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From Brecht to Broadway

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Ullstein Bild/Everett Collection
Lotte Lenya in a production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, 1930

But virtually all of Weill’s American songs are invested with a bittersweet melancholy that you will not often find in his early orchestral compositions or in his work with Brecht. This quality makes his songs appealingly wistful but somehow lacking in edge. Just compare the morbid ruthlessness of “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera (“Then they’ll pile up the bodies/And I’ll say,/That’ll learn ya”) with the spirited bounciness of “The Saga of Jenny” from Lady in the Dark (“Jenny made her mind up when she was three. She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree”). These two Jennys inhabit completely different landscapes.

Early in his book, Mordden writes,

A common interpretation of Weill reads him as a shape-shifter, working in prestigiously “difficult” political art in Germany and then, in America, going commercial, as if the political were inherently prestigious….

Incensed by what he later calls “the relentless hectoring by critics at the way Weill supposedly changes his style from uniquely German to stereotypically American,” he adds that this “ignores the central fact that he changes his style from work to work….” Mordden continues: “Yes, Weill was a shape-shifter; but throughout his career, not just when he crossed the Atlantic.” I think it is possible to agree with Mordden’s high estimate of Weill’s Broadway work, and still recognize that the music dramas he wrote with the immoral, malodorous, Communist stooge Brecht were deeper, darker, denser than anything he ever produced with his Broadway colleagues.

Indeed, Weill’s meeting with Brecht produced what many, including myself, consider the high point of twentieth-century musical theater (for Mordden, it is the moment when “Weill suddenly starts acting sexy”). Their work together culminated in one of the greatest modern operas in the canon, namely Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). Even the Broadway-besotted Mordden has to concede for the sake of accuracy that Mahagonny is “Weill’s finest work,” though he is not altogether accurate about the opera’s American production history.2

Weill’s work on Mahagonny contains the same stylistic questions you find in all his Brecht collaborations—the minor key, the tinny syncopations, the spasmodic rhythms, the dreamlike jazz America, and the melancholy climax when Jimmy Mahoney’s life ends on the gallows (even Brecht’s occasional happy endings are bitter—as, for example, the finale of The Seven Deadly Sins, when the two Annas finally complete their “kleines Hause am Mississippi in Louisiana” by rejecting anything that might bring them emotional satisfaction).

Brecht believed that human beings were driven by greed and self-interest, which were reasoned and controlled, and by virtue, compassion, and sexual desire, which were more inherent human qualities, and this made your capacity to rise in the world subject to an ability to suppress your more generous emotional self. That is why his characters—the two sides of The Good Person of Szechwan, for example, Shen Te and Shui Ta, not to mention the two Annas in Seven Deadly Sins and the drunk-and-sober title character of Mr. Puntila (and His Man Matti)—are often split characters.

It is doubtful whether Weill shared Brecht’s sense of contradiction in human nature, though Lenya certainly pulled him apart from time to time. Mordden pays far less attention to Lenya’s professional life than he does to her husband’s, but his admiration for her career is, nonetheless, almost starstruck, possibly because he finds it so compatible with his aesthetic. He calls Lenya “the empress of Brechtian mischief,” and “a musical-comedy Mother Courage,” and reserves his greatest praise for the parts she played in Hollywood movies and Broadway shows. But her “Surabaya Johnny” from Happy End and her “Benares Song” from Mahagonny-Songspiel probe far deeper than the delicious turn she did as a lesbian double agent in From Russia with Love, chasing 007 around the room, kicking at him with a poisoned knife-blade hidden in her shoe. And her performance as the singing Anna I in the City Center Ballet version of The Seven Deadly Sins in 1958 left a far more powerful impression on many of us than her fine characterization of Fräulein Schneider in the Kander and Ebb simulation of Weimar culture in Cabaret, possibly because it was echt rather than echoed.

Speaking of split natures, I should say a few words about the author’s prose. It is as if two different people were writing his book. There are times when Mordden’s voice sounds like something overheard at a neighboring table at Sardi’s (“There was nothing in the European arts world like being the author of a smash-hit opera”). Sometimes it sounds like a press agent’s release (“That is the Kurt Weill we all know, leading his band of musical cutthroats in spoof operas that laugh about sex and tear down your heroes, Public Composer Number One on the Nazis’ enemies list”). When Weill falls in love with Lenya, Mordden writes, like a gossip columnist for Style, “He does everything but break into ‘Younger Than Springtime.’” Mother Courage, he says as if in praise, “unfolds as inexorably as anything by Sardou” (apparently he is unaware that Sardou was a manufacturer of cleverly constructed but generally lifeless Boulevard comedies and dramas).

And yet, despite the number of editorial errors and stylistic blunders scattered throughout the book, there are times when Mordden’s writing becomes almost elegant, as if a teacher of English composition had suddenly broken into his study and threatened him with a cane. Weimar Berlin, for example, the world of George Grosz and Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich, is hauntingly evoked. And he can be entertaining about the vagaries of German show business:

The Diva Walkout, along with The Other Diva’s Refusing To Sing a Solo Because It Is Beneath Her, The Mechanical Failure of a Special Effect, The Risible Vanity of the Leading Man, and The Kibitzers at the Dress Rehearsal Who Gleefully Predict the Greatest Flop in History were all part of a milieu that Weill was entering for the first time.

But he can also be tasteless and unfeeling: “Ira had been so crushed by the untimely death of his brother George that he had folded into retirement in Los Angeles as the Widow Gershwin.”

The mixture of clarity and vulgarity that permeates Mordden’s book on Weill and Lenya is the identifying mark of the middlebrow aesthetic. But even to use such terms as highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow these days is to suggest that one is a culture snob frozen in some prehistoric era. I think I can pinpoint a time when these distinctions began to blur, because I just came across a 1957 theater review by Diana Trilling in The New Leader in which she compared O’Neill’s Long Days’ Journey into Night (in the memorable José Quintero production) with the Lerner–Loewe musical My Fair Lady, and preferred the latter. “I have never admired the plays of Eugene O’Neill,” she wrote, “and I confess what is no doubt a morbid resistance to works of the imagination which deal with unpleasant themes.”

My old teacher Lionel Trilling’s continuing distaste for O’Neill (not to mention theater in general) was based on the playwright’s clunky, stumbling early plays, not the later masterpieces, which he never wrote about. But would he or Diana (his wife) have applied the same standards to novels with “unpleasant themes” such as Madame Bovary, The Possessed, or As I Lay Dying? When Diana eventually decided not to walk out on the O’Neill performance, she found the experience rather rewarding, though she wished the show had been a great deal shorter.

She concluded that “perhaps the best compliment I can pay O’Neill is to acknowledge that his autobiographical drama had for me an import almost as large and lasting as a superb musical comedy.” Regardless of the wit and artistry of My Fair Lady, to read a sentence like this, so condescending toward what is perhaps the greatest American play, is to watch a notable intellectual pretending to be, or being, a middle-class theatergoer from Morningside Heights. In this, she resembles an increasing number of educated people, perfectly capable of appreciating great literature, who put themselves in a Philistine mood when they visit the stage, choosing a Broadway musical with a Hollywood star, preferably with a lot of flying over the audience. And that is one reason why so much of our sorry theater seems so depressing and disappointing, and why so much of the writing about it does, too.

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    After a disastrous off-Broadway run in 1970 directed by Carmen Capalbo and starring Barbara Harris and Estelle Parsons, the Yale Repertory Theatre did a full-orchestra production of Mahagonny in 1974. The translation by Michael Feingold persuaded Lenya to let us do the American premiere of Happy End (in 1975), even though it was a show she had previously banned. The success of the Yale Happy End led to its Broadway premiere (in 1977) featuring a member of the Yale cast, Meryl Streep. 

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