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Love Life: An Appreciation

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by Mark N. Grant

The great German drama critic Friedrich Luft wrote that it was “the most beautiful and most powerful evening of theatre” of the many productions he had seen in New York. Daily News drama critic John Chapman wrote, “Half way through it, I heard the lady behind me say, brightly, to her companion, ‘Oh, I’m not bored! I’m just puzzled.'”

These comments sum up the continuing reception of Weill’s most problematic and ambitiously innovative Broadway show, Love Life. Despite equivocal reviews, the show ran for an impressive 252 performances, all the way through a season that included Kiss Me, KateSouth Pacific, and Where’s Charley?. One of a trio of experimental musicals that opened between October 1947 and October 1948 (the others being Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and the Moross-LaTouche Ballet Ballads), Love Life was the most influential, now generally acknowledged as a precursor of the “concept” musical.

Because of a musicians’ strike in 1948, no original cast album was made to keep the score alive. The first revival did not occur until 1987. Director Elia Kazan did not even mention the show in his autobiography, and librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner said in the 1960s, “I can never allow that show to be revived. I’ve turned into everything I satirized in that show.” (Lerner’s now-legendary run of failed marriages was just beginning when Love Life opened in October 1948.)

Lerner’s partner Frederick Loewe was ready for a break in the spring of 1947, after Brigadoon. Producer Cheryl Crawford introduced Lerner to Weill, who was initially skeptical (he had told confidant Maurice Abravanel that Brigadoon was “not really up to my level.”) But both Weill and Lenya were thoroughly charmed by Lerner. When Street Scene closed in May, and when new projects with William Saroyan and Herman Wouk quickly petered out, Weill was ready to tackle Lerner’s idea for a portrait of a marriage gone sour, conveyed through a 150-year cavalcade of American history with vaudeville vignettes providing commentary “in one” between each scene, in the manner of a Greek chorus. In the summer of 1947, the two men really hit it off as they began working together.

It is telling that Lerner started the project just one month after divorcing his first wife, Ruth Boyd. If Lady in the Dark is a crypto-psycho-autobiography of Moss Hart, then Love Life, also an original script, served the same purpose for Lerner. “All I can say is that if I had no flair for marriage, I also had no flair for bachelorhood,” he wrote later, a line which seems to fit Samuel Cooper to a T. The script contains several parallels with Lerner’s first marriage. Is the show Lerner’s revenge on his first wife, or on his demanding father? (The “prizefight ticket” scene in which Sam and Susan decide to divorce was based on a real-life scene between Lerner’s parents.)

Early drafts of the script (entitled “A Dish for the Gods”) were meaner and more cynical than later versions; as the book and score progressed through rewrites and tryouts, many interesting scenes–like a Ventriloquist and Dummy sketch–were dropped. Weill composed, and discarded, more music for Love Life than for any other American work. As the score evolved, he removed almost all the European-sounding music (except “I Remember It Well,” which Lerner later rewrote to music by Loewe for Gigi). The score is a bravura round-up of every vernacular American style from Virginia reel to the blues. As he had in The Day Before Spring (1945), Lerner wrote an original libretto set entirely in America. The Magic Show and other scenes offer homage to Orson Welles’s Around the World in 80 Days (which Lerner loved), and the personified illusions of the Minstrel Show may nod to O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, with its “pipe dreams” and trait-based character names (like “Harry Hope”).

Crawford first asked Bobby Lewis, who had directed Brigadoon, to direct Love Life. Lewis read an early draft of the script and, he later wrote, “had many doubts about it and gave it to Kazan for his opinion.” Kazan agreed it needed a lot of work and said Lewis should pass it up unless there were major changes. But then Kazan took the job himself (whereupon Lewis resigned from the Actor’s Studio). Love Life‘s time-traveling plot and openly experimental nature may have reminded Kazan of The Skin of Our Teeth, his first big success. He was not popular among the cast, and his straight book scenes were not well received by the critics (“The ‘Radio Night’ interlude in the show’s second half needs Director Kazan’s attention, and will probably get it,” wrote Ward Morehouse in the Sun). Richard Watts (New York Post) wrote, “It isn’t always successfully integrated, so that at times the vaudeville and revue sections seem brought in to keep the theme from growing tiresome, rather than as properly satirical comment upon the subject matter.” The cinematic Love Life comes close in style to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz; had Fosse ever directed a revival of the show, the commentary in the vaudeville numbers would have hit much harder.

True, Lerner’s lyrics hammer the “love vs. money” theme too repetitiously, and his striving for an “Everyman” tone can seem sophomoric. Yet if one interprets the changing historical settings as metaphors for battles within marriages, rather than as literal, heavy-handed social critiques, the piece makes much more sense. The point of starting out in 1791 was not that America was better back then, but that most marriages start off idyllic. The audience didn’t get it. Cheryl Crawford later said that Love Life had “no heart, no passion,” a charge often leveled at the Sondheim-Prince shows. But Sondheim (who does not rank Lerner highly as a lyricist) has said little about Love Life over the years, always citing Allegro as more of an influence.

Weill’s score abounds in wicked musical in-jokes and quotations. “Here I’ll Stay” pops up as a sarcastic motif in the Cruise Scene. In “Mr. Right,” the bridge is almost identical to the bridge of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat. “Miss Ideal Man” quotes Street Scene‘s “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed.” “Punch and Judy Get a Divorce” quotes from the percussive war music in Die Bürgschaft. But the most affecting and original song, “Susan’s Dream,” was cut during tryouts, as was “The Locker Room,” one of the only numbers partaking of Weillian sarcasm. Though “Green-Up Time,” “Love Song,” “Progress,” “Economics,” and “This Is the Life” are all fine tunes, the music for the Minstrel Show is too blandly pop-boilerplate for the dramatic impact needed (though Nanette Fabray often stopped the show with its eleven o’clock number, “Mr. Right”). “Progress” is so authentic a soft-shoe that it could have been written by Irving Berlin, but it might have been more effective with a soupçon of the Brechtian Weill.

The frequent cinematic underscoring and Weill’s orchestrations (some dance numbers were orchestrated by his assistant Irving Schlein) drew enough attention that conductor Joseph Littau was mentioned by name in several reviews, a rarity. Actors Ray Middleton, Nanette Fabray, and Lyle Bettger were well received, as were choreographer Michael Kidd, set designer Boris Aronson, and costume designer Lucinda Ballard. Fabray’s Tony Award was a triumph, for casting Susan had been a trial–several actresses, including Weill veterans Gertrude Lawrence and Mary Martin, had turned it down. Superpatriot Lela Rogers vetoed her daughter Ginger’s participation because she thought the script was anti-capitalist (it was, but in a sentimental, not a left-wing, way).

When Lenya wrote him in 1977 about persistent requests to revive Love Life, Lerner replied, “I wish I loved the book and lyrics as much as I love the music.” Yet his book for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976)–music by Leonard Bernstein–borrowed the formal concept of Love Life and even included a minstrel show. About a year after Lerner’s death Love Life received its first revival under Brent Wagner’s direction at the University of Michigan. The American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia revived it in 1990 with a new adaptation of the book by Thomas Babe. Most recently, Opera North in England produced a revival in January 1996. All the revivals restored some cut numbers.

Love Life shows Weill striving to become ever more American. Most of the ideas on his drawing board when he died were based on Americana (Spoon River AnthologyThe Grapes of WrathMoby Dick), and he had already commenced work on Huckleberry Finn with Maxwell Anderson. Yet longtime Weill/Lenya associate Lys Symonette firmly believed Lerner a more suitable collaborator, and a better dramatist, than Anderson. Weill and Lerner remained friends and came up with more ideas for collaborations, including an adaptation of the Book of Ruth. It seems likely that had Weill lived longer there would have been more Weill-Lerner Broadway shows–another of the many what-ifs left in the wake of his premature demise.

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).

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