Lady in the Dark was the most revolutionary musical play since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein tore up the rule book with Show Boat in 1927. For a start, the subject matter, psychoanalysis, was hardly the stuff of your average boy-meets-girl singalong. Even more astonishing was its form. No overture. No tone-setting opening number. Instead, on came solid gold musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, who commanded a jaw-dropping $4,300 a week. This woman had broken hearts and records singing "Someone to Watch Over Me" in Oh, Kay!, but she wasn't about to start singing. Decades before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Lawrence played the glamorous sophisticated fashion editor Liza Elliott, a big business success who is terrified of cracking up, and the play opens with her first therapy session. Anyone wincing at the possibility of anything as crass as, perhaps, a "couch song" or maybe a forerunner of Sondheim's famous torch song, "Losing My Mind", is in for a surprise. After a lengthy dialogue scene, Liza begins to hum a childlike tune, "My Ship", that haunts her, but she cannot remember the words. As she drifts into a dream, the first of three "one-act operas" as Weill called them, begins.
Nearly all the 65 minutes of music in the show are contained within these three dream sequences in which Liza's imaginings and fears are played out, the mix of fantasy and reality providing the perfect arena
for the seductive and dramatic power of music.
"Nothing as brave as this is being written today. Certainly not in the commercial sector. It's extraordinary," enthuses Mark W Dorrell, the musical director, pointing to both its invention and scale. These days, not even subsidised theatre is creating shows as daring as this. "It was very, very expensive. They had 20 in the band and a company of 50 dancers, singers and actors." The National's production is, by necessity, scaled down, with 19 in the company and Terry Davies has been arranging it for a band of 14. "Once you get inside the score you see he was always creating afresh. Every point has a different musical solution," he says.
The trademark Kurt Weill sound is exemplified by The Threepenny Opera and the music he wrote before fleeing Nazi Germany, but Davies regards Lady in the Dark's unusual orchestrations as similarly distinctive. "The lines are always very closely spaced. There are often different units going on at the same time, but they're tightly packed and they move in crab-like fashion." Most composers tend to place the voice over a supporting orchestration, but Weill creates space for the voice in the middle (there is, for example, no filling viola part). "The choral sections are often set at a tenor-ish range with cello and double bass right at the bottom and everything else quite high, which gives you a very definite texture. Because of the way the close harmonies move and his absolute refusal to go with the standard straight triad, there's no embarrassment at all about smashing up the harmonies to make something work."
If that gives the impression of forbidding modernism, bear in mind that the show was a sensational success and popular singers rushed to record numbers from it, particularly "My Ship". Danny Kaye, one of Lawrence's co-stars, stormed into the spotlight singing "Tchaikowsky", a ludicrous list song in which he sang the names of 49 Russian composers in 39 seconds, but the original recording doesn't capture the thrill or energy of his now legendary performance. It's the same with Lawrence.
She received reviews you couldn't buy, but listening to the disc you wonder what the fuss was about. She kicks in the insolent innuendo in the bump'n'grind "Saga of Jenny", considered so scandalous - "Jenny got herself a husband/ But he wasn't hers" - that radio stations refused to play it. She sings poignantly and sincerely on "My Ship", the key to Liza's emotional block as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, letting the spinning orchestral accompaniment and the flowing melodic line do the work as she touches in the song's exquisite yearning. Her voice, however, is a reedy warble and as for accuracy, as Weill remarked, "She had the greatest range between C and C sharp of anyone I ever knew."
At the other end of the spectrum comes Jessye Norman's recording. She tones down her massive, luxurious instrument to croon gently over a piano, but it's like taking out the Rolls-Royce to go to the corner store. Her performance is all too beautiful and horribly self-conscious, the very last quality you need to describe unconscious longing. Predictably, Doris Day melts all over the lyrics and a lavish orchestra backs her up all the way as she sings of "sails that are made of silk". As Dorrell and Davies point out, Weill's orchestration is crucial, which is the problem with Dawn Upshaw's beautifully sung version. She's alive to the song's every possibility but the arrangement is so busy illustrating the text it swamps the sentiment. Miles Davis ignores the advice and pulls off something of a coup on his classic Miles Ahead album with a wonderful brass and wind arrangement that positively drips with amorousness. The smoochy cords slide against each other in what can only be described as a gorgeous squelch.
Lustrous jazz baritone Johnny Hartman knows the secret is not to fool around with the line and his beautifully judged, smoke-filled take captures the longing for true love. Ute Lemper sings it ever so tastefully against a plodding rhythm and the result is ever so slightly dull. Liza Minnelli starts off well conveying a breathy sense of wonderment but just when you think she's got it in the bag, taste deserts her and she segues into a ghastly, overblown yell-through of "The Man I Love".
Oddly enough, it's left to Julie Andrews to show you how it should be done in the galumphing Gertrude Lawrence bio-pic Star!. With just a piano to accompany her, she holds back on her overly perfect diction and, using her considerable technique, relaxes on to the melody with astonishing, open-hearted simple sincerity.
Weill's American career was overshadowed by enormous snobbery from those who venerated his German music and wagged their fingers at him for "selling out" in the US. True, he adopted the most popular art form - hardly a surprise given that the first show he saw there was Porgy and Bess - but listening to Andrews singing hits from Lady in the Dark, or, with luck, watching Maria Friedman in the new production, you realise that he may not have been pursuing modernist high art, but he discovered a hell of a potential in the Broadway musical
'Lady in the Dark' is at the National Theatre, London SE1. Booking: 0171- 928 2252