Kurt and Lotte: Brecht vs. Broadway in LoveMusik

I was struck by Robert Gottlieb’s question in his dance column last week, “How can educated and sophisticated viewers react so differently to a work of art?” Even the best critics sometimes violently disagree, Mr. Gottlieb pointed out evenhandedly, ultimately putting his own preferences for certain dancers and choreographers down to a question of temperament.

Perhaps. But for me, a critic is an advocate. He makes a case for his own point of view, and might even create whirlwinds. The mighty Kenneth Tynan revealed a self-flagellating touch when he wrote, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” But many artists—who know the way—have been critics. Tom Stoppard began as a drama critic writing under the pseudonym William Boot, the name of the unlikely star of British journalism in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. G.B. Shaw was a renowned critic, of course; Bertolt Brecht would have made a great one. Audiences make pretty good critics, too—provided they agree with the professional critic.

The truth is, everyone’s a critic—particularly in New York. From where the pros sit, on Mount Parnassus, they advocate their personal views and ask, “What do you think?” Agreement isn’t essential, but preferred.

I appear to be in an uncomfortable minority of one in not finding Donna Murphy’s talent as dazzling as her numerous admirers do. Where others see in her raved-over, Tony-nominated performance in LoveMusik Lotte Lenya’s raw emotional complexity and coarse contempt, I can see only Ms. Murphy’s smooth technical accomplishment and a coquettish longing to be loved by the audience.

I found LoveMusik itself a strangely tired show—a missed opportunity to achieve something original and genuinely Brechtian with Kurt Weill’s music and the story of the Weill-Lenya marriage (and remarriage). Alfred Uhry’s hagiography about the tumultuous relationship between the cantor’s son and the former hooker, and the legendary Harold Prince’s familiar, sub-Brechtian staging, have all the hallmarks of an oversimplified biopic that turns Kurt Weill’s genius into a jukebox musical for earnest middlebrows.

You would never know from the show’s portraits of a meek, complaisant, apparently long-suffering Weill and the “wild,” compulsively unfaithful Lotte that Weill had his own mistress. Their Anglo-German accents are intended to give them authenticity, I assume, and the show an Old World atmosphere. But ven zey are alvayz talking like zees, eetz too much ze Kraut cliché—ya?

Lenya—Weill’s leading interpreter—once claimed emphatically, “There is no American Weill, there is no German Weill. There is only Weill.” But LoveMusik fails to reconcile the many sides of Weill’s God-given talent, throwing the show off-kilter. I’m among those who believe the pre-1935 phase of his collaboration with Brecht was never equaled in America. The gutter appeal of the urban masterpieces Mother Courage, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny and The Threepenny Opera and their haunting songs of bitterness and yearning—“Surabaya Johnny,” “Alabama Song”—are in startling, sometimes embarrassing contrast to the bouncy optimism and sentiment of the later, U.S.-era show tunes.

Compare this famous, insinuating Brecht lyric—

Oh, moon of Alabama

We now must say good-bye

We’ve lost our good old mamma

And must have whisky

Oh, you know why.

—with this, from Broadway with love and romance—

Paris oh Paris

Your riches embarrass

So Paris we’re singing of you.

Weill worked with a string of leading American lyricists until his death in 1950. But which do you prefer—the Brecht/Weill “Mack the Knife,” or the generic showbiz irony of “Wouldn’t You Like to Be On Broadway?” (lyrics by Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice, no less)?

Wouldn’t you like to be on Broadway

And go dancing at the Zanzibar

And have yourself an up-and-coming boyfriend

Who can make any course in par

Even Weill’s superior ballads from the American years—“Speak Low,” which promisingly opens LoveMusik (from One Touch of Venus, lyrics by Ogden Nash), and “September Song”, which melodramatically signals the end the show (from Knickerbocker Holiday, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson)—scarcely compare to Weill’s golden period with Brecht.

Kurt and Lotte: Brecht vs. Broadway in LoveMusik