by Mark N. Grant
It was Kurt Weill’s first runaway Broadway hit, the show that assured his financial security and made him, in songwriter Ann Ronell’s words, a “big shot” on the Great White Way. Cecil Smith, the most astute and highbrow musical theater critic in America during the 1940s, later said that the only other Broadway musical that could touch Lady in the Dark as a “wholly satisfactory drama” was South Pacific. Though it was one of a trio of artistically adventurous musicals opening in the 1940-1941 season (the others were Cabin in the Sky and Pal Joey), musically and formally Lady in the Dark was the most cutting-edge of the three. It put Gertrude Lawrence on the cover of Time, brought Ira Gershwin triumphantly back to Broadway, made a star of Danny Kaye, and was “the biggest therapeutic factor in [Moss] Hart’s own psychoanalysis” according to Hart’s friend, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson.
The prolific Moss Hart had co-written with George S. Kaufman an extraordinary string of comedy successes in the ’30s, but he suffered from depression and severe insomnia, and he wanted to strike out on his own. Hart had begun psychoanalysis in 1933; in 1937 he tried to interest Kaufman in a musical about analysis, to star Marlene Dietrich, but the idea died aborning. By 1939 he was thinking about it again, this time as a straight play for Katharine Cornell called I Am Listening (the three words with which Hart’s analyst Dr. Lawrence Kubie began every session). Weill met Hart late in 1939, and they agreed to use the play to create a new kind of musical show. While there is no evidence Weill ever visited a psychiatrist, Johnny Johnson (1936) had featured not only a shrink but an entire asylum, and while writing Lady he made notes on his own dreams. The portrayal of analysis in Hart’s play, while whirlwind, is surprisingly realistic, perhaps because the script “was vetted at every stage by his analyst,” writes Hart biographer Steven Bach.
In his first Broadway venture after his brother George died, Ira Gershwin contributed the lyrics, among his very finest. (In his memoir, Oscar Levant wrote, “Ira’s own favorite lyrics are those for Lady in the Dark.”) The Gershwins had first encountered Gertrude Lawrence when she starred in Oh, Kay! in 1926. The gifted but temperamental Lawrence (whom Kaufman and Hart had lampooned as Lorraine Sheldon in The Man Who Came to Dinner) played hard to get when Hart tried to sign her to play Liza Elliott; Hart finally forced the issue by offering the role to Irene Dunne (ironically, Dunne originated the title role in the movie Anna and the King of Siam, which Gertrude Lawrence later played in The King and I). Lawrence played the entire run, which included a remarkable three separate stints on Broadway: January-June 1941 (the show closed for the summer to protect Lawrence’s health), the 1941-42 season, and the spring of 1943 following a road tour in the fall of 1942. During that time, she also kept up a grueling schedule of war relief benefit appearances.
The physical staging of Lady in the Dark prefigured by decades the cinematic, high-tech shifting sets that became commonplace in the late 20th century. Designer Harry Horner created four turntables that enabled the psychiatrist’s and Allure magazine offices to dissolve into dream scenes and back again. When Lawrence came down with the flu, Hart himself played Liza in the tech rehearsals but had to be guided through the complex turntable movements by a stagehand. Hart directed the book scenes, but Hassard Short handled the musical dream sequences. The production was visually stunning thanks not only to Horner and Short but also to Hattie Carnegie, Lawrence’s couturier; Irene Sharaff, who costumed everybody else; and choreographer Albertina Rasch.
The sophistication of both lyrics and music shows up in puns and allusions on multiple levels. For instance, Gershwin quotes Cavalier poet Robert Herrick’s line, “The liquefaction of her clothes,” from “Upon Julia’s Clothes” a few moments before he has Liza sing “One Life to Live“–which draws on Herrick’s carpe diem poems. When Ringmaster Russell Paxton in the Circus Dream asks, “Who wrote that music?” and launches into “Tschaikowsky,” Weill is actually alluding to his “Glamour Theme” of the earlier “Glamour Dream,” the first seven notes of which are an almost note-for-note reminiscence of the D major theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. (In Johnny Johnson, the “Sergeant’s Chant” similarly parallels the march melody from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.)
Conductor Maurice Abravanel had a huge job rehearsing the elaborate chorus parts, and he “brought out the fresh and interesting timbres of Weill’s masterly instrumentation without overbalancing Miss Lawrence’s slender voice,” said Cecil Smith. Unlike some of Weill’s other American scores, Lady‘s orchestral timbres change kaleidoscopically from section to section. Among many inspired details: the “tapestry of the unconscious” suggested by the figuration (piano and clarinet sextuplets, muted brass half-notes, bass line eighths, high strings, and percussion in quarters) after the hummed syllables of “My Ship” at the Glamour Dream’s opening; the Glamour Theme’s sly transformation into a catchy foxtrot when Liza enters the nightclub; the ghostly, echoing effect of the chorus’s “Liza Liza” at the beginning of the Wedding Dream, with brass foreshadowings of “This is New” mated to the bolero rhythm; and the borderline polymetric vocal ensemble at the end of the Wedding Dream, where multiple voices converge as if in a nightmare. The overture (used as an entr’acte) is one of the greatest of the American theatre, and “This is New” one of Weill’s half-dozen best American songs. The Glamour Dream plays like an inspired musical rendering of a George Grosz painting of the Stork Club.
Gertrude Lawrence’s performance “was one of the supreme virtuoso feats of the modern theatre. From her everyday character she moved, within a split second, and with no possibility of the external aid of changed makeup, into a variety of startlingly different phases,” recalled Cecil Smith. The splendor of her performance is not preserved in her colorless, perfunctory recording of six songs a month after the show’s opening. Fortunately for posterity, Lawrence later did two one-hour versions of the show for radio’s Theatre Guild on the Air in front of live audiences, and here we find her exquisite acting, incandescent charm, uproarious comedic shtick, and sheer sex appeal in abundance. Although many numbers are cut and the orchestrations are not Weill’s, the Gertrude Lawrence of legend (particularly in “Saga of Jenny,” Weill’s American swing moritat) emerges in these remarkable broadcasts. The October 19, 1947 broadcast has much the better supporting cast (Alan Hewitt, Bert Lytell, John Conte); the March 5, 1950 broadcast, released on the AEI label, with Hume Cronyn, Arthur Vinton, and Macdonald Carey, has an even gutsier Lawrence performance.
Gertrude Lawrence is a hard act to follow. The 1944 Paramount film adaptation with Ginger Rogers butchered Weill’s score, but Alfred Hitchcock’s psychiatric thriller Spellbound (1945) owes much to Lady in the Dark. Moss Hart’s wife Kitty Carlisle later played Liza in summer stock, and Ann Sothern starred in a 1954 television adaptation. A 1963 studio recording conducted by Lehman Engel (who conducted the premiere of Johnny Johnson and remained Weill’s friend), with Risë Stevens as Liza, was the first recording to use Weill’s orchestrations. More recently, Christine Ebersole played the lead in the 1994 Encores! concert presentation in New York, and Maria Friedman in the first London production in 1997; a successful French production toured in 2009. Some reviewers of these revivals found the material dated and sexist. But Gabriel Byrne has made his mark as a television shrink (In Treatment), like Lorraine Bracco in The Sopranos, and fashion editors like Anna Wintour are still celebrities. Any time is right to revive the show that Cecil Smith called “Weill’s best gift to the American stage, beyond all debate.”
Mark N. Grant in 2006 became the first composer to receive the Friedheim Award since the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award program ended in 1993. He has written music for both the concert hall and opera/music theater and is also the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998).