Kurt Weill - On Stage: From Berlin to Broadwayby Foster Hirsch
(Limelight). His best-known song is "Mack the Knife," with words by Bertolt Brecht, from The Threepenny Opera , first performed in Weimar Berlin in 1928. Five years later, Kurt Weill fled the Nazis to come to America, where he soon emerged as one of the most admired composers of the Broadway musical stage. His shows included: Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the
(Limelight). His best-known song is "Mack the Knife," with words by Bertolt Brecht, from The Threepenny Opera , first performed in Weimar Berlin in 1928. Five years later, Kurt Weill fled the Nazis to come to America, where he soon emerged as one of the most admired composers of the Broadway musical stage. His shows included: Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene and Lost in the Stars . His songs: "My Ship," "September Song," "Speak Low" and "It Never Was You." This biography concentrates on Weill's career in the United States, but its aim is to explore the truth in the comment made by Weill's wife, the unforgettable Lotte Lenya: "There is no American Weill, there is no German Weill. There is no difference between them. There is only Weill."
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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 inexciting 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 congratulate Weill, in a moment that may have seemed to promise a reconciliation between the composer's European roots and his newfound American voice. But the harmony was only a momentary illusion. Ever since, critically speaking, Weill has been at war with himself, with defenders and naysayers lining up on either side of his Great Migration. "I belong to the generation of Otto Klemperer who regard Weill's American career as a letdown," said Eric Bentley, Brecht's first English translator and most skillful interpreter.1 "I actually prefer Weill's American to his European work," Harold Prince, the most honored director in the history of Broadway, said.2 Those who "regret" the American Weill tend to argue that to win his share of New World riches he had to forsake or at least compromise aspects of his imperial Teutonic heritage. Defenders of the American work contend that writing for Broadway encouraged the composer's strong melodic gift and allowed him to continue to develop exactly the kinds of formal experiments he had begun in Berlin.
Of course there are differences between the European and the American branches of Weill's career-and let it be said at once that Weill's collaborations with Brecht yielded work of a quality not matched by any other show the composer wrote in Europe or America. But long before he hit the Broadway big time, Weill had already established what would be his career-long commitment to change. Self-renewal, creative rerouting, marked shifts in style and idiom were an engrained part of his signature in Germany as they continued to be in America. In the face of the evidence, the myth that there are two Kurt Weills is easily exploded: there are, in fact, many more than two creative masks for a composer addicted to exploration. The persistent legend of two monolithic Kurt Weills confronting each other across vast cultural and geographical distances needs to be adjusted to include the many other Weills clamoring for recognition. In Germany, Weill wrote a symphony, a violin concerto, a children's pantomime, radio cantatas, short and full-length operas of varying modes and difficulty, songspiels, lieder, oratorios, and musical plays of an indeterminate genre that share many familial resemblances to American musical comedy. In exile, first in Paris, then briefly in London, and finally in New York and Los Angeles, he wrote chansons, a ballet chanté, a second symphony, operettas, pageants, musical comedies, Broadway "operas," a musical tragedy, a folk opera, and film scores. Frequently, thriving on collage and on assaulting generic boundaries, he mixed musical idioms within the same work. But if there are indeed many more than two strings to Kurt Weill's bow, they all belong to a single composer with a commanding theatrical intelligence.
One of the unfortunate legacies of the long-standing fiction of the two Kurt Weills is that it seems to require a choice. And the vote seems to be colored by political, nationalistic, even moral implications. Preferring the European Weill implies that you are casting your net with highbrows and imperialists; favoring the American Weill can mark you as a light-minded Broadway baby. But faced with the portfolio of a composer for whom no two shows are exactly alike, why have to choose? Why not, instead, savor Weill's craftsmanship, his irony and wit, his succulent, insinuating melodies, the deft and often surprising ways in which his music interacts with dialogue and dramatic context, wherever they are found, on either side of his migration? Looked at fairly, Weill's career reveals a remarkable continuity of interests and quality. In America, as in Germany, he delighted in confounding rigid categories as he set up a dialogue between elitist and popular musical forms.
And on Broadway, as in Berlin-as Die Dreigroschenoper and Lady in the Dark demonstrate-Weill continued to rethink and expand the formal and thematic possibilities of musical theatre. For their place and time, both shows were mavericks with an unusual subject matter and use of music. Die Dreigroschenoper is a jaunty musical about underworld scoundrels; the tormented heroine of Lady in the Dark is in analysis. In both shows Weill's songs intersect the spoken drama at odd tangents. Musical numbers in Die Dreigroschenoper are often intended to stop the show; music in Lady in the Dark is segregated in a series of mini-operas, musical scenes that upend the standard Broadway syntax of the time. The shows are not equal in quality, to be sure-the former is one of the great theatre works of the twentieth century, the latter has slipped into a historical limbo from which it is likely never to emerge. But at the time they opened, each made a significant contribution to the vocabulary of the musical theatre.
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