Theater archives

The Paradox Man


For someone who died 57 years ago, Kurt Weill certainly keeps busy. And although I’ve had only a marginal amount to do with his remarkable posthumous success, he somehow always manages to haul me along with him—not that I object to being in such eminent company. In February, his opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was being sung simultaneously in Los Angeles and Boston. The L.A. production, which was staged by John Doyle and featured Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone as its female leads, was taped for PBS; the less gaudy Boston production, not to be outdone, lured opera fans by staffing the same roles with two admired classical artists, Amy Burton and Joyce Castle.

While Mahagonny was grabbing bicoastal headlines, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco released on a Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom CD the original cast album of its production, from last spring, of Weill’s musical Happy End, the work that comes in between The Threepenny Opera and the full-scale Mahagonny. Happy End has been produced many times in the U.S. since I adapted it for the Yale Rep in 1972, but this was the score’s first complete recording in English. It was promptly followed by an Off-Off Broadway staging at Theater 1010. And while that was going into the second extension of its run, Manhattan Theatre Club opened LoveMusik, a musical about the convoluted love life of Weill and his wife, singer Lotte Lenya, as the finale to its Broadway season at the Biltmore, with a score drawn from Weill’s works, including excerpts from both Happy End and Mahagonny. (I didn’t review LoveMusik because four of its lyrics are sung in my translations.) To round things off, singer Andrea Marcovicci’s label, Andreasong, brought out a CD of the concert she staged last spring in the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series, “Kurt Weill in America.”

One could, therefore, Weill away a lot of time this year pondering some of the paradoxes of the modern music-theater’s most improbably seminal composer. He lived a bare half-century (1900–1950) and yet seems to have affected everybody’s thinking about music’s place in the theater. Viewed for many years as a secondary figure whose stature was dependent on his most famous collaborator, Bertolt Brecht, he tends to be seen now as a creative force for whom Brecht was a principal supplier of texts. The radical split between Weill’s “German” and “American” styles, which used to give classical-music critics the cue to stigmatize him as a sellout, has gradually come to be perceived in a more complex light, as the evolving methodology of a composer driven simultaneously by deep inner needs and the wildly changing circumstances of a world in upheaval around him. Increased familiarity with the less well-known works of Weill’s pre-Brecht and Paris periods have enhanced the sense of his career as a continuum: The seeds of his American songwriting, it turns out, were sown long before he arrived here; he had established his penchant for startling stylistic mutations well before he met Brecht. The ultimate paradox about Weill is that he manages to remain distinctly himself while functioning successfully in so many different spheres. One can’t easily picture Brecht, for instance, chatting amicably on a movie lot with Fred MacMurray, or working up a hasty dinner-party collaboration with Jean Cocteau.

That Weill’s work can now be perceived as a continuous whole supplies a clue for understanding something else that I used to find incomprehensibly paradoxical: People in both the classical and music-theater worlds simply dislike his sound. This is nothing new; from the earliest days of his Berlin success, Weill’s music has put off listeners who found his transgressive habit of crossing boundary lines an irritant. Though always grounded in classical form, Weill wasn’t “classical”; he used modernist tactics like polytonality, but he wasn’t conventionally “modern.” He wrote operetta-like melodies, employed jazz rhythms and “blue” notes, ventured into pop idioms, but he wasn’t writing operetta, or jazz, or pop. He was writing Weill’s music and nobody else’s. Prickly and tender, complexly compassionate and critical in its worldview, his work still puts people off, even those who fall deeply under its spell. When we first staged Happy End at Yale, Walter Kerr said that hearing its music was like “eating chocolate and having your teeth cleaned at the same time.” One can see where not everybody would relish the experience.

In some ways, the paradox itself supplies the addictive factor. We who love Weill get hooked on his unclassifiability, on the bold individuality of his stance. I remember when I first heard the overture to Threepenny Opera, at age 11 or 12, on a radio show that normally played Broadway cast albums. Suddenly the sound poured out, in march tempo, of what might have been a klezmer-influenced Dixieland band; just as suddenly, its quickstep tune was echoed in canonic counterpoint. Bach? Show tunes? Jazz? What kind of music was this? The only satisfactory answer I could come up with was: You need to listen to more Kurt Weill. It’s still the correct answer as far as I’m concerned.

I have heard people complain (a classical-pianist friend was doing so just the other night) that Weill’s music is satirical, harsh, caustic. Just as often, I’ve heard those who think that theater music ought to have satiric bite and thorny discords argue that, especially in his transit from Europe to America, Weill “went soft,” that the gentler ballads of his Broadway years are a comedown from the bittersweet Berlin tang of the 1920s. These complaints strike me as being addressed to the wrong party: The problem lies not in Weill, but in Weimar-era Berlin for being Berlin, and in 1940s America for being America. Weill was simply the composer who happened to be there, expressing in his own way what he saw going on. He did not find a Brecht to collaborate with in America because America was not producing any Brechts at that moment. But what composer ever had the luck to get more than one living world-class poet as a collaborator? Strauss only had one Hofmannsthal, and Mozart only one Da Ponte. If you compare Weill’s non-Brecht lyricists to some of Mozart’s or Strauss’s lesser librettists, clunkers like Gottlieb Stephanie and Joseph Gregor, Weill’s list—which includes Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, and Maxwell Anderson—looks nowhere near as shabby. True, none of these gents had a conception of musical theater to match Brecht’s in scope or substance, but blaming Weill for that shortfall makes no sense; you might as easily blame Brooks Atkinson or Walter Winchell. As Manhattanites used to say in those days, “That’s Broadway.”

On that Broadway, Brecht was a faintly clownish curiosity, and Richard Rodgers a king. Weill, sanely, preferred to become a sort of eccentric duke in Rodgers’s kingdom, rather than compose for a theater that didn’t exist. Yet he pushed the edges of the one that did exist as far as they could reasonably go at that time. Virgil Thomson was right (no surprise) when, in his obituary, he defined Weill’s importance by calling him “a musical architect” and describing his works as “a repertory of models” for future composers to build on. Even on Broadway, the musical theater we have now would be more recognizable to Weill than to Rodgers, and probably owes a great deal more to those bothersome Kurt Weill works that not everybody likes than to the endearing Richard Rodgers musicals that everyone loves and knows by heart.