Making 'LoveMusik' with Weill and Lenya

Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya i i

Weill and Lenya in California in 1944. Kurt Weill Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Kurt Weill Foundation
Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya

Weill and Lenya in California in 1944.

Kurt Weill Foundation

Love Music as They Sang It

Lotte Lenya, London 1934 i i

Kurt Weill kept this photo of Lotte Lenya (in New York in the 1940s) on his desk. Kurt Weill Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Kurt Weill Foundation
Lotte Lenya, London 1934

Kurt Weill kept this photo of Lotte Lenya (in New York in the 1940s) on his desk.

Kurt Weill Foundation
Kurt Weill, Vienna 1933

Weill in Vienna, 1933, around the time of his flight from Nazi Germany. Fayer/Kurt Weill Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Fayer/Kurt Weill Foundation
Michael Cerveris, Donna Murphy in 'LoveMusik' i i

Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy portray Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya in Broadway's LoveMusik. Carol Rosegg hide caption

itoggle caption Carol Rosegg
Michael Cerveris, Donna Murphy in 'LoveMusik'

Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy portray Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya in Broadway's LoveMusik.

Carol Rosegg

In the late 1920s, after the popular success of such shows as The Threepenny Opera, composer Kurt Weill and actress Lotte Lenya were Berlin's artistic power couple. But within a few years, as Hitler rose to power, the two had to flee Germany and reinvent their lives and careers in America. Their relationship is at the center of a new musical, LoveMusik, which opens this week on Broadway — and when you discover a little more about Weill and Lenya, you realize theirs was a complex relationship indeed.

Weill said that when he wrote his music, he heard Lenya singing it. But they were an unlikely couple from the start. He was the button-down musical prodigy from a German Jewish family; his father was a cantor. She was the free-spirited actress from an Austrian Roman Catholic family, a victim of child abuse who'd been a teenage prostitute.

And yet when Weill and Lenya met, each found a soul mate, according to music historian Kim Kowalke.

"I like to say that Weill gave voice to Lenya's music, and she gave voice to his," Kowalke says. "And through all the affairs and all the time separated, the one thing that seemed to keep them together was, yes, their affection for each other — but it seemed also to be Weill's music."

Kowalke co-edited Speak Low, a volume of collected letters that chronicles the ups and downs of Lenya and Weill's relationship. Legendary Broadway director Hal Prince, whose credits include Sweeney Todd and Cabaret, among others, read the book and saw a show in it. He sent it to Alfred Uhry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, "the minute I read it."

Uhry, for his part, wasn't immediately thrilled. He says the task of dramatizing Weill and Lenya's life story was intimidating.

"When I was given the book of letters, the next day a huge, big package of CDs came from the Kurt Weill Foundation to sort of further intimidate me," he says. "And I listened to those CDs for months — months — while I was reading the book, and gradually it began to find its way into my head, how to do it."

Uhry and Prince have worked on LoveMusik for the past four years, creating not so much a traditional musical but a play with music — a lot of music. Michael Cerveris, who plays Weill, says that was the only way.

"The distinctive personal voice that you hear when you listen to the music," Cerveris says, "made me feel that that was the way to sort of find the soul of the man."

Both Cerveris and co-star Donna Murphy, who plays Lenya, did a lot of research to prepare for their roles. Murphy's dressing room is filled with CDs and books.

"With Lenya, you feel an obligation to honor who she was," Murphy says. "But from the beginning, Hal said to me that he wasn't looking for a reproduction or an imitation; he was looking for an essence."

LoveMusik spans a period of more than 25 years, from Lenya and Weill's first meeting as little-known artists to their triumphs in Europe and America to Weill's untimely death of a heart attack at age 50.

"I think they loved each other almost from the first day, and they really never stopped," Uhry says.

Not that it was easy: They had an open marriage, with its own dynamic.

"Many obstacles were in their path," Uhry says. "Her own sleeping with a lot of guys and his commitment to his work; he always said his music came first. But they loved each other, and they needed each other, and they managed to stay together."

LoveMusik also explores another key — and complicated — relationship in Weill's life: the professional one he shared with German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The two had a brief but important collaboration in the late '20s and early '30s; they wrote several shows together, including The Threepenny Opera. Kowalke says that at the beginning, the Marxist playwright and the left-leaning composer got along.

"Brecht gave Weill the contemporary language, the poetry he needed," Kowalke says. "And on the other hand, Weill's music gave Brecht's poetry and plays a way to access an audience, without the audience feeling like they were being hit over the head. It sort of sugar-coated the message."

But Brecht's ego and his politics eventually caused the two to go their separate ways. Still, Brecht's subject matter resonated with Weill. On a radio broadcast in 1949, a few months before his death, the composer said:

"I'm not conscious of it when I actually write music, but looking back on many of my compositions, I find that I seem to have a very strong reaction in the awareness of the suffering of underprivileged people — of the oppressed, the persecuted."

After Weill fled Nazi persecution, he eventually ended up in New York City, where he found success on Broadway with hit shows like Lady in the Dark. Some critics thought they heard a change in Weill's American music, but Uhry says Lenya never did.

"She said, 'There was no American Weill and German Weill; there was just Weill,'" he recalls. "And if you listen to those melodies, that's coming out of the same man. And he was incredibly prolific — and he had a wonderful, huge palette."

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