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Personal Favorites: The '40s

Most everyone would agree that My Fair Lady, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, and Gypsy are among the best musicals of their respective decades. Today, I begin a new series in which I isolate, by decade, musicals that were not necessarily the best of their time, but are instead personal favorites. These are shows that fascinate or move me beyond others, shows that seem to me special or unique.

Beginning with the 1940s, my first title has to be Lady in the Dark. I've been asked more than once to choose the show I would most like to be able to go back in time to attend. Invariably coming to mind is the original 1941 Broadway production of Lady in the Dark. This is partly because it boasted an incandescent star, Gertrude Lawrence, playing a great role, that of Liza Elliott, a fashion magazine editor whose sudden emotional distress forces her to seek psychiatric help. All accounts indicate that this was a performance that had to be seen live; audio recordings and photographs can't do it justice. Lawrence was apparently an incomparable force on stage, and she was at her peak as Liza.

But it's also the material of this Moss Hart-Ira Gerswhin-Kurt Weill show that so captivates me. Lady in the Dark came up with the distinctive notion of confining until the end of the evening its musical numbers to three fantasy sequences, the dreams that Liza relates to her doctor. These dreams became dazzlingly polished mini-operas, thus making the Lady in the Dark score one of a kind. But beyond its compositional innovations, the score is just plain wonderful, supplying the star with terrific solo material "One Life to Live," "Jenny," "My Ship" while surrounding her with haunting choral passages and even a patter showstopper "Tschaikowsky," introduced by Danny Kaye.

Lady in the Dark was the third show of the first season 1994 of City Center's Encores!, where it starred Christine Ebersole. A few years later, London's National Theatre bravely offered a full-scale staging, starring Maria Friedman and directed by opera's Francesca Zambello. But no one has dared to attempt a full-scale New York revival of the show.

That reluctance probably has something to do with the show's message, which some interpret as the need for a woman to give up a high-powered career if she is to find love and contentment. Then too, Lady in the Dark possesses an image of utmost glamour, and a new production might be hard pressed to supply a wholly satisfying physical production, not to mention the right leading lady. Donna Murphy or Glenn Close might fill the bill. Yet somehow one doesn't really expect to see a Broadway revival of Lady in the Dark. The show seems likely to remain one of those legendary originals that would probably never be the same in a new staging.

It's partly the unique composition and style of On the Town 1944 that makes it such a favorite of mine. On the Town combined giddy, episodic comedy with lengthy Jerome Robbins ballets, the latter accompanied by Leonard Bernstein music of symphonic breadth. The jazz-inflected songs by Bernstein and Betty Comden and Adolph Green are of the highest quality. But what makes the show particularly memorable is that it's a lightweight spree with a profoundly touching underlying message, as its three sailors about to be shipped out attempt to cram into one day a lifetime of fun. Of course, the fact that it's also one of Comden and Green's love letters to a romantically conceived New York makes it additionally irresistible to me. And the show bursts with youth; it's clearly the product of new, unstoppable talents who announced with this show that they were here to stay.

Unlike Lady in the Dark, On the Town has had three New York revivals, two on Broadway and one off-Broadway. The Broadway revivals have fared poorly, even though the first one, in 1971, was excellent. But then On the Town is, like Lady in the Dark, a very difficult show to revive, as it requires a style of comic playing that's alien to today's hard-sell tactics, and also calls for a great choreographer, one willing to do battle with the legend of Robbins' original. Just as the ecstatic reception of the original Oklahoma! had at least something to do with the show's wartime period, so On the Town's original success had a good deal to do with the time of its arrival.

It seems unlikely that anyone will attempt On the Town again in New York, at least not for many, many years, or at least until an article on the state of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre appears that doesn't mention the failure of its Broadway revival of On the Town.

Curiously enough, my final two personal favorites of the '40s are, like Lady in the Dark, the work of composer Kurt Weill. Like Porgy and Bess, Street Scene 1947 was a Broadway opera, a piece now done in opera houses around the world rather than in Broadway revivals. Yet Street Scene is a genuine hybrid, with substantial dialogue scenes and musical numbers that are pure Broadway "Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow," "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed" melding seamlessly with operatic arias "Somehow I Never Could Believe," "Lonely House", duets "We'll Go Away Together", and ensembles "The WomanWho Lived Up There".

With lyrics by poet Langston Hughes, Street Scene has as strong a score as any musical of the '40s. And it's the combination of that score with Elmer Rice's source play that makes the show so moving. The members of the doomed Maurant family, with its brutal father, unfulfilled mother, and uncertain daughter, are to me more real than most musical-theatre characters of the period, as is the show's overall atmosphere of a teeming, uncaring New York City. Street Scene actually leaves me wanting to know what will become of orphaned daughter Rose Maurant and her brother Willie as they leave their tenement home as the final curtain falls.

Love Life 1948 fascinates as the missing-link show between the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical-play innovations of the '40s and the concept musicals created by Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim in the '60s and '70s. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Weill, direction by Elia Kazan, choreography by Michael Kidd, and sets by Boris Aronson, Love Life received mixed reviews, ran 252 performances, and won a Tony for its leading lady, Nanette Fabray. Part of the reason for the show's obscurity is the fact that no original cast recording was made.

Like later concept musicals, Love Life can be said to be a show organized around an idea rather than a linear plot. The idea in this case was the decline of the American family and marriage as a result of economic progress. The show told the story of the marriage of Sam and Susan Cooper from 1791 to 1948, with Sam, Susan, and their children never getting any older as the evening wore on. More significantly, it told that story in terms of a vaudeville show, with realistic book scenes alternating with "acts" that commented on the scenes.

It's not hard to see how Love Life may have influenced such later musicals as Cabaret, which also alternated "real" book scenes with cabaret numbers that commented on the scenes; Company, another conceptual show about marriage in which comment songs punctuated the scenes; Chicago, a self-described "vaudeville"; and Hallelujah, Baby!, which follows a group of characters who never age over sixty years. The "Loveland" sequence near the end of Follies might be said to parallel Love Life's near-closing minstrel show; in both, a couple at an impasse in their relationship are plunged into the realm of fantasy and taken through a series of musical numbers which leads to a resolution. The finale of Pippin is similarly analogous to that of Love Life.

Some found the original Love Life on the cold side, maintaining that it was difficult to care deeply about Sam and Susan. But in addition to the show's innovations, Weill's score is every bit as strong as the ones he wrote for Lady in the Dark, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars. Indeed, Love Life contains the great "lost" score of the '40s, one that, while partially documented on a number of discs, still awaits a complete commercial recording. Surely an Encores! production would be able to downplay Love Life's book problems while highlighting the show's daring and, above all, its score.

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