Welcome to the start of a new week on THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! Today we’re continuing our 15-week series on forgotten musicals that are ripe for reviving! Each Monday, we’ll be covering a different show from the years in between two landmarks – Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943). This period, the years immediately preceding the “Golden Age”, encompasses the entirety of the Great Depression, and represents an oft maligned period of the American musical’s history. Many of the shows from this era are considered unworthy of reviving because, despite electrifying scores by some of the best composers Broadway has ever known, their comparatively trivial books could only be carried by the unique and dynamic stars of the era. But such thinking only deprives theatre goers of the musical thrills that once helped make Broadway the landmark that it is today. The musicals that I’ll be covering over these next 15 weeks deserve re-examination. They deserve to be seen again. These shows are worth it.
So far we have covered Whoopee! (1928), Sweet Adeline (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), The Band Wagon (1931), Face The Music (1932), As Thousands Cheer (1933), Revenge With Music (1934), Jubilee (1935), Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (1936), Hooray For What! (1937), Leave It To Me! (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), and Louisiana Purchase (1940). Today’s selection, from 1941, is a show not forgotten by musical theatre aficionados. Yet, it’s been a long time since it’s been properly mounted for a large New York audience. This one, out of all the shows covered these past 14 weeks, DEMANDS the attention of musical theatre lovers both young and old…
1941. Lady In The Dark (01/23/41 – 06/15/41)
This unique “musical play” concerns a modern businesswoman’s attempts to address, through psychoanalysis, why her dreams have been haunted by a mysterious melody. It was a hit, returning in September ’41 for another eight months and again in February ’43 for a quick three months. Its success is no wonder — the lady in the dark was the inimitable Gertrude Lawrence. In addition, her dialogue was written by Moss Hart, and her dreams featured the brilliant musical stylings of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershiwn.
The show opens with sophisticated Liza Elliot (Gertrude Lawrence), a high-powered fashion magazine editor, visiting psychoanalyst Dr. Brooks (Donald Randolph) to discuss her unexplained depression and panic attacks. Though she doesn’t believe in psychoanalysis, Liza agrees to lie out on Brooks’ couch to discuss last night’s dream and the mysterious tune that’s been haunting her.
In her dream, Liza is the most glamorous woman in the world, chased after by many men. At a swanky nightclub, a marine decides to paint Liza’s portrait for a new postage stamp. But the image he paints is of the harsh and plain businesswoman Liza, and she screams with fright. Dr. Brooks finds it interesting that Liza has dedicated her life to promoting glamour in others, but rejects all of it in her waking life. They agree to continue their sessions tomorrow.
Later that day in the office, everyone is in an uproar over a photo shoot with the hunky movie star Randy Curtis (Victor Mature) that’s to be conducted by effeminate photographer Russell Paxton (Danny Kaye). After sparring with advertising manager Charley Johnson (Macdonald Carey), Liza is visited by her married boyfriend Kendall Nesbitt (Bert Lytell), who announces that his wife has finally agreed to a divorce. Flustered, Liza is surprised when Randy returns and asks her to join him the following evening for dinner. She hastily agrees and sends both him and Nesbitt out. The tune plays again in her head and we’re off in another dream…
Liza’s high school friends reminisce about their fellow former pupil. Then Liza and Nesbitt go wedding ring shopping at Charley’s, but the ring turns into a dagger. Randy appears and dances with Liza, who alternates between him and Charley. After the dance, Liza reminisces about a school play from her childhood. She returns to her office and then finds herself in the church for her wedding day. Charley officiates but the ensemble objects saying that Liza doesn’t love Nesbitt, her groom-to-be. Liza insists otherwise and the dreams ends in cacophony.
The next day, Liza returns to Dr. Brooks, who angers her when he suggests that she’s afraid to compete as a woman, and the reason for yesterday’s panic was her fear of having Nesbitt all to herself. She storms out. Later, everyone at the office is worried because their deadline is approaching and Liza is nowhere to be found. She finally shows up and Nesbitt presses her again about not being interested in marrying him. She blows him off and goes on working. She and Charley quarrel about the Easter cover and he resigns, telling her that she’s married to her desk. He leaves and Randy enters ready to take Liza out for their date. In a rush, Liza strips and takes an outfit from a modeling dummy. In tears, she heads out with Randy.
The second act opens the following day with Liza pondering the decisions she has to make — both about Nesbitt about the Easter cover. She goes into another dream… this time she’s at a circus. Russell is the ringmaster introducing audiences to Liza Elliott — the woman who cannot make up her mind. The show becomes a trial and Liza is charged for her indecisiveness. Charley prosecutes, Russell defends, and Nesbitt serves as the chief witness. Liza gives a triumphant defense, but the jury begins to hum that tune and a humiliated Liza wakes up.
Liza returns to Dr. Brooks and realizes that the humiliation she felt in the dream is similar to the humiliation she felt as a young girl. Liza recounts a series of flashbacks — her father telling company that he’s pleased Liza is plain-looking and not beautiful like her mother, a boy refusing to star in a play opposite Liza, Liza not grieving for the death of her mother, and a high school dance in which the popular boy asks her out, but then passes her up for another girl. She’s finally able to recall the origin of the tune that’s been plaguing her psyche — it was a song from her childhood that she sang especially to the boy at the dance. Dr. Brooks tells Liza that she’s rebelling against her feminine nonfulfillment and they agree to continue the session tomorrow.
A week later, a happier Liza dumps Nesbitt, and gets a marriage proposal from Randy. She tells him that she’ll think about it, but she realizes that like Nesbitt, Randy is frightened and insecure. She needs someone stronger. Seeing things in a different light, Liza decides to co-edit the magazine with Charley, and as he shares his ideas with her, Liza is surprised that Charley also knows THAT mysterious childhood song. They sing it together as the show ends.
One of the first theatrical looks at modern psychoanalysis, musical theatre lovers like myself have long debated about the viability of a contemporary Lady In The Dark revival. Surely the piece is too fascinatingly rich to ignore. In addition to a brilliant score (which we’ll highlight in a moment), Moss Hart’s book is incredibly strong. In fact, it’s probably the best book of a musical that we’ve yet to feature here on That’s Entertainment! That said, it is need of some revising. First, a decision should be made about when to set the show. 1941 is the obvious choice, in my opinion, because as I’ve said numerous times before: every theatrical presentation is a period piece from the time in which it was created.
But, even keeping the setting as 1941, the scenes between Liza and Dr. Brooks are a little obvious for the intelligence of the piece, and there’s obviously going to be some objection to the anti-feminist ending. I actually don’t think the ending needs changed — parts of that long final scene could be tweaked, for sure — but the key to the resolution’s success is all in the playing. It’s a sharing of power, not a concession. If that’s understood, it’s actually a brilliantly effective and appropriate conclusion. (Some have suggested casting a woman as the psychoanalyst makes the ending surprisingly more palatable. I think that’s a VERY interesting choice.)
But let’s not get hung up on how to present the show; let’s talk about the show. Besides the sharp book, we have a truly astounding score by Weill and Gershwin. And all of the music, save “My Ship,” the lingering tune that haunts Liza throughout the play, occurs in three 20-minute-long dream sequences, with each section serving as its own mini operetta.
In the first, entitled “The Glamour Dream,” Liza is serenaded by her many admirers with “Oh, Fabulous One,” and discusses with her maid (Miss Foster, Liza’s secretary) all the glorious invitations she has in “Huxley.” But things really heat up when the chauffeur brings Liza to Columbus Circle and she gets on her soapbox to lecture the crowd with the fun “One Live To Live.”
Finally at the club, the crowd is overjoyed to see Liza, the “Girl Of The Moment.” But the number turns taunting after the marine (Charley) paints the portrait of the rigid Liza.
The second dream sequence is “The Wedding Dream,” which features Liza’s high school chums singing the alma mater, “The Mapleton High Chorale,” before Liza and Randy duet with the entrancing “This Is New.” In the number, Liza dances with both Randy and Charley.
Liza then recalls a play from her childhood, “The Princess Of Pure Delight,” about a king choosing a suitor for his daughter. But things crescendo at Liza’s wedding day in “The Woman At The Altar,” as Randy, Charley, and ensemble conspire and object to Liza’s insistence that she loves Nesbitt.
The final dream is the largest, with the company setting up the circus theme in “The Greatest Show On Earth.” After a dance number, the circus transforms into a courtroom and Liza is on trial in “The Best Years Of His Life.”
Ringmaster Russell Paxton halts the action with “Tschaikowsky,” a specialty number in which Danny Kaye listed the names of Russian composers in rapid succession.
Following Kaye’s 11 o’clock spot, Lawrence got her own 11 o’clock spot, “The Saga Of Jenny,” which is Liza’s epic defense to the claims against her and her chronic indecision. This is one of the American Musical Theatre’s biggest show-stoppers, with Lawrence apparently milking it for everything it’s worth.
So with an imaginative premise, a smart book, and an OUTSTANDING score, surely this piece must be an obvious candidate for revival. Well, it’s not been neglected — a 1944 film with Ginger Rogers that cut most of the score, several radio adaptations with Gertrude Lawrence, an hour-long 1954 TV musical with Ann Sothern, a 1963 Lehman Engel recording with Rise Stevens, a 1994 Encores! presentation, and a 1997 London revival that yielded a complete cast recording, are but a few adaptations. (The libretto has also been published numerous times, and there is an excellent book that analyzes the show and discusses its history.) But why hasn’t this Lady found renewed success on Broadway? Surely the cast, which in addition to stars Lawrence and Kaye, included Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell) as one of Liza’s kooky employees, was incredibly unique. But as this is a musical play, the characters are much more defined, and not entirely hinged on “personalities.”
However, casting would still be of paramount importance, because essentially, Lady In The Dark is a surprisingly adult piece. The last four book musicals I’ve covered here — Hooray For What! (1937), Leave It To Me! (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), and Louisiana Purchase (1940) — are romps, filled with comedic hijinks and excellent tunes. This is a character piece, and casting a Liza is integral to the show’s success. Furthermore, due to the show’s “high brow” content, you’d need a Liza who could bring in big audiences. I think if that’s in place, and the creative team commits to a lavish production, Lady In The Dark could be as big a hit today as it was in 1941. As a superbly constructed musical play, I hope that one day young eager theatre students can discover this piece and revel in its quality.
*** 10/29/30 EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that the published version of the script is from a rehearsal draft and does not fully reflect the tighter and trimmer show that New York audiences saw in 1941. Fortunately, I’m pleased to report that there are plans to publish a more authentic copy of the script sometime in the near future. Hopefully this will spark further interest in the piece! ***
Come back next Monday for the last in our 15-week series, a 1942 show that’s “Ripe For Revival!” And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Two of The Lucy Show!