Bebe Neuwirth
Bebe Neuwirth
Theater aficionados recognize Kurt Weill as not only one of the 20th century's most versatile composers but also one of its most important. If his only contribution to the world had been the score for The Threepenny Opera, his place in history would be assured. Yet Weill's other work on musicals and plays in his native Germany, the United States, and even France reveals him to have been a complete artist, capable of adapting to any style of music or dramatic situation.

Robert Bass, musical director of The Collegiate Chorale, kept all this in mind when selecting the program for the group's concert of Wednesday, February 4, titled An Evening of Kurt Weill. While the concert focused almost exclusively on Weill's theatrical output, the selections weren't limited to his better-known songs or to English language compositions. The result was a richly varied program that more than supported the concert's running time of just over two hours. In fact, Weill's work is so creative and alluring that two hours seemed a bit short; Bass, the chorale, and the excellent seven-piece orchestra filled every minute of the time beautifully.

In recognition of the vital theatrical component of Weill's work, Bass and 28 members of the chorale were joined by theater stalwarts Larry Marshall, Bebe Neuwirth, and Roger Rees, whose presence greatly enhanced the evening. Rees, who also directed the concert, served as the show's narrator, reading from text prepared by Rick Elice to place the evening's songs in proper historical and theatrical context. While his narration was generally interesting and insightful, Weill's work has a way of speaking volumes for itself and, therefore, Rees's words eventually came to seem more or less superfluous. And one bit of information that he passed along was incorrect: In comparing other works of the 1949-1950 season to Lost in the Stars, Rees stated that The Happy Time was one of the season's musicals. Actually, it was the non-musical version of The Happy Time that opened that season; Kander and Ebb's musical version didn't open until 1968.

While the four songs from Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars that were chosen for the program ("Train to Johannesburg," "Murder in Parkwold," "Lost in the Stars," and "Cry the Beloved Country") were powerfully sung by Marshall and the chorale (with Neuwirth stepping in for the title song), the highlight of the first act was Neuwirth's lengthy set of songs from Jacques Deval's 1934 French play Marie Galante. Her signature harsh attitude and juicy, sexy diction proved ideal for these artful, swinging songs, and her performances of "Le roi d'Aquitaine" ("The King of Acquitaine") and "Le train du ciel" ("The Heavenly Train") were standouts.

Chorale member Douglas Purcell lent his powerful tenor voice to "Kiddush," a 1946 composition in Hebrew. This was followed by a rare piece from Weill and Alan Jay Lerner's 1948 musical Love Life, the comic madrigal "Ho, Billy O!" with great comic lyrics: "I said 'Oh, Billy, look at me, / I'm overly aggressive / And doctors ev'rywhere agree / I'm manic and depressive." But the focal point of the second act was a group of songs from the 1929 Happy End (lyrics translated into English by Michael Feingold). Among them were the well-known "Bilbao Song" (delivered with comic gusto by Marshall) and "Surabaya-Johnny" (sung partly in English and partly in German by Neuwirth in another triumphant performance) plus three of the show's "hymns" and the "Ballad of the Lily of Hell," delivered forcefully by Rees in his only major musical solo.

The evening ended with the bitter yet rousing "Hosannah Rockefeller," sung by the entire company. Congratulations to everyone who had a hand in putting this musically compelling and educational evening together. It demonstrated how much more there is to Kurt Weill than may be commonly perceived, and it would be wonderful if The Collegiate Chorale or some other enterprising group would continue to investigate and perhaps record Weill's masterful catalogue of work. May I suggest beginning with Love Life?