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Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill logo
Winther, Mittenzwei,
Olsson, and Lisitza in
Berlin to Broadway
(Photo by Clara Aich)
When Kurt Weill came to America from Germany in 1935, he changed the pronunciation of his surname; what had been a homonym for "vile" became a homonym for "wile." Maybe the composer was being deliberately wily, for the softened consonant was consonant with the artist he became in the U.S. It explains the difference between the music he wrote in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht during the 1920s and early '30s and the music he wrote with a list of first-rate American lyricists during the last 15 years of his life.

How Weill accommodated himself to American sensibilities through a change of style after having been one of the handful of composers who defined the sound of German theater music may be the prime fascination in Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill, a revival of the 1972 retrospective revue now handily inserted into the Triad on West 72nd Street. The prime fascination, that is, after the songs themselves, which are a 20th-century treasure chest made up of pieces of eight like "Pirate Jenny," "Mack the Knife," "Surabaya Johnny," "September Song," "My Ship," "Speak Low" and, perhaps best of all, "Lost in the Stars."

Always considered a gentle though determined man, Weill brilliantly provided the politically committed Brecht with deceptively simple melodies on which to mount his vociferously idiosyncratic Marxist views. When the common folks driven to distraction in Brecht's plays from denial of natural spirits needed to express themselves in song, Weill was there with his bedrock tunes. In The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Brecht's characters may be downtrodden, only able to rise above their surroundings through whatever illicit means they mustered. But, when they sing, they take on the vigor, muscularity, and triumph of Weill's music. Often, what Weill wrote for these characters hasn't much more than an organ grinder's oom-pah beat, but it contains an unquenchable life force.

In America, Weill was teamed with men who didn't engage the great social themes as Brecht had. They were less concerned with the individual as cog in life's bent machinery than with the individual, as an individual, facing psychological rather than sociological challenges. Sure, Johnny Johnson, adapted from The Good Soldier Schweik, has something in common with The Threepenny Opera; but Lady in the Dark, say, and One Touch of Venus are works altogether divorced from social politics. To fit them out with music, Weill found within himself the sophistication to match that of the sleek lyricists Ira Gershwin and Maxwell Anderson. Yes, the melody for "My Ship" has a heartbreaking simplicity--but it's the simplicity of the nursery rather than that of the street, heard in "Mack the Knife" (or "Moritat," as it's also known). The stunning "It Never Was You," with its poignant, poetic words by Anderson, doesn't sound like anything Weill might have composed 20 years earlier. It touches the heart, whereas Weill's work with Brecht was intended to abrade the mind.

This discrepancy is underlined in Berlin to Broadway. In Michael Feingold's translation of "The Bilbao Song" (other translations are by George Tabori, Arnold Weinstein and, of course, Mark Blitzstein), one line goes: "They've cleaned it up and made it middle-class." The same can be said of the first half of the evening. Brecht, one of the earliest practitioners of what today might be called "in-your-face theater," wanted the stage to be a cauldron of confrontation and danger. He wanted his work to reflect the anarchy he sensed massing on community peripheries. That's not, however, what's on view in the production Hal Simons has directed and choreographed with singers Lorinda Lisitza, Veronica Mittenzwei, Bjorn Olsson, and Michael Winther. Although the cast frequently leaves the confines of the small Triad stage (where Eric Stern does outstanding work at the keyboard) to stroll through the audience, the four of them keep things polite, even good-humored. The bite and bile of such items as "Alabama Song" is minimized. When Mittenzwei impersonates the vengeful Pirate Jenny, she displays more sorrow than anger, and Olsson's Mack the Knife is blunt when it should gleam and nick.

Most likely, the explanation for the first-act deficiencies of the cast has to do with training. Not seasoned in Teutonic music halls, these four have Broadway in their blood. As if suddenly having been given injections of show-biz pizzazz, they come to life in selections from Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Love Life, Lost in the Stars, and the opera Street Scene. Lisitza, Olsson, and Winther do "The Saga of Jenny" as if surrounded by all the accoutrements of an 11 o'clock number. Mittenzwei brings a coquette's delight to "That's Him." Intoning "Johnny's Song" from Johnny Johnson, Winther is American innocence incarnate. The only setback comes in September Song, which Olsson is simply too young and callow to perform as the astringent tearjerker it is. He redeems himself, however, when he takes the vocal lead in Lost in the Stars. Of the four performers, Winther (who is also an associate producer) may be the one who scores most often in both acts; his malleability and his clarion tenor are most appreciated.

Although Weill wrote none of the lyrics to his songs, many of those songs include sea and ship imagery; the obvious ones are "Pirate Jenny," "I Wait for a Ship," and "My Ship." It could be said that Weill longed for his ship to come in as he worked in Europe. When it finally arrived, the vessel took him--and wife Lotte Lenya--to America. Berlin to Broadway also hits pay dirt when it sails into the American musical theater harbor.

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