A musical revival weaves the 2 worlds of Kurt Weill

Opera theater

Less than a mile from Sigmund Freud’s former office in Vienna, “The Lady in the Dark,” Kurt Weill’s oft-misunderstood 1941 musical about an overworked protagonist seeking relief through psychoanalysis, is set. staged in Austria for the second time only in the author’s native German.

And his theme of burnout proved irresistible to the Volksoper, who stages operas, operettas and musicals, in German, during these most difficult times. There is a sense of homecoming in a city often considered the cradle of psychoanalysis (Freud’s office is now a museum), coupled with a German translation of the original English lyrics and dialogues for a score written by Weill. , who fled the Nazis.

In fact, “Lady in the Dark” was one of Weill’s first Broadway shows in America, together with lyricist Ira Gershwin (in a collaboration after the untimely death in 1937 of his composer brother George) and playwright. and prolific director Moss Hart. But it wasn’t the tap-and-go musical that audiences had expected during the Great Depression.

“‘Lady in the Dark’ is revolutionary because there is no opening and no music to start the piece,” said James Holmes, the conductor of this production and administrator of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. At New York. “The star of the show comes across as what appears to be a normal piece. There are no choir bands that somehow signal his entry.

The musical is the brainchild of Hart, who had undergone therapy with Gregory Zilboorg (how about Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman to complete your client list?). It tells the story of Liza Elliott, originally played by Gertrude Lawrence, a disgruntled fashion magazine editor who undergoes psychoanalysis.

Her painful childhood and indecision about the men in her life are set in dreamlike sequences including a circus and a wedding, but the silent analysis scenes are more like a play, with almost no music and dialogue. minimal.

After charmed and baffled audiences with its Broadway premiere in 1941 (it lasted over a year), the show was adapted into a 1944 film starring Ginger Rogers which cut much of the score. The musical then became something of a cult status over the following decades, enjoyed by Weill aficionados, and was largely sidelined. It remains a challenge for audiences – and theater companies – 80 years later.

For Mr. Holmes, this makes “Lady in the Dark” all the more appealing. It shakes up the genre by using musical numbers later in the series to delve into the character’s psyche, rather than just to entertain audiences early on, like most musicals.

“Weill was constantly trying to reinvent the medium, and ‘Lady’ is a forerunner of conceptual musicals such as ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago,'” Mr. Holmes said, referring to musicals that fostered social commentary and l personal rather than linear expression. structure. “Weill is the most human of composers. He was always interested in the glitzy world, but only insofar as it might be incidental to the story. What interested him were the people who were dispossessed.

And Weill was no stranger to dispossession. Many see two very distinct phases in his short life (he died in 1950 at the age of 50). After huge success during the Weimar Republic, Weill, who was Jewish, fled Germany just weeks after Hitler came to power in 1933, first in Paris and then in New York.

Weill’s American works are considered by many to be less influential and revolutionary than his early German plays, such as “The Threepenny Opera” (1928), a scathing satire on capitalism and greed best known in pop culture for its horrific central song , “Mack the Knife”, which, with a perky re-orchestration, has become something of a living room lizard standard.

This notion of Weill’s two phases has always been most apparent in his homeland, where his legacy – like that of other artists who fled the Nazis – has long been debated.

“Somehow a lot of Germans still think he betrayed us by going to America, and I think there is some arrogance about his latest American works,” the director said. of the production, Matthias Davids, who has directed numerous musicals in his native Germany and around the world.

“There is often a separation between his German and American works,” Davids said. “Yet Weill did not consider himself a German composer after the Nazis said he was not.”

This idea of ​​two separate careers has been contested for decades, most notably by his wife and muse, singer and actress Lotte Lenya, who said, “There are no two Weills. There is only one. Or maybe a thousand.

And that plot is part of what prompted the Volksoper to put on the musical for the first time and use a 2011 German translation of the Hanover Staatsoper by Roman Hinze, who has translated dozens of musicals into German. This is only the second German language production of “Lady in the Dark” or “Die Dame im Dunkel” in Austria (it was performed by the Raimund Theater in Vienna in its 1980-81 season).

“I admit that when I accepted the project, the instinctive reaction was to ask how it was going to work since Gershwin’s lyrics are very complex, very steeped in time with many cultural references,” said Mr. Holmes. . “Each translation is by definition a compromise because part of the original is lost.

“But what is more important is that we are doing our part to dispel the myth of the two Weills. We do one of his American musicals in German. It’s a bit unifying. “

In addition to using the most recent translation, the Volksoper decided to make some tweaks to the script, even though its central theme of emotional and professional fatigue is timeless.

“Eliza is faced with burnout, and burnout is a very contemporary thing because in the 1940s nobody talked about it,” said Magdalena Hoisbauer, playwright for the Volksoper. “But the original ending is not that contemporary. In the original, she gives up her magazine job. We have adjusted it somewhat with a more modern interpretation.

Volksoper collaborators hope that this rework of “Lady in the Dark”, which was postponed due to a lockdown in early December in Austria but resumed performances on December 13, celebrates the rich history of psychoanalysis in the country and Weill in his native language. . They also hope the play, which is set to run through February 1, will be successful among Viennese deemed sophisticated – and perceptive.

“You can ask taxi drivers about a show in Vienna, and even they will have an opinion on what is going on in the city,” said Davids, the director. “It’s a special world here.”