Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill and Donna Murphy as Lotte Lenya in “Lovemusik,” the Harold Prince musical that pivots on Weill and Lenya’s complex relationship.

In ‘Lovemusik,’ a Lenya reborn brings chills

By Jerry Tallmer

It isn’t often that one suddenly starts to shiver in the theater, especially when it has nothing to do with air-conditioning.

In point of fact, a Broadway theater, the Biltmore, on West 47th Street — which at that moment has become a 1927 Berlin rehearsal hall where auditions are in progress for an upcoming highly subversive cabaret show. One aspirant after another sings, struggles, strains, is thanked, is dismissed, and then a storm-tossed canary who doesn’t remotely know what the words mean — what the hell’s this “A-lah-bahh-mah” anyway? — sings, shrugs, starts to depart, is stopped by some raffish character named Brecht running forward from the back of the house to command her to sing again. The guy at the piano hits the keys. He knows the music; he wrote it.

And I start to shiver.

I have heard this voice doing this song before, Brecht-Weill’s ominous “Moon of Alabama,” or close enough to that voice for, as they say, all practical purposes, and the first time I heard it must have been before Donna Murphy, the chanteuse here at the Biltmore, was ever born, or in any event was a very little girl.

It is the voice, the high-wire register, the timbre, the pitch, the disillusion, the intensity, the sexuality, the fatigue, the anger, the go-screw-yourself, the seen-it-all, the everything except the actual built-in, lived-in, bone-weary body-knowledge of the streets and dives and bordellos and cabarets and hunger lines of Germany from the Big Death of one war to the boxcars and smokestacks engineered by another.
 
Show me the way to the next whiskey bar
Oh don’t ask me why, oh don’t ask me why …
I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die …
 
It is the voice of the late Lotte Lenya, or, as noted, near enough to set this listener shivering all over again when, in the otherwise somewhat weaker Act II of “Lovemusik” — weaker because Kurt Weill is at that remove all too often tailoring his skills to Hollywood and Broadway, much to the scorn of Comrade Brecht — Ms. Murphy snakes her way into “Surabaya Johnny,” as haunting a ballad of sexual love, sexual loss as has ever been given us.

And then of course there is “Moritat,” a/k/a “Mack the Knife,” which gets a full-out, pulsing, audience-stirring introduction in Act I, then whips back in for a few seconds two and a half hours later to bring the Biltmore’s curtain down on an inescapably clichéd, facing-the-footlights denotation of Final Comeback.

That comeback was, of course, the long-running smash-hit Carmen Capalbo 1954 re-creation of “Dreigroschenoper” (“Threepenny Opera”) at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lortel) on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, which did indeed bring Lenya back into the spotlight, big time.

But it was not Lenya’s final comeback, thanks to then fledgling producer / director Harold Prince, who for his part must have been still in his 20s when he first saw that epic Off-Broadway production, and who took pains, a decade later, to bring Lenya into the Kander-Ebb-Masteroff “Cabaret” as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady who has seen it all, war, inflation, rise of the Nazis, and dances with the aging Jewish beau who has courted her with the starvation-era gift of a pineapple.

More yet, just as there would have been no “Lovemusik” now if it hadn’t been for “Cabaret” then (1966), there would have been no “Cabaret” then — arguably the greatest American-made musical — if not for the whole prior existence of Weimar Berlin and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and others of their circle circa 1927-1939. So, sure, hats off, once again, to Mr. Prince.

Awestruck by Murphy/Lenya, and most grateful for same, I have worked this far down in the piece without properly getting around to the real raison d’etre of “Lovemusik,” which is, of course, the musik of Kurt Weill, the Berlin-Broadway-Hollywood-Paris-New York-nightclub-cabaret-theater-cinema composer who teamed with more top-rank lyricists than you could shake an oboe at, and who is here played and sung by Michael Cerveris with a moody passion and power (but also subtlety) that might have stunned Weill himself.

I once wrote of Bertolt Brecht — who had scrammed the United States the day after he’d blandly, lyingly outwitted the hatchet men of HUAC, thereafter taking up residence on Uncle Joe’s side of the Berlin Wall — as “the cat who always lands on its feet.”  David Pittu is not that cat, but in several other respects he matches the pictures in my head of the scruffy Bert Brecht who shook up almost everybody he ever came in contact with, not to mention all of playwriting and the theater itself.

So sure, Mr. Reviewer for The New York Times, I could wish for a dialogue of somewhat lighter touch than Alfred Uhry’s, book, and the climactic “Go Out and Sing One for the Gipper” gambit after Weill’s death clunked on me too. For that matter, one waits through the Broadway-Hollywood froth of Act II for the annealing magic of “My Ship” or the wit of “Jenny Made Her Mind Up” (both from “Lady in the Dark”) and never gets either; nor for that matter does Pirate Jenny, the slavey waterfront chambermaid of “Threepenny Opera,” ever here get to blow our whole rotten civilization away (“hoop-la!”) with her remorseless Black Freighter cannon fire.

But what the hell. We do get a breathtaking spectrum, from “Speak Low” (lyrics by Ogden Nash!) to “September Song” (Maxwell Anderson). Nor do I think that in very many theaters for the rest of our days and nights we are going to hear the “Alabama Song” or “Surabaya Johnny” sung as Lenya would have sung them — or as Ms. Murphy sings them here. I’m still shivering, just thinking about it. Who needs air-conditioning?

 
LOVEMUSIK. Musik by Kurt Weill. Lyrics by several hands. Book by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Harold Prince. A Manhattan Theatre Club presentation at the Biltmore, 261 West 47th Street. (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.


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