Emotional ambiguity is almost as characteristic of Kurt Weill’s work as the musical discordance that echoes it. It ripples sorrowfully through the melody of the composer’s French chanson, “Je ne t’aime pas,” and in Maurice Magre’s translated lyrics: “For you understand that I don’t love you/But don’t press my hand or look deep in my eyes.” That wounding impulse to abnegate both the love itself and the pain that comes with denial colors every scene of “LoveMusik,” an uneven but fascinating portrait of the corrosive relationship between Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya.
While it was developed from the letters of Weill and Lenya by playwright Alfred Uhry and constructed around 27 songs — both celebrated and obscure — written by the German composer with various distinguished lyricists, this challenging expressionistic bioplay with music bears the defining creative stamp of Harold Prince.
Returning to Broadway with his first new musical since “Parade” in 1998, Prince has folded performance, design and music into a collage of striking theatercraft that’s appropriately Brechtian in its burlesque artificiality. Even when the arty approach feels distancing, the thick German accents muffle the lyrics or the show veers toward melancholic overload, “LoveMusik” is an audacious work that never shies away from taking risks. It remains a beguiling reflection on the complexities of love, unfailingly coherent with its subject matter.
Having worked with the actress, Prince has a history with Lenya. After her return to the stage following Weill’s death, she played Fraulein Schneider in the producer-director’s 1966 Broadway staging of “Cabaret,” which this new show frequently recalls.
Prince as always has surrounded himself with top-notch collaborators. Some are regulars, like lighting designer Howard Binkley, whose dark color palette gives the show a brooding beauty; choreographer Patricia Birch, her musical staging enlivened by its humorous embrace of vintage theatrical styles; costumer Judith Dolan, supplying character-enhancing period garb; and invaluable orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, whose impeccably balanced arrangements of Weill’s music for the 10-piece band allow the score to comment on the story without overpowering it.
Working with Prince for the first time is set designer Beowulf Boritt, whose inventive work here — alternating strokes of witty economy with elaborate detail — is a constant source of surprise. Constructing distinctively styled variations on the same faux proscenium to mark the shift from the show’s European first act to America in act two is a clever, unifying touch.
Then there’s the superb cast, helping to counter a certain lack of depth in the way the characters are written.
Following his tormented “Sweeney Todd” last season and his moving Kent in the Public’s recent “King Lear,” Michael Cerveris continues to extend his range as Weill. With acute sensitivity, the actor disappears into the doughy, physically unprepossessing man, establishing the composer’s almost apologetic presence from his first moment onstage, singing in a near whisper of the fleeting nature of passion in “Speak Low.”
As the actress and singer with whom he remained intertwined for 25 years despite being profoundly mismatched, Donna Murphy is mesmerizing. As louche and spontaneous as Weill is uptight and reticent, Murphy’s Lenya is all cool looks, gangly limbs and swaggering vulgarity. The performance is a brilliant caricature ennobled by truth.
Uhry has the couple meet cute, Teutonic-style, when Lenya pulls up in a rowboat to deliver Weill to a lake house, swiftly seducing him with her no-nonsense provocativeness. Their contrasting characters and backgrounds are sketched in brief scenes or song interludes. Weill is intellectual, while Lenya is instinctive. He’s the son of a cantor, raised in a devout Jewish family, while she’s from a boozy clan of working-class Catholics, getting by as a maid while going on acting auditions and unashamed to admit she worked the streets at 13. As Lenya points out, however, “I am common, Herr Weill, not stupid.”
Liberated by Lenya from his personal restraints, Weill begins to thrive as a composer but suffers from his free-spirited new wife’s aversion to monogamy. Around this time, the other key creative partnership in the composer’s life is born when he meets political poet Bertolt Brecht (David Pittu).
A fine stage actor who has made consistently incisive impressions in the past two seasons, Pittu here gets an opportunity to shine. With a cigar clamped in his mouth and a jaded leer stamped on his face, he communicates his self-serving character’s arrogance instantly. Pittu’s lewd, sexy performance of the “Tango Ballad” from “The Threepenny Opera” — staged as a menage-a-quatre number that takes “Two Ladies” from “Cabaret” one step further — is one of the show’s musical high points.
Uhry avoids the standard bioplay approach of career recap and/or greatest hits, spending more time on Lenya’s audition (singing “The Alabama Song”) than on the Berlin “Threepenny” premiere, with the “Moritat” included only as a party piece. Likewise, the Nazi rise is chronicled unconventionally, with Weill and Brecht performing a funny vaudeville around “Schickelgruber” as Hitler’s birth and childhood are drolly illustrated in a shadow play.
The trans-Atlantic location change, when Weill, Lenya and Brecht all flee to America, heightens the imbalance of the central relationship, already strained by Lenya’s affair with a con-man co-star (she and Weill had divorced in Europe but remarried when they became U.S. citizens). Weill finds success as a Broadway composer, only failing when he tries to write for Lenya, for whom the role of hausfrau to a famous husband is an uneasy fit. She lands some exposure as a nightclub singer, yielding Murphy’s knockout “Surabaya Johnny.”
The suffering caused by Lenya’s extramarital excursions is wistfully rendered in Cerveris’ song “That’s Him,” a neatly recontextualized number from “One Touch of Venus.” (That 1943 show and 1938’s “Knickerbocker Holiday” are well represented, while the successful “Lady in the Dark” is featured only in a snippet from “Girl of the Moment.”)
Paradoxically, it’s not Lenya’s infidelity but Weill’s that likely would have severed the relationship had he not died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 50. This section of “LoveMusik” is its most stirring, with Cerveris exposing the pain of someone who needs a different kind of love than his partner can provide, finding it with another married woman in Hollywood.
Prince’s staging of Weill and Lenya’s final encounter is exquisite. Cerveris sings a haunting “It Never Was You,” ending as his suitcase falls open and spills out its contents, tenderly repacked in silence by Murphy.
John Scherer brings debonair charm in the second act to George Davis, the gay magazine editor who became Lenya’s friend, professional savior and, after Weill’s death, her husband. He’s burdened with the awkwardly inserted pastiche number, “The Illusion Wedding Show” (from 1948 tuner “Love Life”), the heavy-handed irony of which slows the emotional build of the final scenes and seems an inferior echo of the “Loveland” sequence in “Follies.”
But Davis plays a vital role in coaxing Lenya out of grief and retirement. This is cemented in Murphy’s devastating take on “September Song,” during which she transforms from a haggard woman in mourning to a trouper, ready to go on as Jenny in the legendary 1954 Off Broadway production of “Threepenny.” That Lenya’s life after Weill’s death remained dedicated to his music is a poignant coda to their complicated, consuming relationship.