Kurt Weill: His Music Cuts through Time like a Knife

By Newmark, Judith | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Kurt Weill: His Music Cuts through Time like a Knife


Newmark, Judith, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


PREDICTION: Some distant day, when the 20th century is remote and its artistic legacy is reduced to a couple of key touchstones, one of those touchstones is going to be "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" from "The Threepenny Opera."

It is the most famous of the many extraordinary songs by composer Kurt Weill.

Its lyrics - a litany of hideous crimes committed by a strangely alluring gangster - are so brutal in the original German, they were toned down for the jazzy English version popularized by Bobby Darin. But you couldn't tone down the music. Catchy and elusive, sinuous and cold, the music summarizes the conflict between passionate engagement and wry self-regard that lies at the heart of modern art, and maybe modern life. Ninety-six years after his birth, and 46 years after his death, Weill remains absolutely a man of our times. How apt, then, that the Studio Theatre is taking a fresh look at his work. "Songplay: The Songs and Music of Kurt Weill" is a cooperative venture of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Its world premiere production, a two-city venture, opened in Ohio and has moved to the Rep's Studio, where it will run through Nov. 17. "Songplay" - conceived, adapted and directed by Jonathan Eaton - takes place in a typically Weill-ische setting, a seedy waterfront bar where hard-luck strangers bump into one another. There are two American men, one black and one white. Two European women, one mature, one young, both wounded. Two European men, one a German, one a Jew. Their stories emerge, and their relationships change, almost entirely through song. There are 35 numbers taken from many different Weill works, including a few pieces that have never before been staged. In making his selections, Eaton had a lot to choose from. Weill's short, productive life stretched from the opera houses of Berlin to the theaters of Broadway. The son of a cantor in Dessau, Germany, Weill was considered one of the most important opera composers of his generation before he was 25. A few years later, he and Bertolt Brecht stormed Germany's commercial theater with their acerbic, political musical dramas. But Weill and his wife (and foremost interpreter), singer Lotte Lenya, soon concluded that Germany was no place for a Jewish composer of progressive music, and left in 1933. They moved first to Paris, then to New York, where Weill's collaborators included Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, Moss Hart and Alan Jay Lerner. "Weill worked with all the greats of his time - and they were eager to work with him," Eaton said. "The material bears witness to the high standard of the period. "But there is a huge amount of material that isn't known in America, and hasn't had a platform." There is a compilation revue, "From Berlin to Broadway," that traces Weill's life through a selection of songs. But Eaton, a noted Weill scholar, was never entirely satisfied with that. "I feel the music comes to its fullest fruition in a story - one interesting and dramatic enough to make sense of the music, and flexible enough to make sense despite all the different sources," he said. "That's quite a challenge, but I think we have done it." Eaton, who is English, fell under Weill's spell during his student days at Cambridge. He got a summer job leading American opera buffs on a tour of European houses. "We saw 18 operas in 21 days, and three of them knocked me out," he recalled. "One of those was the `Mahagonny' songspiel," Weill's first collaboration with Brecht. Since then, he has directed many Weill productions, including a couple of premieres, and has translated several works as well. Yet, despite the intimacy with Weill's work that he has achieved, Eaton says it remains, to him, as resonant as it seemed at the start - and for much the same reasons. "Originally, I think (the appeal) was a strange mixture of toughness, sadness and hope. …

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