Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

  • Stephen Hinton
  • University of California Press
  • 592 pp.

This eminently readable biography captures the genius of the composer whose music captured the time, place and climate of the times.

Here’s a test. Try to recall the words to “Moritat” from “Threepenny Opera,” the jongleur’s tale of that brutal highwayman and rake, Mack the Knife, without the rhythm of the music coming into your mind. Several translations have been made, all but one softening considerably Bertolt Brecht’s original. But it is Kurt Weill’s haunting melody that makes any of them memorable. As more than one critic has observed, music has a special capacity to carry meaning. Literally, music can set the stage.

Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform by Stephen Hinton, Stanford professor of humanities and music, describes how Weill would take a story — brutal, mysterious, political, exotic or romantic — and craft it into music that captured the time, place, mood, culture and climate of the times, wherever the scene was set and no matter who was his lyricist du jour.

Born in Germany in 1900, Weill came to prominence in 1928 with “Die Dreigroshenoper” (“The Threepenny Opera”). Brecht and Weill took as a basis John Gay’s 18th-century “Beggar’s Opera” and made it a sharper political critique of suppression imposed by the ruling class and how it becomes embedded in the psyche of those who are subjugated. Hinton calls its premier run “the biggest theatrical success of the epoch.” The burgeoning Nazi Party called it degenerate art.

So it was only a matter of time before Weill fled to Paris and London, and then, in 1935, to the United States. He wrote operas, lieder and songspiels (songs interspersed with dialogue), orchestral works, chamber music and music for ballet as well as music for the theater. In Weill’s words, “I discovered that a vast, unexploited field lay between grand opera and musical comedy.” He was to devote his career to exploring that territory.

Kurt Weill teamed with many talented lyricists. He worked with his close friend Maxwell Anderson forKnickerbocker Holiday” (1938) and their “September Song” became a pop classic. With Ira Gershwin, he wrote “Lady in the Dark” (1941) in which psychoanalysis was the main theme. “One Touch of Venus” (1943) was a loose retelling of “Pygmalion” with waltzes, ballads and a barbershop quartet. Its book was by S.J. Perelman with lyrics by Ogden Nash, neither of whom had written for the stage before. It became Weill’s longest-running show and established the stage career of Mary Martin.

“Street Scene” came in 1947, based on the play by Elmer Rice with lyrics by Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist and activist Langston Hughes. Weill made it an amalgam of jazz, blues, ballads and musical references to Puccini, terming it “an American opera for Broadway.” A reviewer of the time ranked it with “Porgy and Bess.” The Tony awards (which began that year) awarded Best Original Score to “Street Scene” in competition with the hits “Brigadoon” and “Finian’s Rainbow.”

Stephen Hinton writes that he set out on “an investigation of Weill’s musical theater from a number of different angles that include the biographical, the philosophical, the historical and the music-analytical.” Such a multi-faceted and comprehensive study is what Weill deserves, for he was a consummate practitioner of an array of styles of music and musical idioms, of moods and atmosphere, of surroundings. Weill was also a student of people, their slang, their cares and their culture. To learn the patois for the rhythms and cadences he would set to music in “Street Scene,” Weill walked the tenement neighborhoods of New York City. Hinton concludes: “Very few of Weill’s works conceal their connection to contemporaneous culture; indeed, most make a point of emphasizing it.”

Stages of Reform is a well chosen subtitle. It emphasizes Weill’s abiding interest in creating something bold and new. Weill’s stages were places for commentary. They are living canvasses for challenging conventional attitudes and show us truth in parables. His work was innovative, well beyond the “musical comedy” of the 1940s. Weill is generally regarded as the father of the “concept musical,” in which dramatic narrative yields to the statement or theme of the play and the presentation is often nonlinear, fragmented, self-referential, expressionistic. An example is Weill’s “Love Life” (1948), with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. It is a story of marriage and adaptation to the times from 1791 to 1948 by a married couple who, throughout the 157-year period, do not age. (Anyone reminded of Sondheim?)

I was concerned about being able to review a long and thorough book by an esteemed musicologist who was probably going to parade arcanities and sprinkle notes on staves of music throughout his book. There are those, as well as exhaustive documentation and many references to the views of other critics, all done with the care that befits a thoughtful academic. But laymen readers need not fear.

Weill’s Musical Theater is eminently readable, with or without his music playing in the background. Professor Hinton is a fine writer who conveys what he knows and feels in terms insightful, intuitive and nuanced, yet accessible to those of us who are musically marginalized.

I like to think Kurt Weill would enjoy this book, too, probably enough to set some of Stephen Hinton’s own words to music.

Tom Phillips is a retired corporate attorney who lives in Chicago, enjoys musical theater and opera, and grumbles about national politics.

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