Weill Bodies

By Allen, Brooke | New Criterion, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Weill Bodies


Allen, Brooke, New Criterion


Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, Elmer Rice, Oscar Hammerstein II, Maurice Magre, Ira Gershwin, Bertolt Brecht, Howard Dietz, Ogden Nash, Roger Fernay--what do all these writers have in common? The answer is Kurt Weill. Weill (1900-1950) collaborated with an extraordinarily diverse array of lyricists during the short but intense composing career that took him from Berlin to New York to Hollywood. The partnership with his countryman Brecht produced not only the famous Threepenny Opera but Happy End, the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, and the Balanchine "ballet with singing" The Seven Deadly Sins. During his American period Weill wrote the music for some groundbreaking musicals, notably Lady in the Dark (with Gershwin), Street Scene (with Hughes and Rice), and One Touch of Venus (with Nash; it was to be Nash's only successful Broadway venture).

Upon reading Speak Low (When You Speak of Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (1996), the director Harold Prince realized that it might be possible to relate the couple's compelling and rather bizarre romance dramatically, through the use of the great Weill songbook. He and the playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo) developed the project, with Uhry telling the story in dialogue and interposing Weill numbers wherever he felt they enhanced a moment or an emotion within the tale. The result is LoveMusik, starring Michael Cerveris as Weill and Donna Murphy as Lenya. The author and director have responded to the big challenges very creatively but not infallibly: the show fascinates, touches, sometimes lags, occasionally irritates. But for those who love music it is a major event.

The son of a cantor from Dessau, Weill trained as a serious composer and musician and began writing for the musical theater at the age of nineteen, helping to create the distinctive sound of Weimar Germany and to stretch the boundaries of the various vocal genres within which he worked--opera, cantata, Songspiel, cabaret chansons, and eventually musical theater and musical comedy. The accommodations he made with popular culture were at first grudging and uneasy--in the play, Lenya asks him incredulously whether he thinks it impossible to be both serious and popular--but eventually proved more than fruitful. By nature earnest and sexually shy, Weill was an odd partner for the promiscuous Lenya, who had been a child-prostitute and continued to enjoy extracurricular love affairs throughout her years with the composer. The two married in 1926, divorced in 1933, rejoined forces and emigrated to the United States in 1935, and remarried two years later.

In his obituary of Weill, Virgil Thompson stated his belief that he had been "the most original single workman in the whole musical theater, internationally considered, during the last quarter century. . . . Every work was a new model, a new shape, a new solution to a dramatic problem." It is true that Weill's songs were solutions to specific dramatic problems--more frequently than those of many other theatrical composers, who often bring back discarded songs from one show for use in the next--and for that reason Uhry has faced certain challenges in lifting them out of their specific contexts and putting them to work in service of a different dramatic agenda. But he succeeds more often than not. The show's opening, with Cerveris and Murphy singing "Speak Low" (from One Touch of Venus) in individual spotlights on a darkened stage, with a pure, scarcely accompanied melodic line, sets the scene for the best of what is to come.

Jonathan Tunick, the music arranger, has kept the orchestra small, making for a Berlin sound rather than a big Broadway one, with each instrument individually identifiable and the piano centrally featured. "Speak Low" makes you realize from the very outset how very little theatrical garnish Weill's music requires (though Prince cannot resist occasionally overdoing it). …

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