Lady in the Dark achieved legendary status from the day it opened in New York City in 1941, where it ran for 491 performances. The musical made stars of the already well known Gertrude Lawrence, who’s picture was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and a young comic actor named Danny Kaye, who’s tongue twister of the song “Tchaikowsky" made him an instant star. The creative team for the show were already giants in the field of theatre and music. Lady in the Dark was a ground-breaking work due to the unusual plot and the rich score. It was a bridge between the more light hearted and less sophisticated musicals preceding it and the more serious integrated musicals that followed.
The original idea for the dramatic musical show, involving psychoanalysis, was developed by Moss Hart, whom for many years had sought relief from his own depression and insomnia through psychoanalysis. (His granddaughter performed the small role of Barbara in the show). Ira Gershwin wrote the extraordinary lyrics on his return to Broadway after the death of his composer brother George.
The music was composed by the great Kurt Weill, who fled Germany in 1935 with his wife, the legendary cabaret singer Lotte Lenya. His 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday had a short run in New York, but introduced the “September Song” to America and the world. His first big Broadway hit was Lady in the Dark, which opened in 1941. Despite its great success, it was never revived for Broadway until Encores presented it to inaugurate the opening of their first Encore’s season in 1994. It was made into a movie in the 1940’s.
Weill wrote several other musicals including Street Scene, and One Touch of Venus (starring Mary Martin). He also composed some songs for movies and some orchestral music as well. He died in 1950.
We owe great thanks to Ted Sperling, for bringing this wonderful work back to New York, along with his Masters’ Voices Chorus ,for three semi-staged performances. Mr. Sperling fell in love with this show when he was in college and was happy to present these performances as part of New York City Center’s 75th anniversary.
Before going any further, let me say that both Victoria Clark as Liza Elliot and David Pittu, as Russel Paxton were terrific in their roles. Tony Award winner Victoria Clark has brought her theatrical and vocal art to twelve Broadway musicals. With her ravishing voice and fine acting she was a perfect Liza Elliot. David Pittu, who played the magazine’s photographer and the ringmaster in the circus dream, was charged with getting out all 50 Russian composers’ names in 35 seconds for the Tschaikowsky song and was appropriately applauded for his work.
The story of Lady in the Dark, involves a very successful and driven female fashion executive of a magazine called Allure, who decided to be psychoanalyzed in order to conquer the fears and demons from her childhood. The structure of the show is very original. It is divided into three 20 minute acts, each with a different dream surrounded by pure play structure. We hear a bit of the song “My Ship” when we are first introduced to Liza at the beginning of the first act and this song is woven like a Wagnerian motive throughout the whole musical. At the end of the play, her psychiatrist has finally helped her to figure out why she was so disturbed. Suddenly all of the words of “My Ship,” come to her and she is finally at peace with herself.
“My Ship,” it is one of the most well-known and beloved songs of the musical and is sung quietly and hauntingly by Victoria Clark. The other two popular songs are “The Saga of Jenny,” who couldn’t make up her mind, sung in a jaunty manner by Victoria Clark and the Tschaikowsky song. These three songs occur one after the other at the end of the musical .
Kurt Weill was a composer who could write in many styles. He was trained in his native Germany as a classical musician but he decided to write popular music to appeal to the people. Throughout this musical there is a variety of musical styles; bolero, cabaret, romantic, fox trots, catchy tunes and music that points back to the Weimar Republic.
The show was performed as a semi-staged concert. Ted Sperling led a dramatic and beautiful reading of the score. The great Orchestra of St. Lukes, one of America’s most distinguished orchestras, played the complicated score to perfection. The wonderful 120 person Master Singers were on bleachers in the rear of the stage. In addition to their glorious singing, they also were always in character.
The stage area was small and with only a few props…a lamp, a sofa, a desk, and a chair, Doug Fitch, the director of the show, was able to create the right atmosphere for each for the three dream acts. The choreographer, Doug Varone, choreographed a series of dances for each of the three dream sequences, making great use of the small areas of the stages. The dancers whirled around in circles or groups and gave energized performances.
In the musical, Liza Elliott is a fashion executive so Ted Sperling and his Costume Designer Tracey Christensen decided to go to fashion designers to create high fashion outfits. Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor at large, helped introduce them to appropriate designers for the dream sequences. For the Glamour dream sequence, Zac Posen designed outfits for Victoria Clark and the female dancers; for the Wedding dream sequence the Bridal gown was designed by Marchesa, and for the Circus dream, Thorn Browne designed outfits for the principal actors and the jury.
The actors were an excellent ensemble of Broadway theatre professionals. Many of them also worked in television and movies. Amy Irving, played a very sympathetic psychoanalyst and the scenes between her and Victoria Clark seemed real. Ashley Park, as Miss Foster, made her a very efficient secretary and helper for Liza. Ron Davis played up the self importance of the Hollywood star Randy Curtis. Christopher Innvar was excellent in his portrayal of Charley Johnson whom Liza found annoying at first, but by the end of the musical realized his kindness. Ron Raines was patient as the character Kendall Nesbitt who was Liza’s boyfriend, even though he was already married. He was wonderful in the scene where, in a trial, he has to give evidence of her inability to change her mind and expresses his sadness and surprise when Liza decided she didn’t want to marry him.
There was great applause at the end of the show from the very appreciative audience. Hopefully, we will not have to wait another 25 years for its return to Broadway.
(c) meche kroop
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