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Emigré’s Song

It’s a long, long while since Kurt Weill got his due.

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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The major critical question concerning Kurt Weill is how to judge the music he wrote after he emigrated to the United States in 1936. Without Brecht’s anticapitalist bumper stickers (“Who is the greater criminal? He who robs a bank or he who founds one?”—The Threepenny Opera), Weill’s works purposefully assimilated popular American styles. And while a number display a left-wing political consciousness, they are not only crowd-pleasing but frequently and unashamedly patriotic.

A signal moment in Weill’s re-invention of himself was his attending a dress rehearsal for the first production of Porgy and Bess. He had been invited by Ira Gershwin, and afterwards commented, “It’s a great country where music like that can be written—and played.” In the years that followed, Weill and Lenya refused to self--segregate with other émigrés and made a point of speaking English when alone with one another. (To the same end, Weill asked that his name be pronounced “while” rather than “vile.”) 

When commissions from opera houses ceased coming, he took pleasure and pride in writing Broadway musicals, which often prompts the vaguely derisive critical tone towards his later work. Yet Weill found more competent, if less prestigious, collaborators in America. One of his most important works was a thoroughly accessible opera based on Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning domestic tragedy, Street Scene, with lyrics adapted by Langston Hughes. 

Weill found similarly talented (though very different) collaborators in Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart (Lady in the Dark), Gershwin and Edwin Justus Mayer (The Firebrand of Florence), Ogden Nash (One Touch of Venus), and Maxwell Anderson (Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars, and a gorgeous but unfinished Huckleberry Finn). The music improved as well: “Speak Low,” “That’s Him,” “Sing Me Not a Ballad,” “September Song,” and “O Captain! My Captain!” were all written in America. And while these songs present Weill’s special gift for adopting the mood and perspective of his characters, they possess a warmth often lacking in his work with Brecht. 

Still, Weill’s music continued to have its bite, never drifting into the cloying cheeriness or maudlin vulgarity of so many show tunes. It is also why Weill grew to be such a favorite composer for rock singers like Jim Morrison and Marianne Faithfull. 

In the past decade, “serious” aficionados have opened their arms to Stephen Sondheim: Thus, Sweeney Todd is performed in opera houses and Sondheim’s musicals are now the darling of summer stock and regional theaters. But cultural arbiters would do better to look to Kurt Weill: Although in need of a rewrite to its book, The Firebrand of Florence, Weill’s offbeat operatic musical about Benvenuto Cellini, has one of the best scores ever written for the American stage—and no cannibalism or cheap psychologizing about presidential assassins. 

A reassessment of Weill ought to be part of a broader reevaluation of the music of his time. In Europe, there is a rapidly developing awareness that his contemporary, Erich Korngold, wrote one of the great romantic operas in Das Wunder der Heliane. And here in America, there is increasing acknowledgment of the importance of the operas of Leoš Janáček and Francis Poulenc, an appreciation that ought to go hand in hand with renewed respect for all of the century’s great melodists: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sir Edward Elgar, of course, but also Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter and Frederick Loewe.

The reawakening of interest in Kurt Weill has been a gradual phenomenon since his death in 1950. It needs to be a component in a broader shift in taste and understanding.

Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.

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