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Kurt Weill in America 1935-1950 by Eric (Peter Scott) Presland
Kurt Weill Pic: Kurt Weill Foundation
Pirate Jenny's

Eric Presland made one of the most intriguing contributions to Pirate Jenny's club nights by performing his work-in-progress Here I'll Stay, following the story of Kurt Weill in exile, in several episodes. Here Eric evokes the background to the show, and defends Weill's American work against the oft-heard charge that it's not a patch on his German period.


KURT WEILL is best known for his five-year collaboration with Bertholt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny, Happy End and so on. By contrast most of his later work is barely known beyond a few dedicated Weill fans; maybe half a dozen songs turn up in the cabaret repertoire, while Street Scene (1947, lyrics by the black gay poet Langston Hughes) alone is done fairly regularly in the opera house. Of the fifteen major scores Weill wrote in America, seven are unrecorded, and of the rest five only exist on disc in their original, truncated and rather scratchy mono versions.

Yet Weill spent over half his creative life in America, and composed scores as fine as anything he had achieved in Germany, although of a very different kind.

The reason for the neglect is firstly historical. The Weill revival was initially engineered by his widow, Lotte Lenya, her second husband George Davis, and the composer/acolyte Marc Blitzstein, who revived Threepenny Opera off-Broadway in 1954, where it ran for five years.

Lenya was concerned as much to advance her own career as Weill's, which meant that she concentrated on the Berlin songs which suited her voice, and which she'd sung originally -- she only appeared in two of his American shows, in minor parts. She also appropriated as much material to herself as possible, singing all the parts in Happy End, for example, and freely changed keys and altered Weill's orchestrations to suit herself. Despite the flimflam about being the Keeper of the Sacred Flame, her recordings are not to be trusted for authenticity, and avoid her album of American Theatre Songs at all costs.

Secondly, it's very difficult to get the right kind of mixture of voices to do Weill correctly. He was very clear that what he wanted to write was Broadway Operas -- he was inspired for life by attending a rehearsal of Porgy and Bess within two weeks of arriving in the US. Each score is different in style and dedicated to solving different dramatic problems; sometimes you need operatic voices, sometimes you need show singers (often a mixture in the same show). When the opera houses do Weill they miss the guts, and show singers often don't have the necessary range or techniques for the operatic stuff.

It's also true that all Weill's American scores are very much more than the sums of their parts. Some songs may stand alone, but the true glory is in the underscoring (music to heighten a spoken scene) and the orchestration. He will do anything that the drama demands; he is a total chameleon -- a trait heightened by the years of exile in France and England, by the need to find an outlet, a living, an audience. In the later years you sometimes have to look harder to find the personal signature. But always Weill knits together a piece into a unity with the music, often saving or alleviating a hopelessly flabby drama in the process.

And, it must be admitted, he put his talents to the service of some dreadful pieces of tosh. By and large he sought out serious playwrights rather than professional lyricists and librettists, because of his desire to write 'serious' work. Prime among them is the hopelessly ponderous Maxwell Anderson, with whom he wrote Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949), as well as wasting several years on an abortive project for Paul Robeson. The playwrights he worked with -- Anderson, Paul Green, Franz Werfel -- didn't understand music-drama; most of the lyricists and librettists he wrote with -- Ira Gershwin (three shows), S J Perelman, Yip Harburg, Moss Hart and Ogden Nash -- weren't diving too deep into character or social issues.

And yet Weill, along with George Gershwin, can lay serious claim to being the founder of the integrated American musical -- in which all the elements of words, music and dance combine to tell the story and push the action along -- before Rodgers and Hammerstein came along with Oklahoma and Carousel. He never lost his radical edge, and he never stopped pushing at the boundaries of music theatre. In America he also gained the ability to set a scene alight with music, because at last he was allowed to engage with character and emotion in a way that had been impossible with Brecht. And if we manage to ignore the stupidity of the plots and the sexual politics in Verdi, we should be able to do it for Weill too.

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Where to begin
If you want to check out the American Weill, the best complete shows are the English National Opera recording of Street Scene (1947), and Columbia's studio version of Lady in the Dark (1941) with Rise Stevens. It's also worth finding the 1960 studio reconstruction of One Touch of Venus (1943); it's far from complete, but it does have the wonderful music for the two ballets, and Mary Martin shows how 'I'm a Stranger Here Myself' should really be sung.

By far the greatest 'lost' work of Weill's is Love Life (1948), where for once he was working with an accomplished lyricist/librettist who also wanted to write substantial and satirical work in a Broadway setting -- Alan Jay Lerner. The plot is about the destructive effects of capitalism on family relations, as an archetypal couple flounders through 150 years of American history, pointed up by a vaudeville commentary following the style of the period. Any show that opens with the heroine being sawn in half -- and left in two pieces -- can't be all that bad.

It was years ahead of its time, and almost certainly the model for Follies -- Stephen Sondheim was a Broadway stage hand that 1948 season. The show was never recorded, because of a Musicians' Union strike at the time of the original run; British company Opera North revived it in early 1996, in a production so bad that the show is likely to be buried for another fifty years. But you can get the flavour and excitement of it from the excerpts on Ben Bagley's Kurt Weill Revisited Vol. 1, and Alan Jay Lerner Revisited. The Bagley/Weill albums also feature blazing performances from, among others, Estelle Parsons, Tammy Grimes, Ann Miller and Ellen Burstyn, a lot of rarities, and great translations of the German material by Michael Feinstein.

The anti-apartheid Cry the Beloved Country was put together as a concert piece from Lost in the Stars and given a performance at the London Proms last year; only a matter of time before it gets onto disc and one to watch for. Down in the Valley (1946) is Weill's version of Okalhoma and the music's fab if you can ignore the dire melodrama it's tacked on to.

And finally a personal favourite that is a work of the transition years in France, although bits were recycled into Lady in the Dark. Der Kuhhandel, or Horse Trading ['Shady Dealing'] (1933/5), never got produced, although a version ran in England at the Savoy for all of thirty performances. A reconstruction is now available and is sheer joy. Imagine Offenbach writing about armaments manufacturers inciting two neighbouring Third World states into war. Disturbingly up-to-the-minute and an iron fist in a velvet glove.

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© Eric Presland 1996. All rights reserved. The opinions expressed are those of the author.