Gotham legit watchers’ expectations are running high for “LoveMusik,” an unusually costly Manhattan Theater Club outing that, if successful, looks ripe for commercial life beyond the limited nonprofit run.
MTC honchos, including longtime MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, are enthused about the work but are trying to manage expectations, shrugging off talk of transfers.
But the tuner, which bows May 3, has many elements that legiters are keeping an eye on:
- MTC rarely produces musicals — its last was “The Wild Party” in 2000. This world preem, which uses Kurt Weill songs to follow the romance between the German composer and his wife and muse, Lotte Lenya, is the company’s first tuner in its dedicated Rialto home, the Biltmore, since the renovated venue opened under MTC auspices in 2003.
- “LoveMusik” is the first production of a new musical from noted helmer-producer Harold Prince since “Parade” in 1998. The show has attracted a cast toplined by Broadway faves Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy.
- Commercial producers, headed by Marty Bell (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), have ponied up a hefty $2 million in enhancement coin.
- The musical seems to fit in with the “arthouse” tuners — the intimate, brainy Broadway offerings “Spring Awakening” and “Grey Gardens” — that have grabbed attention this season, particularly when chatter turns to upcoming awards.
- MTC is riding high on strong sales and reviews for Off Broadway offering “Blackbird” — the possibility of an extended life is under discussion — and on last week’s Pulitzer win for David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” which MTC produced in 2006. (The “Rabbit Hole” medal makes the third Pulitzer for a play produced by MTC since 2001, following “Proof” and “Doubt.”)
Those at the theater, however, downplay premature talk of “LoveMusik’s” future.
“I think ‘LoveMusik’ is going to appeal to a wide range of people,” says Meadow. “But Kurt Weill is Kurt Weill. It’s not ‘Hairspray.’ A transfer is the byproduct, not the goal.”
Not that MTC is any stranger to commercial transfers. “Proof,” “Doubt,” “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” are among the Broadway successes that originated at the theater.
Under Meadow’s tenure, which began in 1972, MTC has gone from a scrappy Upper East Side troupe to a major New York nonprofit with one Broadway venue, two stages Off Broadway and around 22,000 subscribers. “LoveMusik” will be the last offering before Meadow takes a year’s sabbatical while helmer Daniel Sullivan (“Proof”) fills in as artistic director.
The Weill musical makes a fitting bookend, since one of the first shows Meadow produced at MTC was a staging of Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Little Mahagonny” (an early version of “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”). Prince saw that show and responded favorably on a post-show questionnaire. (“I framed that thing and kept it in my office,” Meadow says.)
It was Prince who originated the idea for “LoveMusik.” He has not directed on Broadway since the short-lived “Hollywood Arms” in 2002.
About four years ago, he called scribe Alfred Uhry (book writer of “Parade”) about dramatizing the long and tempestuous entanglement of Weill and Lenya. Soon thereafter, a thick tome collecting the letters of the two, titled “Speak Low (When You Speak Love),” arrived in the mail, followed by a box of CDs.
From the letters, Uhry began to construct a biographical narrative. “I’m not sure what she said is exactly true,” Uhry says. “But what do I care? It’s great stuff, and it’s based on the truth.”
Threaded through the evening, Weill’s songs — including “Mack the Knife,” “Speak Low,” “Surabaya Johnny” and “September Song” — further the story, but more as commentary or counterpoint to the action, Uhry says, and “not so much in the Rodgers and Hammerstein sense of singing how you feel in the middle of a scene. This is not a revue or a retrospective. It’s really a play with songs in it.”
Prince also was the one to get Meadow onboard, inviting her to a reading of the developing tuner last year.
“The show always seemed like small Broadway or big Off Broadway,” Uhry says. “And there really is no big Off Broadway anymore. The Biltmore is exactly right for it.”
Meadow, who’d been hoping for the chance to put a musical in the Biltmore, liked the piece and signed on. But it’s a costly endeavor.
“There’s no question it’s heavy lifting,” Meadow says. “Doing musicals is really an expensive proposition. With our move to the Biltmore, we’ve been working hard to catch up after the capital campaign.”
Commercial producers, headed by Bell, have contributed $2 million. “They are our enhancing, subsequent partners,” says MTC exec producer Barry Grove. “It’s produced by special arrangement with them at the Biltmore, and then they become lead partners later.”
As to what that “later” looks like, though, it’s too soon to say. “There’s already offers to do it in all sorts of other places,” Uhry says.
Should it prove successful, a full-summer run at the Biltmore might not be cost-effective for the production, which must support 10 thesps and 10 musicians. The show would likely begin to shop for larger theater.
But even if “LoveMusik” garners more criticism than praise, MTC can at least content itself with a track record that includes all those recent Pulitzers.
“We’re in the business of new work,” Meadow says. “If no one’s criticizing your choices, you’re probably not doing your job.”