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Life’s “Progress”: Love Life Revisited

By Charles Willard

Reprinted from The Kurt Weill Newsletter 2:2 (Fall 1984)

In 1947 Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner collaborated on “A Dish for the Gods,” a vehicle intended for Gertrude Lawrence. A year later, it became Love Life, a Broadway musical. Nanette Fabray and Ray Middleton starred in the production which was directed by Elia Kazan, choreographed by Michael Kidd, and designed by Boris Aronson. Produced by Cheryl Crawford, it played for 252 performances at the 46th Street Theater.

I introduce this article as baldly as I do because relatively little is known about this work. Certainly the record is more complete on One Touch of Venus (1943) which, in addition to its anthologized text and reissued cast album, receives generous space in a quartet of autobiographies by ladies of the theater no less luminous than Mary Martin, Agnes de Mille, Sono Osato, and Miss Crawford. These fascinating reflections of precisely the same saga intertwine in a kind of joyful Rashomon that greatly enriches one’s appreciation of Venus as a superbly crafted musical comedy.

Even though Love Life was a major production (forcing Death of a Salesman to postpone rehearsals in order to accommodate Kazan’s wish to do the new Weill-Lerner work), mounted every bit as prestigiously as Venus or Lady in the Dark (1941), no such record remains. It receives a single—if perceptive—paragraph in Crawford’s memoirs and one terse sentence in Lerner’s. Most of us can place three of Weill’s popular standards, “Here I’ll Stay,” “Mister Right,” and “Green-­up Time,” with this score. But how many other song titles can you recall? And actual melodies? What about the narrative line—care to take a stab at that? It is hardly surprising if your knowledge of Love Life is scant, because the afterlife of this show—that network of recordings, tours, stock productions that truly imprints most musicals on the public consciousness—simply never happened for Love Life. There was no tour, no London production, no movie; the stock and amateur rights went unlicensed, and the libretto was never published, not even in Theatre Arts.

But more than any of these ill fortunes, what cast Love Life into obscurity was the fact that the superior Weill/Lerner score was never recorded, due to a prolonged job action by the American Federation of Musicians in which they refused to participate in recordings. Thereby, Love Life was deprived of the chance to enjoy, at the very least, the status of a cult musical. For while it is true that Love Life achieved only modest Broadway success, many considerably less successful—and certainly less note-worthy—musicals have lived on in a glow of wider appreciation simply by virtue of their original cast albums.

Indeed, the cast recording is at the root of the entire cult musical phenomenon. No matter how grim the failure—200 performances, 80 performances, 9 performances—a musical with a provocative collection of songs enticingly packaged in an album with production photographs and generous liner notes will soon develop an almost mythic reputation. Indeed, the grimmer the failure (“bigger” names, shorter run), the more grandiose the cult—which then inflates beyond usefulness any sense of the true merits of the work. And woe to those perennial reproducers of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, House of Flowers, and Anyone Can Whistle, just three of those musicals whose albums of fine songs have created the mistaken impression that the shows in which they are entwined are unappreciated, workable gems.

Love Life, I hasten to add, is not such an artifact. Although it does have problems of its own, these are related more to its time than its techniques or, more precisely, the timing of its techniques.

Tainted Americana

In the heady rush of optimism and confidence that swept over postwar America, the Americana musical, which Rodgers and Hammerstein had patented during the war with the highly chauvinistic Oklahoma! (the exclamation point in the title is as significant to an understanding of the cultural phenomenon of Oklahoma! as anything in the text itself), became all the rage, holding, as popular entertainments do, a mirror up to a national sensibility swollen with patriotism.

Such musicals were essentially Currier and Ives lithographs embellished with all the pretty colors and conceits of the musical stage: lilting melody and jazzy rhythm, graceful ballet and fancy hoofing, easy humor, warm sentiments, handsome people, extravagant period costumes, and lavishly painted picture ­postcard drops. These musicals earnestly reflected a nation prideful of a victory that was nothing less than the natural outcome of a glorious past. That past could now be celebrated with the same gusto that enlivened the present and fired belief in the future. If Annie Get Your Gun could make something swell and boisterous out of a somewhat questionable exploitation of the Old West, then Bloomer Girl could certainly concoct something sweetly nostalgic from the American Civil War. Is it any wonder then, that at the end of the decade a rather modest new musical could ride higher than the rest on its depiction of the recent war in the South Pacific as one great and grand romantic adventure?

Love Life certainly may have looked as if it were cut from this same voguish cloth. Its opening scene depicts a perfect American idyll crammed with music which could underscore any Currier and Ives print, the brimming confidence of “My Name Is Samuel Cooper” followed at once by Weill’s caressing melody, bringing comforting assurance to the lyric of “Here I’ll Stay”:

For that land is a sandy illusion
It’s the theme of a dream gone astray
And the world others woo
I can find loving you
So here I’ll stay

But soon the colors darken, the insinuating tones of “Progress” drift into the orchestration, the painted drop of the first scene returns, belching factories now cover the Connecticut greens and glades. The flags slip to half-mast and it becomes apparent that, although Weill and Lerner may be trading in Americana, they do not intend to glory in it. By the time we have heard “Economics,” “Women’s Club Blues,” “Is It Him or Me?”, met the Hobo and Mr. Cynic, and watched a major ballet called “Punch and Judy Get a Divorce,” we are drinking from a very different cup of tea, more Edward Hopper than Currier and Ives. Love Life’s stars may have come over from High Button Shoes and Annie Get Your Gun and it may have its cheery springtime echoes of Carousel (“Green-Up Time”), but Love Life is absolutely none of the above. Indeed, by their own admission (Mr. Lerner in The New York Times of 7 October 1948), the authors sought to illuminate the “decline of American home life in the past century or so and the resultant unhappiness and confusions of the average family.” Does this sound like popular postwar America, those Baby Boom days that Norman Rockwell brought home to us every week on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post?

Conceptual Innovation

I would be the first to move that the phrase “ahead of its time” be struck from the lexicon of acceptable critical terminology. Far too often the critical community offers this shopworn catchall as a nod of appreciation to deficient works which belong to the oeuvre of artists who have moved up to the heights of acceptance and acclaim. And so one finds outright failures graciously excused with the proclamation that they were ahead of their respective times. More often than not, they were not ahead of anything, just plain, old-fashioned “no good.”

Having set this down, let me move boldly to claim that Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life was quite literally ahead of its time. The dark colors and bitter tonalities of Love Life are not rooted in character or heavy­-footed narrative, but in the actual theatrical scheme by which the show makes its way across the stage. The technique that Weill and Lerner pioneered to shape their concept featured for the first time what has come to be known as the comment song: musical sequences, vocal or choreographic, which do not advance action or express character directly (as per the dictum of the Rodgers and Hammerstein “integrated” musical), but comment from odd angles to create a musical profile having more to do with tone and point than emotion and character. This technique has now, of course, become part and parcel of contemporary musical comedy and practiced by such conceptualists as Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, and Bob Fosse.

But in 1948 this was an innovation. Writing about the show during its Boston tryout (Boston Post, 19 September 1948), a somewhat awed Eliot Norton proclaimed that:

Only a young man could have written Love Life. An old fellow of 30 would have swooned away at the very thought of a musical play which dramatizes the American dream of romance from 1791 to the present… and if you told him it must all be done gaily in a series of vaudeville turns from magicians to minstrels, he would have cried, “Hold, enough!” … Alan Jay Lerner is only 29 and that makes all the difference in the world … to aid in the execution he has composer Kurt Weill whose mind is young though his talents are mature and director Elia Kazan, an old codger of 36, who understands youth and appreciates talent.

Indeed so innovative were the methods of Love Life that its youthful craftsmen felt obliged to package their invention with precise instructions and to include on the title page of all programs a careful note of explanation, not usually found in musical comedies. In Boston that note read:

Love Life is a vaudeville. It is presented in two parts, each consisting of a series of acts. The sketches, which start in 1791 and come up to the present day, are presented in the physical style of the various periods. The vaudeville acts which come between each sketch are presented before a vaudeville drop and are styled and costumed in a set vaudeville pattern.

By the time the show arrived in New York, the note had been expanded to include the following: “The four main characters, Susan and Sam Cooper, and their children Johnny and Elizabeth, who present the story, do not change in appearance as the time moves on.” Clearly, in dealing with new machinery, one could not be too careful.

What remained unexplained were the effects created by this new technique of musical dramaturgy. For in inter-cutting traditional scenes with vaudeville comments, the authors brazenly short-circuited the foursquare energies of the Americana musical. They offered instead a crosspatch of electrical energies that were acerbic and dry, cool, and satirical. These methods placed detached observation before heartfelt involvement and mocking humor before the rushes of sentiment that the Rodgers and Hammerstein methods so handily supplied. The comment song by its very nature is analytical, introspective, and distanced, and Love Life, with its two-part score shrewdly finding precisely these tonalities, emerged as no valentine to the institution of marriage or to American values at large. On those terms alone, it was a truly modern work.

Fractured Ideals

The critical comments were predominantly love songs for the originality of Lerner and Weill’s technique, counterpointed in some quarters by disaffection for the intellectual coolness it produced. Brooks Atkinson, however, found little to love even in the authors’ innovations. Aside from positive comments about the music, he told readers of The New York Times (8 October 1948) that the show was not only “joyless, a general gripe masquerading as entertainment,” but also that its self-styled vaudeville was a “pose” because “Vaudeville is not pale and wan but hearty.” Clearly the colors of Love Life did not match Mr. Atkinson’s rose-tinted views of American love-life circa 1948.

Nor, as it turned out, did they match the public’s perceptions. After an initial rush of solid attendance, audiences dwindled sharply and the show’s 252-performance run fell far short of early expectations. Theater-goers apparently did not take to having their ideals fractured, their institutions sniped at, their belief in “Progress” and “Mister Right” questioned. In 1948 the possibility of “Mister Right” was no illusion to be pursued haplessly for 150 years. Indeed, not two blocks and six months from Love Life audiences could see exactly such a “Wonderful Guy” easily won by a knucklehead named Nellie Forbush: all it took was a good heart and a willingness to do a little growing up.

But if Love Life failed to reach the American sensibility circa 1948, it was only a matter of time before a connection would be made. Not surprisingly, when the upheavals of the 1960s unraveled the national fiber on just about every front, the popular musical stage brought forth a number of extravagantly praised works that capitalized on the techniques pioneered in Love Life and featured many of its same conceits. Gymnastic displays of fractured American dreams now flew high on glistening sinews of irony and ambiguity; vaults of angst and cynicism hit self-absorbed audiences where they lived. The irony here is that the work that traded in Love Life’s techniques with the most assured hand was the Sondheim / Prince collaboration Company, also a distinctly unsentimental exploration of marriage.

And so, the question lingers: would Love Life, if offered today alongside the works whose techniques it pioneered, finally achieve a greater measure of critical and popular acclaim than it did several decades earlier? Tough to say, but without adjustments, probably not. Time has not only caught up with Love Life, it has passed it by, leaving it shy of freshness and urgency, I suspect, at least on the commercial stage. Yes, there is a bit of paradox at work here: Love Life is one of those musicals that invest absolutely everything in technique—witness a kind of Platonic dialogue the authors conducted in The New York Times (3 October 1948) as a pre-opening feature—at the considerable expense of character. Love Life is truly about getting itself told, more about the theater as theater than it is about Sam and Susan Cooper.[i] And since what lasts in the theater, what truly endures, is character, that’s an unlucky spot for Love Life to be in. Writing in retrospect, producer Cheryl Crawford echoed this truth: “Its theme was fresh, the form unusual… but it had no heart, no passion. The audience could not get emotionally involved with the marital problems of the couple.” And technique by itself, unharnessed from the service of character, can only drive a show so long as it is fresh; once imitated or simply employed elsewhere, its strength is greatly reduced.

The Missing Link

Love Life’s technique and conjoined conceits have certainly been employed elsewhere. The comment song was exploited with notable effect in Cabaret, Company, and a host of lesser works. Hallelujah, Baby! marched a couple blissfully free from the restraints of aging through a hundred-year cavalcade of Black America; the exorcism sequence set to a quartet of Ziegfeld-esque routines climaxing no less a work than Follies perhaps owes not a little something to the minstrel show exorcism that brings the Coopers face-to-face with their illusions at the eleventh hour of Love Life. As for the vaudeville frames, Chicago set them to the task of its even darker social commentary. No doubt about it, Love Life has been done and done again, which would not affect the work’s durability a whit if only the character of Sam and Susan were a bit more substantial. Despite the richness of “This Is the Life,” “Is It Him Or Me?” and the lovely “I Remember It Well,” the Coopers stubbornly remain at the service of the concept, never quite coming into focus as people we can care about.

A comfortable claim can certainly be made that Love Life is a vastly important artifact of the American musical theater, indeed the “missing link” in the evolution of the modern concept musical. Moreover, it is clear that its stagecraft was valid, workable theatrical machinery, only awaiting a time when it was at one with the popular audience’s self-perceptions. Even now, in text, the show projects a sharp contemporary texture. But even with these acknowledgements, as heady as they may sound, Love Life would emerge on the stage today, I suspect, a work on which, ironically, “Progress” has played a few of its own tricks. Irony itself.

Is there a possible fix, a way to invest the show with additional character? Perhaps the vaudeville / comment sequences could be gathered around a character, a kind of “Mr. Progress” figure. The Coopers might then seem to do battle with a presence, something of human dimension, thereby sparking the fires of emotional involvement that only blaze in the theater when character meets character. In short, such an adjustment would make precisely the advance that Cabaret made over Love Life in the use of the vaudeville / comment technique.

Pursuing the Dream

But the final irony of Love Life remains with Weill. From all accounts, Weill was immediately drawn to Lerner’s idea, for it seemed to offer him at last the opportunity to compose a full-scale piece of Americana. This abiding, deeply felt ambition had some expression in Knickerbocker Holiday, the settings of the four Whitman poems, and for Railroads on Parade, but had remained frustrated since the Ulysses Africanus project failed to reach fruition. Lerner’s concept sounded ideal. One wonders if and when Weill realized that Love Life would result not so much in a slice of Americana served alongside, say, one of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein works, but in a kind of sliced Americana of a texture and taste that would not find its adherents for another two decades. It is interesting to watch him, in the adjoining Platonic dialogue, clinging a bit anxiously to the Americana colors of the work:

Man:    Vaudeville?

Weill:   Why not? If you want to tell an American story, isn’t that the most typical form of American theatre?

Man:    I suppose so.

Even though Weill finally got to see his notion of a minstrel show reach the stage (minstrel show sequences had been outlined for Ulysses and actually completed for Lady in the Dark), I imagine Love Life left his passion for Americana still unsatisfied. Perhaps it was this frustration that eventually led him to that most American of American works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One has only to listen to the easy, joyful strains of Huckleberry Finn’s “Come in Mornin’” (actually a kind of companion piece to Love Life’s “My Kind of Night”) to know that one has found a composer doing what, as far as his work in the Broadway musical is concerned, he did best: setting character and situation, time and place, to music of the heart.

[i] Editor’s note: In a later review of the 1990 production of Love Life by the American Musical Theater Festival, Charles Willard wrote that, “Susan and Sam are perhaps not ‘real’ characters and may never have been intended as such. They are archetypes who need to be performed with authentic stars standing beside them rather than honest actors trying to get inside them; the bonding we make then is not so much to Susan and Sam as to the winning personalities who play them.” (Kurt Weill Newsletter 8.2 [Fall 1990]).

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