Irving — German-born composer Kurt Weill, writes critic and author Michael Feingold, “changed the face of theater music….Wherever you go in music theater, from mass spectacle to surrealistic caprice, Weill was there ahead of you, humanizing the didactic and bringing depth to the divertissement.”
Weill was a huge influence on a generation of Broadway-bound composers and writers. Kander and Ebb, Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein and many others crafted songs and shows that are what they are…because Kurt Weill came to town. His songs have been covered by artists all along the music spectrum: Elvis Costello, The Doors, Louis Armstrong, Ricky Lee Jones and Bobby Darin (yes, “Mack the Knife”), as well as innumerable opera stars and cutting-edge chamber ensembles.
Weill was a classically trained composer who became a European sensation of the ‘20s and ‘30s for avant-garde shows including The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—both part of a radical political and artistic partnership with writer Bertold Brecht.
But in 1935, this cantor’s son decided Germany was becoming more dangerous by the day. He was a cultural target for the Nazis; Hitler at one time called Weill “a menace to Aryan culture.”
Time to go.
Traveling through England, Weill and his singer-actress wife Lotte Lenya found their way to New York. Just three years later he had a hit musical on Broadway, 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday—the story of some (much) earlier emigrants to Manhattan. Other New York successes over the years included One Touch of Venus in 1943, The Firebrand of Florence in 1945, and 1947’s Street Scene. Weill teamed with the best: he worked with Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, Ogden Nash, Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Elmer Rice and many others. And he died too young, in 1950—his and the century’s fiftieth year.
Lyric Stage is reviving Lady in the Dark, arguably the most famous of Weill’s “American” shows, though one that isn’t often given a full production. And though the musical had been on the company’s to-do list for a long time, this production was prompted by an invitation from the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in New York—which chose Lyric as the best company to premiere a new “critical edition” of the show, using original sources to re-create the musical as it first ran on Broadway in 1941.
Lady in the Dark, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and book by Moss Hart, is the story of a smart and successful woman, Liza Elliott, who struggles with inner demons and mental stability. The show’s “psychoanalysis” plot broke new ground; so did Weill’s choice to separate the music from the dramatic scenes: Liza tells her dreams to her analyst in what Weill called three “little one-act operas.”
Lyric’s longtime music director and conductor Jay Dias seems elated by the chance to work on the show, which he says is one of Weill’s best, showing off all he could do as a composer and maker of theater. Dias, who has worked on nearly two dozen Lyric Stage productions over the past decade, was especially excited by being able to use some of Lady’s original materials—including Kurt Weill’s personal copy of the score, full of his handwritten notations.
We talked with Dias in a brief lull before the excitement of opening night.
TheaterJones: Obviously, the Lyric audiences see you conducting shows in performance. But I’m not sure everyone understands the entirety of your role as conductor and as Lyric’s music director.
Jay Dias: The quick answer for that is that the conductor serves two functions in a musical or opera. One is just the practical person who says, “This is the tempo we’re taking” and acts as a liaison between the people onstage who can’t see the musicians, and the musicians in the pit who can’t see the singers. The conductor acts as a train conductor, keeping everyone on track.
But perhaps what’s less understood is that the conductor also interprets the work as a living performance, much as an actor doing a Shakespeare performance will have his or her feeling about a certain speech. The conductor is guiding everyone’s performance in these music sequences. It’s a matter of having that one vision of the whole of the work, and then living it in the moment by telling the story the whole piece is trying to tell.
In a beautifully constructed piece [like] Lady in the Dark—and Kurt Weill did his own orchestrations—the orchestration is enhanced, much in the manner of Puccini, in terms of it really telling a story. So in rehearsal we work out the parameters and the grand vision, and in performance the conductor, with the actors and musicians, lives it. You’re using the notes on the page, as rehearsed, but moving it into the moment, as if it’s happening for the very first time.
With this production, the intention is to be as authentic as possible to Weill’s original vision—but is there any sense of wanting or trying to put your own imprint on the work?
When I’m working with a score, my goal is to bring it to life in the way the composer, in his or her dreams, would have wanted the story told—because when they write, they write to tell a story.
As you dug into the Lady in the Dark score for this production, what about the process surprised or energized you?
That’s an easy question for this one. For Lady, [the best part] right from the get-go was being able to work with Kurt Weill’s own manuscripts. Not only was I able to see the partitur—the fancy word for the full conductor’s score—but I also had the original rehearsal score used for the show [in 1941]. In that first rehearsal book I was able to see everyone’s notations, which was helpful, but in the partitur, in Kurt Weill’s own hand, you can see so much—for example, the intensity of the stroke of his pencil. Seeing a composer’s handwritten marcato accent versus the computerized version—it’s like seeing a handwritten letter versus one that’s typed. It can tell you something of what might have been in the composer’s mind at the time. It can tell you so much as a conductor—and also confirm your instincts. If your natural inclination is saying something and then you see it in the composer’s intensity on the page, it gives you confidence to say, “let’s go down this path.”
Sometimes what results from that can be radically different from the way people have gotten used to hearing a work; often I have people tell me they feel they’re experiencing a score for the first time. But it’s just that we take the time to go back to the original. Through the years shows can collect strange traditions—and sometimes it’s good to dust everything off and work from the original materials.
With Lady in the Dark, that’s been a joy. There’s been lovely work done in preparation for the show by the Kurt Weill Foundation, and then with having the original manuscripts and letting them [spark] our own instincts and responses—well, it’s been pretty fun!
You rank Lady in the Dark very high among Weill’s works, I gather.
What’s just terrific about this score is that I think both hardcore, musically knowledgeable audience members—and ones who don’t have musical training—will end up with so much.
And it’s all just amazing. Here’s Kurt Weill coming to America, and after a few years in one of his first Broadway musicals he’s working with Ira Gershwin as lyricist and Moss Hart as the book writer. It’s the story of Liza Elliott, who goes to the psychoanalyst to work out her issues. And the markers of her life are always associated with a childhood song, “My Ship.” She doesn’t even remember the lyrics, just a bit of melody. So he bases the entire musical score on the first three notes of a children’s song, “My Ship.” Da, da, DAH.
It’s like a detective piece, a Law and Order episode. In the beginning of the play Liza hums the melody and the orchestra picks it up. From then on, the audience will hear snippets of that melody in all the sequences in which her dreams come to life. But there are wonderful variations [on the same theme] all the way through to the culmination.
What Weill does is amazing. An average listener may hear the song “One Life to Live” and think, “Oh, that’s a fun tune!” Liza is having a glamorous dream, in which she climbs up on a soapbox at Columbus Circle to tell everyone her philosophy of life. But music geeks will hear and understand that this wonderful, jaunty melody’s motif is the melody of “My Ship”—but turned upside down. It’s quite a trip, and leaves geeks like me in awe of Weill’s complete brilliance, on a level with the finest composers who ever lived.
In terms of harmony, the score progresses from D minor, which is a sad chord, if you will, to the chord of F major, which is a happy chord. F in Western music theory is the tonal basis, and D minor is the related minor chord. So they’re musical cousins—and the whole score moves from Liza being in sadness, to her finally finding answers and enlightenment, from darkness to light. It’s one of the greatest scores ever written for theater, I think, and not only musical theater—an extraordinarily well-crafted piece. And the cast loves it.
[Below is the song "My Ship" as sung by Risë Stevens in the 1963 cast recording, which also features original recordings from Danny Kaye; the cast recording is available through Amazon via Sony Music Entertainment. You might have to turn the volume on your computer down.]
And all of us nonmusicians out in the audience will experience those feelings, even if we don’t know how to express it in musical terms?
Absolutely! You may not know why you’re sensing a sweet sadness, but you’ll feel it. For example, the last chord of “My Ship”—which in the show marks a big event in this woman’s life—is what we call an F sixth chord. It sounds, OK, like a pretty sweet chord. But it’s actually a D minor chord juxtaposed with an F major chord, both of them sounding at the same time. It almost comes off like a dance-band jazz chord, but there is a sadness to the sweet sound, too. It’s simply extraordinary writing.
After Weill came to the U.S., he liked to stress that he’d truly become an American. In terms of his work as a composer, was he right about how well he’d assimilated?
I think he was spot-on. He was able to take and write the American vernacular very quickly, and yet keep his European bar set extraordinarily high. And like Sondheim in our own time, Weill would set parameters, and generate tremendous creativity by working within them. So, he says: I’m going to write the whole show based on the three-note beginning of a children’s song. It’s mind-boggling to see what he does with the composition and the orchestration, staying within that parameter without ever becoming repetitious.
You’ll have to forgive my excitement—I’m a music geek. But people are going to be so happy. And the lyrics are wonderful; such a close collaboration between Weill and [Ira] Gershwin that it appears everything is coming from one hand. To an audience they seem effortless, but that’s the sign of great art.
I was thinking about what might connect the refugee Kurt Weill in 1941 with his central character, Liza. I think they are both survivors, not the “giving up” types—and perhaps that’s why he was interested in telling her story.
He didn’t cry in his beer, did he? And here’s where I think his classical music chops came into play. In Lady in the Dark, Weill is able through music to explore the psyche of a character, not just a banal mood—I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m confused—but working at a very, very deep level. You feel it in the orchestration, in the notes played, in the emotional pull of a chord. And it isn’t effects for effects’ sake, or having the strings play something muted that will tear our hearts out. It’s all tied in to tell the story of this woman as she starts to put two and two together to figure out her life. It’s very deep, and because of that, very satisfying to work with this material.