Accessibility or authenticity? Must these equally desirable theatrical qualities be in conflict, or can they complement each other? When it comes to musical theatre—and vintage specimens in particular—some companies vigorously tailor their productions to keep audiences engaged, as if they’re worried that theatregoers won’t find a period piece relevant if it’s not modernized, restored or otherwise reworked.
But at Lyric Stage in Irving, Tex., a 10-minute drive from downtown Dallas, the mantra of everyone involved in the company’s productions—classic and new musicals, with full acoustic orchestration—is unapologetic authenticity. And Lyric Stage’s newest offering is a musical-theatre aficionado’s dream: a rare “critical edition” production of Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart’s groundbreaking 1941 musical Lady in the Dark, produced with the blessing of the Kurt Weill Foundation. The show runs April 24–May 3.
Lyric Stage’s mission, to develop and preserve the American musical, is not unique, nor is the notion of dusting off little-performed classics. But the company’s insistence on note-for-note authenticity—its stated intention is to “allow contemporary audiences to experience musical-theatre treasures the way their authors intended for them to be experienced”—does stand out, especially in Texas. Authentic recreations are Lyric Stage’s business—just 19 of the 102 shows mounted there so far have been world premieres.
Founding producer Steven Jones says the company’s new revival of Lady in the Dark came about by “mutual acclamation.” The show had been on the theatre’s short list for a number of years when, in 2009, Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization, saw Lyric Stage’s restored production of The King and I, and suggested to the Weill Foundation that Lyric Stage would be a great place to revive the German émigré’s musicals. The Weill Foundation granted Jones and company permission to produce the “critical edition”—essentially an estate-approved version, culled from research about the authors’ original intentions in the absence of a definitive licensed version—as a test run. But first the restored performance materials had to be prepared for staging.
Lady in the Dark, in whatever version, is long overdue for reconsideration. With music composed by Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin (making his first return to Broadway after his brother’s death in 1937), and book and direction by Moss Hart and a sumptuous budget, Lady in the Dark was considered at the time “one of the most innovative works in Broadway history,” avows musical-theatre specialist and musicologist Bruce D. McClung. Gertrude Lawrence starred as a depressed fashion-magazine editor in need of psychoanalysis, whose on-the-couch sessions spur ever more elaborate memory sequences until she has a breakthrough (to the tune of the lilting standard “My Ship”). The show turned featured newcomer Danny Kaye, who performed the tongue-twisting patter song “Tchaikovsky,” into a star overnight.
The show’s subject material, psychoanalysis; the need for a star performer to carry the lead role, and the elaborate sets and extensive costuming required for the indicated 50-plus performers—these are among the reasons Lady is seldom remounted. (A well-received West End production in 1997 starring Maria Friedman was the show’s last major English-language revival.) Lady kicks off with its unconventionality front and center: There’s no overture and no big opening number. The first scene, in which lead character Liza reclines on her psychiatrist’s couch, has no music at all. The songs come later, in three extended fantasias: the Glamour, Wedding and Circus Dreams, which function almost as operettas unto themselves, tucked neatly into Hart’s straight dramatic script. Definitely ahead of its time in 1941, it may still deserve that designation today.
The Weill Foundation has worked for years to create an authentic critical edition of the show.
Supervising the project is Elmar Juchem, associate director for the foundation’s publications and research. He describes why the project took so long to reach this stage.
“The surviving musical materials from Lady in the Dark are the most extensive of any of Weill’s works in the U.S., so there was a lot of material to review. We found sources that document precisely how the show ran in the early ’40s,” Juchem reports. “But here’s the problem: During the run of the show, both Moss Hart and Kurt Weill published scripts, minus music and piano-vocal score—these scripts didn’t match each other, or the show as it was playing on Broadway.
Random House then published a script that seemed directed to a read-at-home market. At the same time, Chappell Music released a vocal score that gave no guidance of how the show should be performed in the theatre—no dance routines, no incidentals, entr’acte or exit music indicated.”
In short, says Juchem, “Put the cacophony of published sources together and you end up with a cumbersome play that could run for almost four hours.”
Fortunately for the Weill Foundation, an assistant stage manager’s script from the run survived, with specific notes showing actual cues, cuts, additions and who played or doubled roles. (Five stage managers worked the Broadway production.) Then someone neatly typed up a consolidated production script shorter than the Random House–published version, after the show left Broadway.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
“Another wrinkle appeared in 1950,” continues Juchem. “Dramatists Play Service took over the show’s rights and issued the libretto, which followed the long Random House version, ignoring Hart’s detailed production notes as its Broadway director. All consequent productions to date have been required to use this non-authentic version.”
Lyric Stage’s fully staged and orchestrated production of the Weill Foundation’s painstaking restoration work will reveal what further changes may be required to best recreate the original for future licensed production. In addition, it will give its audiences—some of whom fly in from across the country regularly to attend—the opportunity to see the show mounted fresh and complete, as if for the first time. Lyric Stage’s primary venue, Carpenter Hall at the Irving Arts Center, easily seats more than 700, and the proscenium-style stage has ample wing and fly space to accommodate elaborate sets. For Lady, the company plans to use both realistic and fantastical set elements and modern lighting techniques to define the scenes and moods of the show; the orchestra will play the score much as it was first heard.
Some adjustments will be made to the designated cast size. In 1941, as was the custom, the show’s cast of 50 included separate dancing and singing ensembles; today’s top ensemble performers routinely do both. Lyric Stage’s production will employ close to 30 Equity and non-Equity artists—still an oversized cast by contemporary standards.
The key to musical-theatre performance, in both excellence and accessibility, resides primarily in the hands of the music director. At Lyric Stage, Jay Dias leads an orchestra of up to 40 musicians, depending on score requirements. That big, beautiful orchestra is one thing that impressed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Chapin, which is why he was happy to have orchestral restorations of Too Many Girls and The King and I first performed there.
Dias is a self-confessed research hound, and he believes his work always pays off. He points to 22 years of Lyric Stage productions as evidence that when performances are realized authentically according to the original creators’ intention, the works emerge as timeless, universal and surprisingly accessible, no matter their age. He credits not only the depth of his research but also the duration of the company’s rehearsal period for both orchestra and vocalists—longer than many producing organizations can afford. For Lady, the cast began rehearsals March 30, and the show goes into tech April 20. Meanwhile, Dias’s orchestra—30 instruments for this show—rehearses for full days by itself before joining the cast in tech week.
That’s a generous amount of time to spend with a vintage work.
In the make-or-break lead role of Liza is regional leading artist and Lyric Stage regular Janelle Lutz. “She’s the real deal,” enthuses Dias. “I think she would have fit Kurt Weill’s dream casting if he had not already had Gertrude Lawrence in mind in 1941.”
A large orchestra and extra rehearsal time doesn’t come cheap, though. In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Lyric Stage a grant to mount Carousel. “It was so successful we could have run that show for a year to full houses,” Steven Jones remarks. “But we knew that money would not last forever.” Two angels subsequently stepped forward. Ralph and Joy Ellis had been season subscribers for some time before the enhanced mounting of Carousel, and after they saw it, they approached Jones with an offer of a multiyear donation to facilitate further productions. The Ellises’ continued support, Jones says, “allows us to keep mounting American musical classics at this unique level.”
“My ship’s aglow with a million pearls / And rubies fill each bin,” go the beatific lyrics of “My Ship.” At Lyric Stage, a little Texas-style philanthropy has put a fresh gleam on a work that might otherwise languish in the dark.
Photo of Janelle Lutz and Ryan Appleby by Michael C. Foster, supplied by Lyric Stage. www.lyricstage.org
Feature as run in American Theatre Magazine
Alexandra Bonifield is an NEA/Annenberg theatre criticism fellow based in Dallas. She writes for criticalrant, OnStageBlog and DallasNews.com.