From Brecht to Broadway

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Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, circa 1940s

Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya is the title Ethan Mordden gives to his new work on these two major twentieth-century musical artists. But the relationship between Weill and Lenya was less a feverish romance than a very practical partnership, not so much a tender love song as one of Weill’s bereft Benares ballads. This is not to suggest that the couple’s feelings for each other were lacking in affection. Their marriage was fostered by deep personal connections and mutual tastes. But Lenya, who enjoyed a brief career as a teenage prostitute, was compulsively unfaithful to Weill throughout their lives together, both with men and with women. She also divorced Weill once for a tenor, later remarried him, and then, after his death, married two more men, both of them gay.

Lenya’s German biographer, Jens Rosteck, considers most of her erotic adventures to have been rehearsals for her career as a performer. From Mordden’s account of it, their relations could be described as a friendly affiliation between two Germanic professionals, Lenya from an Austrian working-class family, Weill from middle-class German Jews, one a cabaret artist, the other a serious composer, whose careers were mutually supportive, and who shared the same language, values, tastes, friendships, and musical projects, if not always the same bed.

Of the two, Kurt Weill may have been the more gifted, but Lotte Lenya was unquestionably the more dynamic. Weill seems to have had a rather retiring nature, while Lenya rarely held her tongue. Indeed, this relationship struck me as reflecting the kind one often finds between composers and lyricists, in which the style and content of a song is usually determined by the wordsmith (or in Lenya’s case the performer), even though it is the songwriter who usually provides its emotional imprint.

A classic example of this kind of partnership is the way the musical personality of Richard Rodgers was transformed after the death of his first Broadway collaborator. As the creative partner of the gay sophisticate Lorenz Hart, Rodgers wrote music vibrating with urban electricity—highly witty, often cynical, sometimes erotic—whereas, collaborating with the exurbanite Bucks County landholder Oscar Hammerstein II, his music became considerably more sunny, wholesome, rustic, and chaste. With Hart, Rodgers wrote “The Lady Is a Tramp,” with Hammerstein, “My Girl Back Home”; with Hart, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” with Hammerstein, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”; with Hart, “Ship Without a Sail,” with Hammerstein, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”; with Hart, “Manhattan,” with Hammerstein, “Oklahoma!”

There are, of course, a number of songwriters who managed to sustain their own style, whatever the contribution of the lyricist—Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, and Stephen Sondheim are a few examples. But these are composers who usually supplied their own lyrics, or (in Loesser’s case) lyricists who later provided their own music. Typically, Broadway musicals are composed by chameleons …

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