There was a time in the history of American musical theatre when not only were music and story integrated so that the songs moved the plot ahead--the classic instance being Rodgers and Hammerstein's initial collaboration, Oklahoma--but some went further. While musicals had a significant past in operetta, mostly in the first twenty years of the 20th century, some in the 30s and 40s began to range into what had until then been operatic realms.
Porgy and Bess remains the most significant example. To this day, argument persists as to whether it is really an opera or a musical. Answer: it's both, because Gershwin's genius drew on folk music and jazz as well as other musical and cultural sources to produce an inimitable masterpiece. Kurt Weill also looked in this direction. His Street Scene has usually been performed by opera companies and The Threepenny Opera, for which his librettist was Bertholt Brecht, thrives in a place all its own.
Last night, enjoying the middle of three performances at City Center in New York of a revival of Weill's Lady in the Dark showed how composers, writers, and directors were exploring new ways of expanding the musical stage. When Moss Hart met with Weill to discuss his idea for a musical play that dealt with a woman executive's effort to deal with depression through psychoanalysis, neither was interested "in doing a how for the sake of doing a show..and the tight little formula of the musical comedy stage held no interest for either of us."
As the director and conductor Ted Sperling points out in his note in the program, Lady in the Dark was structured to fit its subject: "At a time when musicals were experimenting with linking songs and scenes more tightly, Lady in the Dark does the opposite--it segregates the music to the fantasy world." There's a lot going on here--and at the finale, the music does expand out of the fantasy world into what looks to be the core of the story.
It's a marvelous show. The credit Hart and Weill deserve is shared with the great lyricist Ira Gershwin, whose participation in the 1941 show was his first in any theatrical project following the untimely death in 1938 of his greatest collaborator, his brother George. Gertrude Lawrence was the original lead. Today we may have difficulty grasping how her incredible charm seduced audiences who paid little attention to his very constrained vocal range and technique. She went on to great success in The King and I, which she headlined until shortly before her death.
This show progresses through three dream sequences, all with spectacular production, choreography, and music. Victoria Clark, playing Liza Elliot, the focal character, performs admirably and has a delightful voice. Everyone else is excellent, including the veteran Amy Irving in the somewhat thankless role of the analyst.
Two famous songs come near the end: "Tschaikowsky," a perfect show-off piece for the talents of Danny Kaye, and "The Saga of Jenny," where Weill's sprightly music and Gershwin's clever lyrics take off, Another earlier song, "One Life to Live," also should be familiar.
It's a wonderful show, whether or not you are enthralled with psychoanalysis. It presents some good plot complications and the MasterVoices company brought it off with panache. Some Encores productions have moved to Broadway for limited runs, including Finian's Rainbow, which I saw a few years ago. This production at City Center was in the spirit of the Encores ones, but was wholly its own thing. Even the credits showed some style: gowns for the female dancers courtesy of Radio City Music Hall, tuxedos for male dancers by Brooks Brothers.