Reviewed by David Spencer
As I've asserted in these cyber-pages before, The Threepenny Opera, for all its status as a classic, really doesn't work. Its cultural significance, its stylistic daring, its impact on 20th century theatre, all that is acknowledged; no one says it wasn't invaluable or necessary as an artistic building block. But for all sorts of reasons having to do with structure of both book and score, it no longer stands the test of time, its presentational novelty no longer sustains it satisfyingly. I won't re-articulate those reasons here, but I will point out, the big shame of this is that The Threepenny Opera is the one musical left in the Kurt Weill canon that's still considered produceable. If abandoned, it would leave a fantastic catalog of music and song, but no show (at least none that isn't a revue) to keep the spirit and imprimatur of Weill as a musical dramatist alive in its most vital context.
However, if director Harold Prince and librettist Alfred Uhry continue to work on it, Lovemusik, which I think needed more of a development process before opening on Broadway, has the potential to correct that in a powerful way, not least because they place some of his most delightful songs (many of them heard freshly, having been reclaimed from the obscurity of shows even more dated and problematic than Threepenny) in a context that's dramatically viable.
The show is drawn from biographical information, particularly the letters that chronicled the turbulent yet oddly devoted marriage between Weill (Michael Cerveris) and the actress who proved his career-long muse, Lotte Lenya (Donna Murphy). Taking the relationship from their first meeting in Germany, through an account of Weill's death with Lenya by his side in America.
In using the composer's catalog to tell a story about him, Lovemusik somewhat recalls the musical A Class Act, which did the same to chronicle a somewhat more fictionalized (yet at heart as truthful) account of composer-lyricist Ed Kleban's life; but it's not in the shadow. If anything, Lovemusik adds a second show to what might be an intriguing sub-genre—and earns further distinction by adapting certain stylistic elements of the presentational Brecht-Weill style (with some added tenderness) to frame its narrative.
The show has taken some flak for its use of German accents when only German-speaking people are onstage (these days, such a choice is often looked upon askance—and I think legitimately: it begs the question: why use accents at all when the characters are speaking to each other in their native language, which to them would be unaccented), but in the case of Lovemusik, I think the anachronism is not only legitimate but meaningful: it sets these two peculiar personalities—the bookish, reserved Weill, the wanton, candid Lenya—uniquely apart from other couples, and uniquely apart from American sensibility, as products of a distinctly different, distinctly European perspective—one that (at least as dramatized here) kept them always a little bit innocent, a little bit na_ve, despite growing sophistication. It also helps capture Weill and Lenya as they were seen by Americans, and that kind of newsreel authenticity is vital too: they were celebrities in a time when celebrity made you a member of a very different tribe. All of which is captured beautifully in the performances of both Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, who unapologetically eschew the rich, accomplished singing voices for which they are renowned to adopt the quirkier, less polished vocal styles that further marked Weill and Lenya as creatures from "another planet."
The biggest problem with Lovemusik is that it simply isn't ready to be assessed in a final form. Perhaps it was felt that, in "merely raiding" a catalog of existing songs for inclusion within a dramatic context, it could be developed along a less rigorous production path; but it proves just as complex a musical as any with an original score, and more delicate of tone and texture than most of those, and needful of more time in the lab. For the center does seem to hold throughout most of Act One (despite a too-leisurely musical opening that doesn't adequately set up the evening); it's only in Act Two, when we occasionally lose the perspective of Weill and Lenya, lose the forward motion of their journey together (i.e. making a detour to Bertold Brecht who sings about his own interests in a way that has nothing substantial to do with the spine of the show, the Weill-Lenya relationship), that the show sprawls and loses shape. (Which is not to bemoan Brecht as a character. David Pittu plays him to scruffy, crude perfection.)
If Prince and Uhry think of Lovemusik as "finished" now—well, then it will be. Oh, licensed here and there, and not often, but essentially one more lost show in the Nice Try department. But if they can find the passion and the venue not to lose sight of what they've started, there's a potential treasure here beyond perhaps even their own intentions.