Lady in the Dark: The Ultimate Play with Music
One of the seminal recordings of the 1960s is now with us again via digital download:the first studio cast album of Lady in the Dark.
Until 1963, musical theater enthusiasts who’d been too young to have seen this legendary 1941 show — or hadn’t yet been born – enjoyed little opportunity to understand what it was. The notorious 1945 film had dropped most of the score, and the 1955 TV version was an abridged one-night-only affair. What a shame that original cast albums hadn’t begun in earnest until a year after Lady in the Dark had closed.
Yes, stars Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye had made some pop recordings of some songs, but each was put on a 78 rpm record. By the ‘60s, stores had rid themselves of these brittle and easily breakable discs – and even if one could find them in a second-hand shop, they’d inevitably be scratched beyond repair. Worse, they might skip, causing the listener to miss one or more of the seven ages detailed in “The Saga of Jenny.” Even if one could locate these 78s in pristine condition, he’d endure orchestrations and supporting casts that weren’t quite what we’d call “original.”
So in 1962, producers Jim Fogelsong and Thomas Z. Shepard decided to right this wrong. Lady in the Dark would get a first-class treatment worthy of one of the greatest triumvirates in Broadway history: bookwriter Moss Hart, composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Ira Gershwin. True, they didn’t use Weill’s original orchestrations, but they may well have wanted to keep that a secret; whoever did them was not credited on the album.
If any show deserves to be called sui generis, it’s this trailblazer. Lady in the Dark wasn’t a musical per se. Its characters didn’t suddenly switch from talking to singing in a scene. It was more “a play with music,” but even that description doesn’t do it justice.
The Nance, currently on Broadway (depending on when you read this), is a more representative “play with music.” Every now and then, its characters break away from its story to offer a diagetic song — meaning a performance number that they do while fully aware that they’re singing and performing.
Musicals often have diagetic numbers, too, such as when Sally Bowles sings “Don’t Tell Mama” in Cabaret; it’s a night club number that the Kit Kat Club patrons watch. But when Sally is alone with Cliff in the privacy of his room and sings to him that living together would be “Perfectly Marvelous,” she’s delivering a non-diagetic song, because she’s really not “singing” in practical terms; it’s just a musical theater convention that’s spurring her into song.
And yet, these examples don’t accurately describe what occurs in Lady in the Dark, the ultimate play with music. There is no hint of music when the curtain rises on Act One, Scene One. Instead, Liza Elliott, a successful magazine editor, makes her first reluctant visit to a psychiatrist; he encourages her to tell him one of her dreams, and when she does, that’s where Weill and Gershwin come in.
Before show’s end, she’ll reveal four dreams to us, all musical theater sequences. Oh, there are times when Liza will hum an a capella bar or two to her shrink, but “Glamour Dream,” “Wedding Dream,” “Circus Dream” and “Childhood Dream” are the only times that Lady in the Dark truly sings.
In between these sequences, we see Liza’s terrible difficulties in both the psychiatrist’s office and her own. That she can’t decide what next month’s magazine cover will be is only the tip of this ice-lady’s problems. Should she marry Kendall Nesbitt, the married man with whom she’s been having an affair? Considering that Hollywood heartthrob Randy Curtis has taken an interest, should she take him as a lover? On the business side, should she even choose to promote Charley Johnson, her eager associate to co-editor-in-chief?
Lady in the Dark is almost structured as a baseball game. The top of the first inning offers a book scene; the bottom of the first displays that dream. The next inning returns us to book — and so on. Because Act One ends with a book scene, there’s no triumphant act-ending number to which audiences had become accustomed. Act Two begins with a book scene as well, so there’s no big act-starting number. The show does end with music, but with Liza humming a capella. Need more proof that Lady in the Dark isn’t a musical but a play with music?
Even when a line in the book screams out for a song, the dialogue continues in lyric-less fashion. Case in point: one of Liza’s employees urges her to try astrology. In most musicals, her enthusiasm would inspire her to sing a razz-ma-tazz song called “Astrology!” that would sport such lyrics as “See what’s in store for Capricorns today — so you won’t be the goat.” Not here. The lines of demarcation are unshakable in Lady in the Dark. Those barbarians who complain that musicals aren’t realistic “because people don’t burst into song in real life” have less to complain about in Lady in the Dark: only the dreams get music.
And what music! This was Kurt Weill’s first contemporary score for American audiences, after he’d taken them to the heartland in World War I (Johnny Johnson) , Old Niuew Amsterdam (Knickerbocker Holiday) and Biblical Egypt (The Eternal Road) . He showed he could write jaunty songs (“One Life to Live”), a great eleven o’clock number (“The Saga of Jenny”), a novelty number (“Tschaikowsky”) and even ones that could wind up as pop hits (“My Ship”).
As for Gershwin, this was his first full assignment in four years since his famed brother George’s death. His love for wordplay had apparently not diminished. In the circus sequence in which Weill borrowed some of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music, Gershwin had the Ringmaster sing, “This is all immaterial and irrelevant! What do you think this is? Gilbert and Sellivant?”
In the same sequence, Gershwin did one of those comparatively rare triple rhymes in which none of the words is spelled in quite the same way: “The greatest show on earth is full of thrills and mirth. You get your money’s worth.” Such lyrics always tickle and please the ear.
When Fogelsong and Shepard went to record, Lawrence had been dead more than a decade, so they had to find a new leading Lady. Here we have one of the first instances of an opera star crossing over to make a musical theater recording. Placido Domingo, Kiri Ti Kanawa and plenty of others would do it in the years to come, but Risë Stevens – an acclaimed Carmen and Delilah — beat them to it.
Stevens, however, was quick to remind everyone that she had actually started out in the theater before she’d segued into opera. “I knew what to do with the voice to not sound ‘operatic,’” she said at the time, and she pretty much succeeded. If she does sound a little arch at times, that’s the often-pretentious character that Hart wrote.
And yet, when we hear Stevens let go when doing “The Saga of Jenny,” the show’s ultimate show-stopper, we find that she’s accomplished. She is also charming on “One Life to Live,” in which she urges us to eat, drink and be everything. How lovely is her “My Ship,” the song that has been haunting Liza Elliott for years.
In 1963, Danny Kaye was alive and well, but was busy doing his weekly TV show; thus, he chose not to replicate Russell Paxton, the magazine’s photo editor described by Hart as “very Old World in manner and mildly effeminate.” Adolph Green, whom Folgelsong and Shepard signed, was more of the former than the latter. Here, he got to sing that lickety-split lyric, “Tschaikowsky,” which had launched Kaye to fame, as he sang the names of dozens of Russian composers in little more than one hundred seconds. It became one of the most irrelevant show-stoppers in Broadway history, thanks to Kaye’s verve and expertise. Green is a worthy successor, as you’d expect of a man who adored classical music. (Remember “It’s a Simple Little System”? And for those who’d like to know more about Danny Kaye’s four cuts, they’re included here, too.)
Randy Curtis was originally played by Victor Mature, who, as the Playbill informed us, was on loan from the Hal Roach studio. If Mature is at all remembered today, it’s from appearing in ‘50s Biblical epics which didn’t much acquit himself as an actor. How bad was he? During the early ‘60s, the Harvard Lampoon would annually print an elaborate-looking box in which lovely calligraphy said “Thank you again, Victor Mature, for not making a picture this year.”
On this studio cast album, we instead have John Reardon. He’s one of the few opera house stalwarts who decided to do a musical and wound up introducing a Broadway standard (“Make Someone Happy” in Do Re Mi) . Here in Lady in the Dark, he too sounds arch, but that’s part of the point. Liza’s dreams are often melodramatic ones, so that’s why there’s a good deal of musical syrup poured on “This Is New.”
That song, however, was an aptly named commentary on what Lady in the Dark went for and achieved. Not always does a bright and bold experiment pay off handsomely, but Lady in the Dark ran 467 performances – making it the longest-ever-running “play with music.” (Kim Kowalke, the president of the Kurt Weill Foundation, tells me that Lawrence actually racked up 777 performances if we count her sit-down engagements Chicago. And today’s performers, take note: he claims that Lawrence never missed a performance.)
And while Liza Elliott had her issues and wasn’t the nicest person – throwing a paperweight at a fellow employee — don’t you love a lady whose dreams are fully-staged musicals with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.