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

Jeff Lunden reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPEAK LOW")

KURT WEILL: (Singing) Speak low when you speak love. Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon. Speak low...

JEFF LUNDEN: As Kurt Weill wrote his music, he heard Lotte Lenya singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPEAK LOW")

LOTTE LENYA: (Singing) Speak love, our moment is swift. Life shifts adrift, we're swept apart too soon.

LUNDEN: But in many respects, they were a most unlikely couple. He was the button-down musical prodigy from a German Jewish family whose 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 Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya met, each found a soul mate, says music historian Kim Kowalke.

KIM KOWALKE: I like to say that Weill gave music to Lenya's voice, and she gave voice to his music. 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.

LUNDEN: Kowalke co-edited a volume of letters between Weill and Lenya called "Speak Low," which chronicled the ups and downs of their relationship. Legendary Broadway director Hal Prince, whose credits includes "Sweeney Todd" and "Cabaret" among others, read the book and saw a show in it.

HAL PRINCE: The minute I read it, I sent it to Alfred.

LUNDEN: Alfred is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry. He says the task of dramatizing Weill and Lenya's life story was intimidating.

ALFRED UHRY: 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. And I listened to those CDs for months and months while I was reading the book, and gradually it began to find its way into my head on how to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "LOVEMUSIK")

MICHAEL CERVERIS: (As Kurt Weill) (Singing) Wouldn't you like to be on Broadway and go dancing at the Zanzibar?

LUNDEN: 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 plays the composer.

CERVERIS: The distinctive personal voice that you hear when you listen to his music, I think, made me feel that that was the way to, sort of, find the soul of the man.

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

DONNA MURPHY: With Lenya, you feel an obligation to honor who she was. But from the beginning, Hal said to me that he wasn't looking for a reproduction, you know, or an imitation. He was looking for an essence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SURABAYA JOHNNY")

MURPHY: (As Lotte Lenya) (Singing) Surabaya Johnny, no I'm meaner than you.

LUNDEN: "LoveMusik" spans a period of over 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. They had an open marriage with its own dynamic, says playwright Alfred Uhry.

UHRY: I think they loved each other almost from the first day, and they really never stopped. And many obstacles were in their path: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "LOVEMUSIK")

CERVERIS: (As Kurt Weill) The sound of your voice is the very force of nature. It (unintelligible) me like music.

LUNDEN: "LoveMusik" also explores another key and complicated relationship in Weill's life, with German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The two had a brief but important collaboration in the late 1920s and early '30s, writing several shows including "The Threepenny Opera."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL PLAY, "THE THREEPENNY OPERA")

Unidentified Man: (Singing in German)

LUNDEN: Historian Kim Kowalke says that at the beginning, the Marxist playwright and the left-leaning composer got along.

KOWALKE: Brecht gave Weill the contemporary language, the poetry he needed. 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 sugarcoated the message.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO BROADCAST)

WEILL: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "LOVEMUSIK")

MURPHY: (As Lotte Lenya) (Singing) And then one time inside I felt a little stir.

CERVERIS: (As Kurt Weill) (Singing) It looked like soon I might be taking care of her.

MURPHY: (As Lotte Lenya) (Singing) Did you suppose that it was all my private plan? You left me flat.

CERVERIS: (As Kurt Weill) (Singing) Well, I just ain't a family man.

LUNDEN: When Weill had to flee Nazi persecution, he ended up in New York City, where he found success on Broadway, writing hit shows like "Lady in the Dark." Some critics thought they heard a change in Weill's American music, but playwright Alfred Uhry says Lotte Lenya disagreed.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE VINTAGE YEARS")

WEILL: (Singing) And these few vintage years I'd spend with you.

LUNDEN: Kurt Weill's rich musical palette and his passionate relationship with Lotte Lenya will both be on display when "LoveMusik" opens on Broadway this Thursday evening.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

NEARY: You can hear Lenya and Weill sing his song "Speak Low" and hear Lenya reminisce about their first meeting at npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Lynn Neary.

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