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Moritat vom Kurt Weill

Foster Hirsch's new book on Kurt Weill is a biography of a tortured genius -- tortured by Bertolt Brecht, anyway. logo

Talk about your difficult lives. Not only did Kurt Weill have to flee his native Germany as the tide of Nazism engulfed his homeland; not only were he and Lotte Lenya married, divorced, and then married again, both cheating on each other consistently the whole time; and not only did he die suddenly of a heart attack at the young age of 50. On top of all of that, Weill, over the course of his career, worked with both Bertolt Brecht and Maxwell Anderson.

Imagine: from Europe to America; from Brecht, the snide and chiseling Marxist, to Anderson, the somber, free-verse-writing intellectual. Both were great artists, to be sure, but hardly a couple of good-time Charlies. In Kurt Weill On Stage: From Berlin to Broadway, Foster Hirsch quotes Anderson's son Quentin as reporting that "the evidence is thin that my father had a sense of humor." His own son!

Weill's own sense of humor was strong but sly in both conversation and song, and he certainly proved capable of dealing with the pompous Anderson. Early in their relationship, Hirsch writes, Weill wrote Anderson a letter full of plot suggestions and then hastily backpedaled, adding: "I don't know, I just wrote this down because you may get some idea from it...I hope you don't mind."

Indeed, if there's a hallmark of Weill's career, it's his adaptability to collaborators, both compositionally and personally. Over two decades and on two continents, he wrote with everyone from the irascible Brecht (The Threepenny Opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, etc.) to Moss Hart (Lady in the Dark), who had his own personality issues. As detailed in the Hirsch biography, Weill was very often put out by the shenanigans of his librettists, as when Brecht went around claiming full credit for their work together or forcing wildly unfair royalties contracts on him. But he bore these frustrations and many more with quiet dignity, keeping his feelings carefully hidden.

At any rate, this is the impression that emerges from Hirsch's book, even though the tome happily tends toward intellectual inquiry and careful, extended descriptions of the shows as opposed to psychological speculation about what was going on behind Weill's owlish gaze. What Hirsch provides is the portrait of a man restlessly pursuing new creative impulses; in the fruitful period after the debut of Threepenny, Weill was simultaneously working on developing Mahagonny, on another collaboration with Brecht (a children's show!), and on a "pure opera" called Die Bürgschaft. In America, it was the same, as Weill cotinually moved from collaborator to collaborator and from project to project.

Brecht, Lenya, and Weill
It was this very restlessness that helped to create the ineffable Weillian sound, that feeling of a composer floating above and around genres. Whether in the dark, semi-operatic ballads of Threepenny or the swooning, spiritual melodies of Lost in the Stars -- or in the oft-overlooked Johnny Johnson, a small masterpiece written with Paul Green on a commission from the famous Group Theater. Johnny was an anti-war musical that had the bad fortune (a) to be directed by Lee Strasberg, not an obvious or wise choice for musical theater, and (b) to open just when sophisticated New Yorkers were excited about fighting the good fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Though Hirsch's book focuses on this and other mini-dramas that swirled around Weill's creative efforts, the author does dip into the drama of Weill's personal life story from time to time, as when describing the composer's tumultuous last few months in Germany: "On March 21, after being warned by a well-informed friend that he faced imminent arrest, Weill the French border. The next day, he left the country that his ancestors had lived in for seven centuries, never to return."

And he had to deal with Brecht. We're lucky the guy wrote anything at all.

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