reprise) (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Ensemble
Act Two
  • How Can You Tell an American (Lyrics By Maxwell Anderson)/Ensemble
  • Very, Very, Very (Lyrics By Ogden Nash)/Weill
  • It's Never Too Late to Mendelssohn (Lyrics By Ira Gershwin)/ Weill, Lenya, Stenographer and Judge
  • Surabaya Johnny (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/ Lenya
  • Youkali (Lyrics By Roger Fernay)/Brecht and Brecht's Women
  • Buddy on the Night Shift (Lyrics By Oscar Hammerstein II)/Allen
  • That's Him (Lyrics By Ogden Nash)/ Weill
  • God Bless Rockefeller (Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht)/ Brecht and Brecht's Women
  • The Illusion Wedding Show (Lyrics By Alan Jay Lerner)/ Davis and Ensemble
  • I Don't Love You (Reprise) (Lyrics By Maurice Magre)/ Lenya and Weill
  • It Was Never You (Lyrics By Maxwell Anderson)/ Weill
  • Bird of Passage (Lyrics By Maxwell Anderson)/Ensemble
  • September Song (Lyrics By Maxwell Anderson)/Lenya and Davis
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