The lady comes in from the dark

In 1941, Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye stunned Broadway with Weill and Gershwin's groundbreaking 'Lady in the Dark'. Finally, says, David Benedict, it's arrived in London

'The play does what I have been trying to do for 20 years - to make music part of the action, to develop the characters through the music." Thus wrote Kurt Weill about Lady in the Dark. Moss Hart's play, with Weill's music and Ira Gershwin's lyrics, opened on Broadway on 23 January 1941. At last, thanks to Francesca Zambello's new production at the National Theatre, London finally has the chance to see this, the cornerstone of Weill's American career and a key work in the development of music theatre.

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve