Kurt Weill on Broadway
Wednesday, July 12, 2017 @ 7:30 p.m.
Brevard Festival Orchestra
Janiec Opera Company of the Brevard Music Center
Keith Lockhart, conductor
Lisa Vroman, soprano
WEILL The Seven Deadly Sins
WEILL Broadway Favorites
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Kurt Weill on Broadway
When Kurt Weill arrived in New York in 1935, he had every intention of returning to Paris after supervising his music for Max Reinhardt’s production of the huge biblical spectacle The Eternal Road. But repeated postponements kept delaying his return, and the left-wing Group Theatre persuaded him to write an anti-war musical play with Paul Green entitled Johnny Johnson. When The Eternal Road finally opened in January 1937, Weill had two shows running in New York for a brief time. They were both produced in Broadway theaters, but neither accessed the tradition of mainstream Broadway musicals. The following year another dramatic collective, the Playwrights’ Company, produced Knickerbocker Holiday, Weill’s first collaboration with the most successful dramatist of the 1930s, Maxwell Anderson. Starring Walter Huston, it lasted 168 performances and showcased Weill’s first American standard, “September Song” (which you won’t hear tonight!).
Finally in 1941 Weill moved from side-streets to the Great White Way proper with Lady in the Dark, a musical play by Moss Hart (of Kauffman and Hart fame), with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, his first return to Broadway after his brother George’s death. Starring Gertrude Lawrence and introducing Danny Kaye, it played for 777 performances on Broadway and national tour, and its sale to Hollywood allowed Weill to buy “Brook House” in Rockland County. By then he had already declared in a national radio interview, “I am an American!” Lady’s success gave Weill the clout to pick his collaborators and projects, and for the next one, One Touch of Venus, he recruited Ogden Nash to write the lyrics and S. J. Perelman the book, Agnes de Mille to choreograph, and Elia Kazan to direct. It would be Weill’s biggest hit, and Mary Martin, in her first starring role, launched “Speak Low, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” and “That’s Him.” Another collaboration with Ira Gershwin, an operetta about Benvenuto Cellini called The Firebrand of Florence, flopped miserably, a double disappointment because Weill had written a role specifically for his wife Lotte Lenya. It would be her last during Weill’s lifetime.
Although Weill had attended the dress rehearsal of Porgy and Bess soon after his arrival in New York, it wasn’t until 1946 that he responded with his own “Broadway opera,” Street Scene. Elmer Rice adapted his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, and the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote the lyrics. Critics hailed it as superior to the Gershwins’ predecessor and called it the fountainhead of genuine American opera. But always the innovator, Weill next teamed up with Alan Jay Lerner, fresh off his Brigadoon success, to write what is now considered the first “concept musical,” Love Life. Subtitled “a vaudeville,” it chronicled the marriage of a never-aging couple over a 150-year period of shifting American culture, reflected in commentary numbers kaleidoscopic in their use of popular musical idioms. Harold Prince, Bob Fosse, Kander & Ebb, Stephen Sondheim all have identified Love Life as the model for their work, beginning with Cabaret (ironically starring Lenya) and including Company, Assassins, Chicago, and more recently, Scottsboro Boys.
But again Weill shifted gears, with a different sort of hybrid form of musical theater, the heartfelt “musical tragedy” Lost in the Stars, another collaboration with Maxwell Anderson. This daring account of oppression under apartheid in South Africa was but a thinly veiled indictment of segregation in America. While it was still running, Weill died of a heart attack at age fifty. His career on Broadway had lasted not much more than a decade, but his influence can still be felt, not least because he was unique among “Golden Age” composers in orchestrating all of his own shows. Tonight’s program utilizes those original orchestrations, each of which was tailored to the unique “sonic world” of the play that inspired his music.
- Kim H. Kowalke
Overture Program Information
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Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
The Seven Deadly Sins
Having been warned that Nazis were planning his arrest, Kurt Weill left Berlin on March 21, 1933. Certain that Hitler’s regime had to meet a quick demise and that he could return within a few weeks, Weill packed only a single suitcase and drove to Paris—never to see Germany again. Arriving in Paris two days later, he booked a room at a hotel on the Left Bank. Within two weeks Weill was commissioned to compose The Seven Deadly Sins.
The Seven Deadly Sins is a modern morality play, as much a theater piece as a ballet, in which conventional moral concepts are turned inside out. The inhumane demands of the capitalist system have torn Anna into two “sisters”: Anna I, the singer, is the plain, practical manager who curbs every natural, healthy impulse of the beautiful but idealistic Anna II, the dancer. As the capitalistic conscience, Anna I treats Anna II as a commodity on their seven-year quest through seven cities to earn enough money to build a home in Louisiana for the family. In each city, the fate of their bank account is jeopardized as Anna II is tempted by one of the seven deadly sins to succumb to normal human needs and responses. But Anna I conquers each “deadly” sin by enforcing self-repression and self-denial on Anna II, but finds nothing wrong with her committing the real but “harmless” sins necessary to accumulate a fortune–prostitution, robbery, blackmail.
Weill’s score is the crowning masterpiece of his European career and represents the synthetic conclusion to the series of works initiated in 1927 by the Mahagonny Songspiel. Form and content merge in this, his most stylistically consistent work, where popular models have been thoroughly “digested” and integrated with classical symphonic procedures. Outwardly the score parallels the scenario: it is divided into seven closed musical movements (each entitled one of the sins), with a prologue and epilogue, as it urges the sisters on with prayers and admonitions. In a stroke of genius, Weill voiced the family as a male quartet–a father, two brothers, and a monstrous, Mustachioed mother sung in a barrel-chested basso profundo. This absurd bit of musical caricature allows Weill to exploit symbolically and ironically the family’s all- ale, four-part close harmony. He invoked that sonority alternately as the mock-religious style of the chorale for Brecht’s prayers to the almighty dollar, as the guitar-accompanied Singverein style of German Gemütlichkeit, and as the jaunty “barbershop” quartet of popular American music in the twenties. The family’s interjections function as a refrain, transformed in each appearance but linking the seven numbers into a larger superstructure. Weill has tied the numbers together more subtly with a recurrent motive, heard first in the opening bars and altered in each subsequent appearance. As the sisters return to Louisiana with their fortune made, the cyclic motive reappears in altered and stark form as an ironic and heartbreaking denial of the implied assent in Anna II’s world-weary last words, “Ja, Anna.”