WEILL AWAY THE HOURS By Peter Filichia
In case you don’t know it, here’s your chance to be in the know about a unique Broadway composer.
Twice a year, The Kurt Weill Foundation publishes a Kurt Weill Newsletter. Frankly, “Newsletter” is a misnomer; this is a mini-magazine of 24 pages that’s printed on decent paper stock whose pages are dotted with many black-and-white as well as color pictures.
Now that the 2021-2022 season is in the books, I’m just getting around to the Spring 2022 edition. In case you care to catch up, too, visit https://www.kwf.org/newsletter.
What this edition celebrates is the 75th anniversary of STREET SCENE.
Elmer Rice, whose play STREET SCENE won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize, wrote the libretto for the 1947 show. Both properties displayed the difficult lives of poverty-stricken New Yorkers who lived in tenements.
On must wonder if Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, when writing CHICAGO – which was also set in the late 1920s – remembered Rice’s play. Just as they had murderess June recall when her husband accused her of “screwin’ the milkman,” that’s precisely what Frank Maurrant discovers his wife is doing in STREET SCENE. Frank – who’s been no angel throughout – certainly believes that she “had it comin’” and shoots her dead.
This is a terrible shock to their grown daughter Rose, whose own romantic troubles, although less severe, provide an important subplot. The way her boss treats her is what today’s audiences would call harassment. Besides, Rose is much more interested in Sam, who’s been The Boy Next Door for so long that he’s now become a man. Alas, that he’s a Jew is a barrier for his family.
Once Rose is left with one parent dead and another to face incarceration or worse, she could take the easy way out by marrying her wealthy boss. You may assume that she instead chooses Sam, but in a move that was astonishingly brave for a young woman in her twenties in the 1920s, she decides she must leave this woebegone neighborhood and experience come-what-may.
There’s real drama here, and a good deal of passion – fine elements for a musical. And yet Weill, who had written unabashed commercial shows such as ONE TOUCH OF VENUS and KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY, decided that this one had to be something more.
So, with lyrics by Langston Hughes (in what had to be the first musical theater collaboration between a German immigrant and an African American), they made it an opera rather than “just” a musical.
As Weill is quoted in the newsletter, “STREET SCENE has opened and brought me a personal success which exceeded all my expectations. Almost unanimously, the papers called my work ‘the finest work in the musical theater’ and nominated me the outstanding composer in the American theater.”
Weill wrote that on February 14, which is fitting considering all the valentines he had received from the critics (“Magnificence and glory” – Atkinson, Times; “a work of great originality” – Chapman, News). Had Weill waited six weeks to write this letter, he would have been able to replace the word “nominated” with “awarded,” for he was the first composer to ever win a Tony.
So, when all was said and sung, why only 148 performances? Although that doesn’t seem like much, Weill gives his explanation which is also quoted in the newsletter: “Naturally, that’s nothing compared to the musical comedies I’ve put on here, but for an opera, it is a much greater success, as very few (or no) operas hit such performance numbers during their initial run.”
(Indeed, PORGY AND BESS, masterpiece though it is, could only muster 124.)
Another consideration: STREET SCENE played the off-the-beaten-track Adelphi Theatre, on 54th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. In those pre-TKTS days, would-be ticket buyers who hadn’t purchased seats in advance would saunter from 41st through 52nd Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues – the conventional theater district – to see what most appealed to them. Many didn’t even know that the Adelphi existed. That the house had no fewer than SEVEN names in its 42-year-history (before its demolishment in 1970) didn’t keep it in the minds of theatergoers, either.
Thus, the Craig-Adelphi-Radiant-Yiddish Arts-Adelphi-(again)-54th Street-George Abbott was never any producer’s first pick. Several shows would move there from prime theater-district houses to die there: DAMN YANKEES, BYE BYE BIRDIE and DO RE MI among them. No wonder that Ethan Mordden, one of musical theater’s greatest historians, wittily called the place “that funeral home.”
Truth to tell, though, had STREET SCENE played any of the theaters on 44th Street (called “Hit Street” for good reason; three of the top seven longest-running shows have played there), the Weill-Rice collaboration still wouldn’t have had an easy time of it, as opera rarely does on Broadway.
Columbia Records may have tried to downplay the opera label, for it didn’t give it a three-record or even two-record set; it released it as a single record that resembled a conventional cast album. It captured 20 selections of the three dozen Weill-Hughes compositions and had to abridge many to fit on an hour-long record. So, think of it as STREET SCENE’s Greatest Hits.
The spring Kurt Weill Newsletter also contains a review of a recent production of LADY IN THE DARK, the revolutionary Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart collaboration. There can’t be many musicals where a tumultuously received 11 o’clock number – “Tschaikowsky” – was eclipsed by an 11:05 number: “The Saga of Jenny.” But it was, once Gertrude Lawrence began her number after Danny Kaye had finished his.
And speaking of “The Saga of Jenny,” the newsletter also gives us a section of “The Saga of Lenny” – as in Bernstein – that Sondheim wrote to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday:
Ten gifts too many,
The curse of being versatile.
To show how bad the curse is
Will need a lot of verses
And take a little Weill.”
We can understand that why, out of the parody’s six verses, Kim H. Kowalke, the foundation’s president and CEO, included the one that featured Weill. Charity, after all, begins at home. But if I may add my favorite:
“Lenny made his mind up
That maybe atonality
And rock would mix.
Though it certain was serial with rhythm on top,
It had lots of snap and crackle,
But not enough pop.”
Lest anyone think that Kowalke is trying to make readers believe that Sondheim was a fan of Weill, the executive certainly didn’t sugarcoat what the legendary-composer lyricist thought:
“I never liked his stuff except for THREEPENNY and some of his American stuff. There’s a rhumba version of ‘Girl of the Moment’ in LADY IN THE DARK that I like, and part of the Overture to STREET SCENE; it’s the theme that goes with the lyric ‘Hoping that I would discover a wonderful lover.’”
Perhaps you should discover this part of the Overture, the rest of STREET SCENE – and the Kurt Weill Newsletter as well.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.