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One Weill, Indivisible

Charles Wright reviews a new book that takes issue with a popular notion regarding the career of Kurt Weill. logo

Theater composer Kurt Weill was born in Dessau, Germany, 102 years ago last month. When he died at the lamentably premature age of 50, he had become an American citizen and was indisputably one of the essential voices of Modernism. During the 52 years since Weill's death, scholars and journalists have talked a good deal about "two Kurt Weills"--the Weimar avant-gardist responsible for the gritty, dissonant scores of The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny-Songspiel versus the immigrant showman associated with dulcet standards of the American songbook such as "Speak Low (When You Speak Love)" and "My Ship."

In a concise and well-written new book, Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway, Foster Hirsch takes fierce issue with received wisdom about this dualism. By examining the remarkably varied theater works that this composer wrote in collaboration with a remarkably varied list of lyricists and librettists, Hirsch situates Weill in the context of his times and the communities in which he functioned. Ultimately, the author emphasizes the continuity of Weill's peripatetic career.

The two-Weill theory, which Hirsch wants to debunk, has considerable appeal. No one is likely to dispute the distinctively Germanic nature of The Threepenny Opera, for instance; it's the work that springs to mind when one thinks of Weimar culture. Then, on the other hand, there are the works that Weill wrote in the United States-- such as his Appalachian folk opera Down in the Valley and the ballet music celebrating the petit-bourgeois charms of Ozone Park in One Touch of Venus--which could hardly fit in any other context. Hirsch rejects the notion that Weill's career is characterized by a yawning rift located in the mid-1930s, separating the European composer from the American one. He defends that career, instead, as protean and sensitively calibrated to collaborators as diverse at Brecht, Paul Green, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, Langston Hughes, Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, Ogden Nash, S.J. Perelman, and Alan Jay Lerner. It's a more complicated view than the two-Weill theory, and a far more interesting one.

Weill was a quintessentially serious musician and composer. He attended the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and studied composition with Italian composer Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni. In the late 1920s and early '30s, he collaborated with left-wing playwright Bertolt Brecht on satiric, topical operas and other musical theater pieces that challenged the polite, sumptuously-orchestrated, neo-Romantic style then popular in German theaters and concert halls. In March 1933, after Hitler's regime labeled Weill's work "degenerate art," the Jewish composer fled the Nazis; he stopped in Paris, then proceeded to London and finally landed along with his wife, Lotte Lenya, in New York City in the autumn of 1935.

At first glance, Hirsch's book appears to belong to the nebulous category of performance studies. The title, Kurt Weill on Stage, holds out the promise of a plodding, opus by opus examination of Weill's catalogue that would appeal mainly to specialists. However, as discussed below, the title is a bit of a play on words. The book contains a thoroughgoing examination of individual works, including the dynamics under which they were written and first performed and, in many cases, a summary of their performance histories; but Kurt Weill on Stage is principally a rich biographical study of the man and his odyssey--from Berlin to Broadway, as the subtitle indicates. If from time to time the author focuses more on the milieu than the man, that choice is defensible: Weill had only two real interests, music and his own advancement...and those interests are really aspects of the same thing.

Since Weill never trusted his musical gifts to ensure his advancement, he surrounded himself with the most brilliant figures of modernist culture, including Lenya (his wife and sometime muse). Those people make excellent copy. That's why Kurt Weill on Stage turns out to be a real page-turner. Among friends of the composer's early life were musicians (Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud, for instance), writers (Brecht, of course, and Jean Cocteau), and hard-to-categorize visionaries (such as Max Reinhardt). Later, in New York and Los Angeles, the ambitious Weill pursued vast numbers of people who could give him a hand in establishing himself in the American theater.

Since Weill made little (if any) distinction between his business and social lives, his rise among the intelligentsia of New York and Hollywood was a rapid chain reaction of introductions. Not long after arriving in the United States, he came to know the members of the politically engaged Group Theatre, including Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, and Elia Kazan; soon, he was soon working with them on Johnny Johnson, his first Broadway assignment. He also became close to members of the Playwrights' Producing Company (which included Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, and Elmer Rice), with whom he would work on Knickerbocker Holiday, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars. Before long, Weill and Lenya were a northeastern power couple--well-connected, sought-after for dinners and weekends as well as professional engagements. They basked in the glow of bright-and-beautifuls on both coasts, and their circle included as many glamour-pusses (Marlene Dietrich, Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Martin, etc.) as eggheads.

Author Foster Hirsch
(Photo: Vera Joffe)
The Weill who emerges in Hirsch's portrait is focused, calculating, and always "on stage." That's the double meaning of the title: The composer's early ambition to be an innovative force in German-speaking theater and opera was matched in intensity by his desire to be successful in the ways that get respect on Broadway and in the music publishing business. In addition to traversing the well-worn path of Weill's biography, Hirsch takes the reader behind the scenes at original productions of Weill's shows, exploring the dynamics of the companies that first performed and, in some instances, influenced creation of the material.

Hirsch, who teaches film at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, has published 16 books, most notably a history of the Actors Studio and a study of film noir. He is one of those rare scholars who writes competently about several disparate subjects--in this case, history, theater, music, and film--with some depth and no dilettantism. Through clean, sparkling, sharp prose, Hirsch pitches Kurt Weill on Stage to the level of the general reader. So it's regrettable that the proverbial general reader is likely to overlook this book because it sounds like a volume strictly for specialists or for the most hardcore theater and music aficionados. It is, on the contrary, a significant, engaging look at the times and the cultures on which Kurt Weill left his stamp.

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