Reprinted with permission from University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. © 2020
Excerpted from “Love Life and the Concept of the Concept Musical”
Forthcoming in Modern Drama
By Bradley Rogers
When Love Life opened on Broadway in 1948, many critics felt that the musical theatre had reached new heights—with some going so far as to call the show “one of the most extraordinary productions in years,” “perhaps the most mature musical play the American stage has yet produced” (Norton, “Love Life Most Unusual Play”). The uniqueness of the show was widely recognized: George Freedley, for example, wrote that “‘Love Life’ is the most intelligent and adult musical yet offered on the American stage. Its sophistication may keep it from the wide popularity of simpler musicals but for many of us, it is a sheer delight…a show which is iconoclastic in every direction” (Freedley). Calling it “imaginative and generally brilliant,” Richard Watts, Jr., remarked that “[t]here is an air of high theatrical inventiveness and originality about it, and a kind of largeness of conception that makes it seem almost always vigorous and alert” (Watts 1948a, Watts 1948b). Ward Morehouse found it “exhilarating and distinctive” (Morehouse), Thomas R. Dash called it “a cavalcade that is novel, imaginative and frequently thrilling” (Dash), and Robert Coleman felt that producer Cheryl Crawford had “established a new high standard for Broadway musicals” and that Lerner and Weill had “fashioned a superlative entertainment—a song and dance show with great cheer, soaring imagination, welcome novelty and keen observation” (Coleman). There were exceptions, of course; distinguished New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, for example, wrote that “although billed as ‘a vaudeville,’ [Love Life] is cute, complex and joyless—a general gripe masquerading as entertainment” (Atkinson).
For complex reasons, the show was not published, recorded, or made available for licensing. It has been revived only seven times during its seventy-year existence: 1987 (University of Michigan), 1990 (Walnut Street Theatre), 1996 (Opera North), 2000 (partial workshop, Hochschule der Künste Berlin), 2017 (Freiburg Stadstheater, also Bern), 2018 (workshop, Duke University) and 2020 (New York City Center Encores!). However, despite this slight production history, the show has had a disproportionately major influence on the development of musical theatre. Fred Ebb, who would go on to write Cabaret and Chicago, referred to Love Life as a “a major influence” (qtd. in Hirsch 297), a sentiment shared by Stephen Sondheim, who referred to the piece as a “useful influence.” In 2011, Sondheim remarked that “if Love Life and Allegro had been smash hits, the musical theatre might very well have accelerated in terms of experimentation.” Harold Prince, who would go on to direct both Cabaret and Company, also noted the historical significance of Love Life as a progenitor of the “concept musical.”
As New York World-Telegram critic William Hawkins wrote in 1948, “because Love Life follows several patterns all its own, it is a difficult show to describe.” Among these “several patterns” are two especially innovative elements that distinguish the show. The first is that it follows one family throughout 150 years of American history. Thus, we encounter the Cooper Family—none of whose members ever age—at the time of several prominent socio-economic crises: 1791, 1821, 1857, 1894, and 1927. In 1791, the country was stabilizing after the establishment of the Bank of the United States had brought about erratic markets; in 1821, it was recovering from the Panic of 1819, caused by market fluctuations and land speculation; in 1857, it suffered the first global economic crisis; in 1894, a crash in wheat prices and the overextension of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad led to a depression, which brought about catastrophic unemployment; and in 1927, the country was hurdling towards the Great Depression. The musical’s second act is set in the “present day,” 1948, with women newly emancipated by wartime to enter the labor pool. In each vignette, Lerner traces the history of labor as it comes to bear on the family unit at that particular point in American history—whether it takes the form of railroad expansion complicating the birth of children, or women’s rights being framed as the right to work.
The show’s broad sweep of time—ranging from 1791 to 1948—was certainly a novelty for musical theatre, though it was quite similar to the temporality of Thornton Wilder’s influential 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder’s play follows the Antrobus family and their maid, Sabina, through more than five thousand years of human history, as the seemingly immortal family deals with catastrophes including an ice age, the Great Flood, and finally a world war. The similarity between the broad historical scope of Love Life and of The Skin of Our Teeth was noted, for example, by the Cue magazine critic, who wrote that the musical’s lead performers, Nanette Fabray and Ray Middleton, “impersonate a pair of married lovers who, rather like Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus of ‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’ are eternal, symbolic, and about as human as you could expect in a musical comedy.” While The Skin of Our Teeth emphasizes a certain kind of universalizing human spirit—quite different from the historical specificity and causality of Love Life—the musical’s attempt to situate one family in different historical periods is certainly indebted to Wilder’s conceit. Significantly, Elia Kazan, who directed The Skin of Our Teeth, would be asked to direct Love Life, quite possibly because of this structural similarity (See Schickel 184). Some felt this element of the show to be a bit labored, as in Irving Hoffman’s inspired comment that “Nanette Fabray and Ray Middleton, having promised to ‘love, honor and obey till death do us part,’ run the gamut from wedded bliss to wedded blitz in a marital marathon covering, by librettist’s license, a period of 150 years. Although they reach this overripe old age without aging, I felt the full impact of these years” (Hoffman).
The show’s other main “patter[n] all its own” is its extraordinary structural innovation, which involves the show alternating between the Cooper Family epic, on the one hand, and vaudeville-style interludes, on the other. All sorts of vaudeville acts—a magician, a trapeze artist, an African-American quartet, a kiddie act, and so forth—punctuate the Cooper Family sketches, amplifying, often ironically, the themes explored in the sketches. The show opens with a stage magician whose customary tricks—the silk handkerchief, the rabbit—are followed by a much more complex undertaking: he suspends a man in the air and saws a woman in half. The levitating man, we learn, is Samuel Cooper, and the woman is his wife, Susan. When Sam notes that Susan must be very uncomfortable, Susan replies that she’s accustomed to it: “Well, this is what I really am, isn’t it? Split in two and severed in the middle? I’m half homemaker, half breadwinner, half mother, half provider. I’m over there a woman and up here a man” (Weill & Lerner). As they bicker about how they ended up in this predicament, Susan remarks, “We had a decent existence once. It wasn’t perfect but at least it made some sense.” They reminisce about the time one hundred and fifty years prior, when they had this “decent existence,” and the traveler curtain opens to reveal the Cooper Home in Mayville, Connecticut, in 1791. The show will continue to alternate in this way—between vaudeville routines, such as that of the magician, and narrative vignettes that focus on the Cooper Family saga as they progress, but never age, through more than one hundred and fifty years of American history.
. . .
Critics noted the show’s critique of capitalism, as in critic Leo Gaffney’s comment that “Alan Jay Lerner’s book shows the two lovers, Sam and Susan, as a Mr. and Mrs. America living and loving under the handicaps of our history and economics. The almighty dollar might be called the villain of the piece, with the machine age the deputy imp” (Gaffney). Similarly, a Time critic noted that “Love Life’s argument is that steam, speed, materialism and greed have slowly wrecked connubiality. It might be retorted that even allegorical couples were not meant to live together for 150 years” (“New Musical in Manhattan”).
However, nothing generated more commentary—or more criticism—than the formal structure of Love Life, with its claim to be a “vaudeville.” Some found the “vaudeville” elements successful: Leo Gaffney had the most vivid characterization, writing that “[i]n and around the love life of Susan and Sam wriggles the good old corn of the two-a-day. In the highfalutin drama it would be called the Greek chorus, doing its chore of explaining and describing the condition and emotion of the protagonists. In this case the chore is there, but before you can say Art the didoes of the vaudevillians sweep you up on such a tide of good entertainment that you forget form and think only of fun” (Gaffney). Richard P. Cooke wrote that “[t]he character of a vaudeville, reference to the dictionary discloses, is that its parts are haphazard, lacking connecting thread. In Love Life this isn’t quite true….It adds up pretty well” (Cooke). Howard Barnes felt that the term did not particularly capture the show’s ambitious enterprise: “[w]hatever that term [vaudeville] means, it does some fancy hair-splitting in establishing a hybrid idiom,” he wrote (Barnes). Richard Watts, on the other hand, noted—even as he complimented the show—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” (Watts). A similar incompatibility was voiced by Elinor Hughes, who wrote that “[t]hese acts—double male quartets, burlesque madrigal singers, fantastic minstrels, child tumblers, a lady on a trapeze and a puppet show ballet of the divorce court—prove somewhat distracting and though their purpose is reasonably clear, they do tend to confuse the action and their connection with the story is not always well motivated. The sardonic symbolism…seems to overload a story which is basically simple” (Hughes).
However, I argue that the structure of Love Life is not intended merely to provide “satirical comment” or “sardonic symbolism,” nor were the vaudeville acts merely intended to “present a bit of an obstacle course for those spectators looking to be carried away by easy sentiment,” in the words of Foster Hirsch (Hirsch 2003, 296). The structure is far more complex. In fact, the structure is fundamentally related to the show’s broader concerns: the narrative fracture by the vaudeville mirrors the domestic fracture by capitalist forces. Indeed, the unique structure of Love Life cultivates the sense that capitalism, as embodied in the conventions of popular entertainment, has indeed intervened in the family, as embodied in the narrative conventions of the family. Thus, when we consider Brooks Atkinson’s 1948 complaint that “[v]audeville has nothing to do with the bitter ideas Mr. Lerner has to express about marriage,” I suggest that this is precisely the point. Indeed, these vaudeville ideas are meant to impede the marriage—as embodied in the narrative scenes about the family—and thus perform a function that is not meant to be complementary, but instead antagonistic. To be sure, in a review that noted that divorce “remains a somber theme for a musical play, however earnest and well intentioned,” critic Elinor Hughes complained that the “overall effect” of Love Life was partly one of a “broken narrative line” (Hughes). The broken narrative line—a narrative broken by vaudeville—is precisely the broken narrative line of the family. This provides another way of reading Elliot Norton’s approving comment that “[a]ll the illusions, the errors, the faults which have punctured the American dream of domestic bliss are exposed in hilarity and high spirits in ‘Love Life’” (Norton). The principal joys of the piece, its “hilarity and high spirits,” come precisely through the “illusions” and “faults” embodied by the vaudeville routines that “punctured” the narrative, with its “dream of domestic bliss.”
The significance of this unique structure is brought home most forcefully in the lengthy “minstrel show” that concludes Love Life. The authors clearly viewed the “minstrel” conceit as merely one of many vaudeville subgenres, and its deployment in the piece consists mostly of tropes referenced, as in some clichés of speech (“honey chile”) and the vaguest outline of minstrel show structure (an interlocutor, with Sam and Susan as the end men). The structural purpose of the “minstrel show” seems to be to reference transformation; while the minstrel show was historically indebted to changing the appearance of the performers, Love Life’s minstrel show did not involve blackface, and was instead meant to transform Sam and Susan, to permit their relationship to transform (See Venning 280-288). The four numbers that comprise the “Illusion Minstrel Show”—“Madame Zuzu,” “Miss Ideal Man,” “Mr. Cynic,” and “Mr. Right”—all present various “illusions” that have prevented Sam and Susan from pragmatic romantic fulfillment.
Questioning the role that these illusions have played in the demise of the family, the finale significantly indicts the realm of (capitalist) popular entertainment as a principal generator of these illusions: Miss Ideal Man—who, we are told, “is well known by all moviegoers, radio fans, and lovers of popular songs”—encourages Susan to hold out for an ideal man with whom love will be as it is “in the motion pictures you have seen.” In other words, the idea of an ideal man is framed precisely as an illusion borne of popular culture. The show’s catharsis comes after “Mr. Right,” a song in which Susan elaborately imagines her (implausible) fantasy man, who, we learn through song, will “look like Tyrone Power” and be “strong and Bogarty.” In this way, the show reminds us that capitalism—again in the form of popular culture—generates illusions that are harming the family. This is precisely the complexity of Love Life: by critiquing popular culture, Love Life—itself an element of popular culture—questions whether its own materials—the popular songs that make up its score—are fragmenting illusions of their own.
Atkinson, Brooks. “At the Theatre.” New York Times, 9 October 1948.
Barnes, Howard. “Commenting on Comedies of the Musical Variety.” New York Herald Tribune, 24 October 1948.
Cooke, Richard P. “The Theatre: Great Goings On.” Morning Wall Street Journal, 11 October 1948.
Dash, Thomas R. “’Love Life.’” New York News Record, 11 October 1948.
Freedley, George “‘Love Life’ Sheer Delight; Intelligent, Adult Musical.” New York Telegraph, 9 October 1948.
Gaffney, Leo. “‘Love Life’ Just Grand.” Boston Daily Record, 15 September 1948.
Hirsch, Foster. Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Hirsch, Foster. Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway. Limelight, 2003.
Hoffman, Irving. “Play by Play: No Go For a Slow Show.” Hollywood Reporter, 8 October 1948.
Hughes, Elinor. Clipping of review in file of Kurt Weill Foundation.
Morehouse, Ward. “‘Love Life’ a Festive Hit.” New York Sun, 8 October 1948.
Norton, Elliot. “‘Lone Life’ Big Hit at Shubert.” Boston Post, 13 September 1948.
Watts, Richard Jr., “Two on the Aisle: Expressing Frank Admiration for the New Show, ‘Love Life.’” New York Post, 17 October 1948.
Watts, Richard Jr., “A Smash Musical Hit Called ‘Love Life.’” Clipping in file of Kurt Weill Foundation.
Weill, Kurt, and Alan Jay Lerner. Love Life. (Draft of Authorized Edition.)