Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway

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9780375403750: Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.


The words are by Bertolt Brecht. The music is by Kurt Weill. The song is “Mack the Knife,” the number-one song of Weill’s internationally famous Threepenny Opera, originally performed on a stage in the Weimar Berlin of 1928. Its tough, sexy sound became, a quarter-century later, a signature song of America’s greatest recording stars, among them Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

And when in 1933 Weill, already Germany’s most renowned composer, fled the Nazis to come to America (“For every age there is a place about which fantasies are written. In Mozart’s time it was Turkey. For Shakespeare, it was Italy. For us in Germany, it was always America”), he joined his appetite for the United States to his European roots and classical training and soon became one of the most admired composers of the American musical stage.

He wrote one successful Broadway show after another—Lady in the Dark, Knickerbocker Holiday, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars, among others. He worked with such theatrical greats as Gertrude Lawrence, Ira Gershwin, Maxwell Anderson, Mary Martin, Agnes de Mille, Joshua Logan, Ogden Nash, Harold Clurman, Walter Huston, E. Y. Harburg, and Elia Kazan. Always at the center of his life was his great love of thirty years, his leading lady, interpreter of his music, his wife (they were divorced in Berlin in 1933 but remarried four years later in America), the actress-singer Lotte Lenya.

Foster Hirsch, using Weill’s letters, journals, and notes, and interviewing Weill’s friends and colleagues, writes about his life, his experimental, political composing in Germany, his Broadway music in America—both aspects of his work being a source of controversy among music lovers for years. Lotte Lenya said, “There is no American Weill, there is no German Weill. There is no difference between them. There is only Weill.” Hirsch details the writing, casting, and production of Weill’s eleven hit shows. He writes about Weill’s years in Hollywood and the friends he made and lost along the way. He evokes Weill’s complicated, intense collaborations with Brecht, Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, Elmer Rice, Moss Hart, and Ira Gershwin.

In Kurt Weill on Stage, Hirsch has given us a vivid portrayal of a remarkable artist and a fabulous era of American musical theater.

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About the Author:

Foster Hirsch is a professor of film at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He is the author of sixteen books, including The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir; A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio; Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir; and Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Overture

Two opening nights. Two hits. Two cities. Two continents. One composer.

Berlin, August 31, 1928: Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a collaboration among Bertolt Brecht, adapter, Caspar Neher, scenic designer, and Kurt Weill, composer, opens at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.

New York, January 23, 1941: Lady in the Dark, a musical play by Moss Hart in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, lyricist, and Kurt Weill, composer, opens at the Alvin Theatre.

Based on John Gay's Beggar's Opera, produced in London two hundred years earlier, Die Dreigroschenoper is set in a naïve, imaginary version of Victorian London that holds a mirror up to "wicked" late-Weimar Berlin. An irreverent musical comedy with its heartbeat attuned to the zeitgeist, Die Dreigroschenoper is political theatre in the broadest, most audience-friendly sense. Lady in the Dark has a narrower but equally purposeful didactic intent: a show about the romantic and emotional problems of the editor of a high-fashion magazine, it advocates Freudian analysis. Die Dreigroschenoper is deeply Germanic; Lady in the Dark is just as irreversibly American: a Broadway artifact.

For all their obvious differences, these two shows composed by Kurt Weill, one of the preeminent collaborative dramatists of the century, have more in common than a first glance might suggest. In their time, the two musicals were experimental in both form and subject matter; and in both shows, to a greater degree than in other popular German and American works of their respective eras, music and meaning coalesced in exciting new ways. For the composer, each show entailed high risks. At the same time that he was in the process of transforming his own musical identity, he had to adjust his style to the needs of widely dissimilar cowriters and audiences. The jazzlike rhythms and seductive melodies of Die Dreigroschenoper continued a radical break, begun the year before, from Weill's earlier reputation as a classically trained composer whose work was steeped in avant-garde atonality-the show inaugurated a debate about his supposed defection from high to low culture that endures to the present.

The shift from classicist to populist that Weill successfully negotiated in 1928 was in some ways easier than the challenge he faced in New York in 1941, when he had more at stake and more to prove. Could he pass in the only role the occasion could accommodate, that of a Broadway composer able to handle a homegrown idiom? Since his arrival in America six years earlier, the busy émigré composer, a Jew in flight from fascist Germany, had had three shows in New York and contributed the score to a pageant at the 1939 New York World's Fair. But none had achieved hit status in a theatrical culture, then as now, addicted to success. As of January 23, 1941, Weill, who lingered in the precincts of the merely "interesting," was still the new guy in town, an as-yet-unproven commodity in a commodity-oriented marketplace. The jury was out. Yet to survive on Broadway, as he wanted to, Kurt Weill this time needed nothing less than a smash hit, and opening night at the Alvin Theatre, as he was only too well aware, might have been his last chance to grab the brass ring. Lady in the Dark, happily, proved to be a critical and commercial bonanza. At the end of a speedy, six-year apprenticeship he had become a full-fledged Broadway citizen, an "American" composer who had performed a kind of double self-erasure: he had managed to camouflage both his European roots and his classical training in a way that has continued ever since to cause delight and puzzlement.

In his native Germany, Weill, born at the turn of the century, on March 2, 1900, had also risen rapidly. An unprepossessing, scholarly-looking young man with large, owlish eyes and a sly, ironic grin that could be interpreted as either shyness or arrogance and in truth contained a bit of both, Weill worked with many of the major theatrical figures of the Weimar Republic. His most famous (as well as most fractious) collaboration was with the renegade poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht; in addition to Die Dreigroschenoper their portfolio includes Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1930); Happy End (1929); and Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1933). With Georg Kaiser, the preeminent expressionist playwright, Weill wrote two one-act operas, Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (The Czar Has His Photograph Taken, 1927), as well as a full-length play with music, Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake, 1933). With Ivan Goll, a prominent surrealist poet, Weill wrote a one-act opera, Royal Palace (1926), and a cantata, Der neue Orpheus (The New Orpheus, 1925). With Caspar Neher, Germany's leading scenic designer, he cowrote his longest and most solemn opera, Die Bürgschaft (The Pledge, 1932).

By the time he was forced to flee for his life in March 1933, Kurt Weill was renowned as Germany's leading composer for the theatre, a firebrand who had narrowed the divide between the formalities of opera and more popular kinds of musical performance such as revue and cabaret. Avoiding a rigid concept of the "operatic," Weill conducted his entire career in the light of the liberating belief that opera is whatever its creators choose to place on an opera-house stage. Like many artistic rebels in Weimar Germany, Weill was fascinated by American jazz and dance music-and by the vibrant popular culture they came from. Years before a historical catastrophe sent him to the real place, "Amerika" and American sounds, freely interpreted, appeared recurrently in his work. Once he was in America, Weill was determined to match the kind of success he had enjoyed in Germany. At home, opera was the major form of music theatre; in the New World, the Broadway musical was the only place for a theatre composer who expected to earn a living wage. And rather than regretting the fact that Broadway was where he would have to hang his hat, Weill was enticed by its possibilities.

Because his German reputation remained in Germany (only a small but impassioned cadre of musical-theatre aficionados were familiar with his work through recordings of songs from Die Dreigroschenoper, Happy End, and Mahagonny), Weill had to rebuild his career virtually from ground zero. And remarkably, in New York, as in Berlin, he managed to work exclusively with theatrical royalty. The writers, performers, directors, choreographers, designers, and producers he collaborated with comprise a who's who of the American theatre in one of its most vital phases. In his fifteen-year Broadway career Weill's associates included Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Martin, Danny Kaye, Moss Hart, Maxwell Anderson, Burgess Meredith, Helen Hayes, Walter Huston, Elia Kazan, Rouben Mamoulian, Agnes de Mille, Alan Jay Lerner, Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, S. J. Perelman, Ira Gershwin, Nanette Fabray, Michael Kidd, and Anne Jeffreys. Setting up shop against homegrown talents like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Irving Berlin, Weill compiled a résumé of distinguished American musicals that, in addition to Lady in the Dark, includes Johnny Johnson (1936), Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), One Touch of Venus (1943), Street Scene (1947), Love Life (1948), and Lost in the Stars (1949). No other Broadway composer except Stephen Sondheim has been to so deep and true a degree a collaborative dramatist, and no other Broadway composer except Leonard Bernstein (with a leaner catalogue) has so successfully closed the distance between the concert hall and the musical theatre.

Unlike many other prominent German-Jewish intellectuals forced to seek refuge in America, Weill adapted quickly. Far from grumbling about cultural displacement, or, like fellow émigrés such as Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg, and Brecht, bewailing the customs of a new country, Weill was both grateful and intensely patriotic-right from the start he was eager to play his role in an American pageant. For him, as for few others of his stature who had to contend with interrupted lives, America in person proved to be as appealing as the mythic Amerika of jazz babies, bobby-soxers, gangsters, and skyscrapers that had become part of the discourse of Weimar popular culture. Is it possible he succeeded so readily because he didn't have to change in any fundamental way? On Broadway, as in Berlin, he continued to be a practical man of the theatre who held firm to his artistic principles. Nonetheless, as a hero of the German-Jewish diaspora, Kurt Weill was in many ways an unlikely and richly contradictory figure. He was a classically trained composer who earned a lasting fame with bewitchingly melodic songs. A genuine intellectual, he became a hard-nosed businessman who examined the fine print in all his contracts. In the heat of production he was famously unflappable, but offstage he often boiled with anger and resentment; beautifully calm on the surface, he was a tightly wound man with high blood pressure who drove himself to an early death. Tucked beneath his modest veneer were a hefty ego (he always knew just how good he was), a deep-seated competitive spirit, and a fierce ambition. An artist with a lifelong commitment to reforming the musical theatre, he was at the same time a Sammy Glick from Dessau, Germany, with his eye on the box office and the main chance.

Kurt Weill prospered in his adopted country, and yet there was a price to be paid for achieving the money and the fame that came with popular acceptance. Igor Stravinsky and Richard Rodgers, who were both at the opening night of Lady in the Dark, came backstage to...

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