The ‘revolution’ that the Musical experienced in the 1940s is generally credited almost entirely to Oklahoma, but can really be traced to the innovations of a string of genre-busting stage and film musicals, of which Oklahoma is but one. Perhaps the most daring of them all was Lady in the Dark, which isn’t a musical in the conventional sense at all. It’s essentially a straight play (by Moss Hart, of the famous Kaufman and Hart team) about a female advertising executive undergoing psychotherapy interrupted by three surreal musical dream sequences representing her psychological nightmares.
With music by the legendary German composer Kurt Weill, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, striking out on his own after his brother George’s death, the show’s score broke pretty much every rule in the Musical Theater handbook at the time, presaging the techniques of Rodgers and Hammerstein by featuring extended musical scenes rather than self-contained songs. Its innovations go beyond that, however…it also pioneered several of the techniques associated with the Concept Musical, essentially presaging both the onstage numbers in Cabaret and the final sequence of Follies.
The premise of the show is almost exactly the same as that of cult Musical television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend…the story of a cripplingly neurotic career woman trying to sort out her issues amid conflicting romantic entanglements, punctuated by dream-sequence musical numbers. There are some dull stretches, particularly in the first act, but it’s impressive that even after all the years that have passed and all the shows it’s influenced, Lady in the Dark still seems genuinely strange. Its structure, format, and musical and dramatic content were clearly just as shocking and puzzling to the audience at the recent Encores! production I attended as they were to Forties audiences.
The gender politics of the piece are obviously going to be dated, given that it was a show about a career woman written in the Forties. But to its credit, the show does not conclude with the message of “love and family bring happiness for a woman, not worldly success” that would undoubtedly have been the prevailing wisdom at the time. There is quite a bit of emphasis during her psychological breakthrough on her insecurity about her looks, but the conclusions of the show’s romantic tangle…which ends with her rejecting both the ideal movie-star “prince” and the fatherly “protector” and realize that the guy who challenges her is the one who brings out the best in her…rings surprisingly true even today.
Weill’s music is as strange as everything else about the show, sounding absolutely nothing like normal Broadway showtunes but not bearing any resemblance to the German cabaret-opera style that made him famous either. As for Ira Gershwin, he actually blossomed much more as a lyricist after his work with his brother was over, and his contributions here are some of the best of his career. The show’s elaborate and surreal musical scenes even managed to somehow produce an enduring hit song, “The Saga of Jenny”, possibly the most dazzlingly witty comedy number Ira Gershwin ever wrote.
Only one of the show’s songs, “My Ship” was actually incorporated into the book scenes, and it repurposed the hoary old Operetta device of the “unfinished melody” (which dates as far back as Naughty Marietta) as a metaphor for the self-knowledge and self-acceptance that is the primary goal of psychotherapy. This demonstrated to Forties Broadway audiences and creators, who had become virtually phobic of anything that suggested Operetta, how even the most outdated clichés could be reinvented to serve the most modern purposes (a lesson that Rodgers and Hammerstein would take to heart).
This show, more than any of the other Forties innovators in stage or film Musicals, proved that the most basic rules of musical theater could be broken while still achieving success. For all its influence, we’ve never really seen another work in this exact form in the 70-plus years since its inception, and as I said above, it still comes across as bizarre enough to utterly baffle a modern audience. It isn’t perfect by any means, and certainly aspects of it have dated fairly severely, but it retains the same one-of-a-kind fascination it had when it was new, something you can’t say about many more remembered and more beloved shows from the same era, and that has to count for something.