ON THE RECORD: Kurt Weill -- A Legendary Hit and A Long Lost Surprise

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Kurt Weill -- A Legendary Hit and A Long Lost Surprise The year 2000 marks the hundredth anniversary of Kurt Weill's birth (and the fiftieth anniversary of his early death). There have been several celebrations of his early work but little acknowledgement of his eight Broadway musicals. One of them, One Touch of Venus, was recently recorded (and about time, too!). Three others are in need of full recordings -- Knickerbocker Holiday, Love Life, and the fascinating Firebrand of Florence -- but I suppose we'll have to wait until someone is willing to finance them. In the meantime, two new releases have arrived; one welcome reissue, and one very much unexpected new recording.

The year 2000 marks the hundredth anniversary of Kurt Weill's birth (and the fiftieth anniversary of his early death). There have been several celebrations of his early work but little acknowledgement of his eight Broadway musicals. One of them, One Touch of Venus, was recently recorded (and about time, too!). Three others are in need of full recordings -- Knickerbocker Holiday, Love Life, and the fascinating Firebrand of Florence -- but I suppose we'll have to wait until someone is willing to finance them. In the meantime, two new releases have arrived; one welcome reissue, and one very much unexpected new recording.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA (Decca Broadway 012 159 463-2)

At the time of his death, Weill's reputation was somewhat unsettled. His German work (circa 1926-1933) had been quite popular in Europe in its time; but from the mid-thirties on, the English-speaking world had relatively little interest in modern German culture. Weill's Broadway record included two hit wartime musicals -- Lady in the Dark (1941) and One Touch of Venus (1943) -- but his subsequent shows failed. None of his American work has had a Broadway afterlife, with only one full-scale revival to his credit: A 1972 engagement of Lost in the Stars, starring Brock Peters, which lasted five weeks. Street Scene has found a home in the opera world, however.

This was an era when Broadway success was often measured in song hits. One show alone -- like Oklahoma! or Finian's Rainbow or Kiss Me, Kate - could turn out a half-dozen hits or more. Weill's adventurous style (and early career) earned him enormous respect along Broadway, but he died with only two Broadway song hits to his name, "September Song" and "Speak Low."

And then came Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, produced in 1954 off-Broadway at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lortel). At that time, no musical had ever run nearly so long as Oklahoma!'s five years. Threepenny ran six -- 2,611 performances -- making it the longest running musical ever in New York or London (at the time). It also demonstrated the viability of off-Broadway economics, earning far more than most Broadway musicals of the period. Die Driegroschenoper was first performed in 1928, to international acclaim. An indifferent translation arrived on Broadway in 1933, under the title The Threepenny Opera. Without the involvement of either Weill or Brecht, it closed after 12 performances. And that, presumably, would have been that, had composer/lyricist Blitzstein not taken it upon himself to translate one of the Threepenny songs, "Pirate Jenny." Weill liked the new lyric, granting permission for a full translation - but he died a month later. Blitzstein went ahead with Lotte Lenya, Weill's widow and the show's original Jenny, by his side. The success of the off-Broadway Threepenny -- and the American stardom it brought Lenya -- instigated a reexamination of Weill's work, which within a generation placed him among the top theatre composers of the twentieth century. Which is where he belongs. It also gave Weill his most enduring song-hit, the English-language version of the "Moritat." Blitzstein came upon the notion of calling his outlaw hero "Mack the Knife," a sobriquet in the manner of Jack the Ripper and Billy the Kid. This catchy catchphrase launched the little-remembered song, after a quarter of a century, onto the charts.

Decca Broadway have continued their sweep of the various record labels now owned by Universal and brought us a sonically-restored release of the 1954 Threepenny cast album. As can be expected, it sounds far more vibrant than heretofore, with Weill's jazz-age reeds and brass standing out. The score is filled with wonders. "Pirate Jenny" (recreated by Lenya), "Solomon Song," "Tango Ballad ('There was a time')," and "Barbara Song" (sung by Bea Arthur) are all incredibly rich; "Army Song" and "Ballad of the Easy Life" are both rapid-paced stunners. Weill also provided an arresting Overture.

Scott Merrill plays Mack the Knife, Gerald Price sings "Mack the Knife," and Jo Sullivan plays the ingenue Polly. Sullivan had also been featured in Blitzstein's previous Broadway show, Let's Make an Opera. Her appearance in Threepenny garnered her the female lead in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella.

The Blitzstein adaptation has been criticized over the years for being too tame. This doesn't take into account the censorship Blitzstein was forced to work under. (Not only on stage; Blitzstein apparently had to make lyric revisions, on the spot, in the recording studio.) As a piece of theatre, this adaptation seems to work best. Some people approach Threepenny as a great musical by Weill, while others see it as a great play by Brecht. (Weill's correspondence in the late 1940s indicates that he felt the need to protect his rights in the work from Brecht, who was trying to arrange his own American adaptation.) Brecht people seem to feel slighted by the Blitzstein adaptation, which is their prerogative, but the last two Broadway productions of the piece -- which were more Brechtian -- certainly didn't do as well. Me, I'll stick with Blitzstein and Weill.

Kurt Weill: Songs and Melodies from MARIE GALANTE & DAVY CROCKETT (Koch Schwann 3-6592-2)

While writing about Kurt Weill back in 1983, I came across eight numbers from Marie Galante. Sitting at the piano, I discovered that one -- "J'attends un navire" -- was absolutely superb; it remains one of my favorites. I couldn't make much of the others at the time, but I've always wondered what this score sounded like.

Weill fled Germany in 1933, stopping first in Paris. While there, he wrote five songs and incidental music for this play by Jacques Deval (best known hereabouts for Tovarich). Marie Galante opened and quickly closed, and Weill moved on to England en route to America. That was the end of Marie, although when Weill and Lenya recorded six songs in America in 1942, he included "J'attends un navire" -- which indicates that he must have liked it, too.

That song has become slightly familiar, as it is favored by all those chanteuses who record foreign-language Weill collections. But now the rest of the score has been recorded as well. I know that some Broadway musical fans find non-English Weill an acquired taste they haven't bothered to acquire, and I don't suppose they are about to start here. But if language is no barrier, this is a fascinating mini-score that captures Weill between Berlin and Broadway. "Le Grand Lustucru" is especially haunting, while "Les filles de Bordeaux" is also affecting. Only five of the selections are songs, per se, but Weill fans know that his "incidental music" is often stronger, musically, than many songs by his peers. Marie's "Scène au dancing," for example, is dazzling, and demonstrates -- presumably -- what Berlin cabaret music really sounded like.

The orchestrations are uncredited in the liner notes, but they are presumably by Weill (who usually provided his own), and they are wonderful. Listen to "Navire." Marie sings, hopelessly, of her dreams, to an ascending scale; the trombone, conversely, pulls her down to earth by counteracting with a descending scale. All the while, the song is driven by the insistently pulsating beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom. The lyrics are credited to Deval and Roger Fermay, but I believe this is mistaken. Fermay wrote a lyric (not recorded here) for a later song version of the "Tango," but as far as I know he had nothing whatsoever to do with Marie Galante.

The ten rare Marie selections are rounded out by five even more obscure songs from the unproduced Davy Crockett. Weill's first Broadway musical, Johnny Johnson, opened in November 1936. Despite some acclaim, the show lasted only eight weeks and resulted in no major offers for Weill. He finally settled on an adaptation of The Ballad of Davy Crockett, a decidedly non-commercial folk play about the legendary frontiersman who died at the Alamo. Hoffman Reynolds Hays, author of the original play, provided the lyrics. Work was interrupted when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson and the powerful Playwrights Company invited Weill to compose the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday. That was the end of Davy, and probably just as well. Weill chose never to return to the project, although the piece seems similar -- in style, not in musical themes -- to his 1948 "folk opera" Down in the Valley. The Davy Crockett selections are of negligible interest, but the reason to get this album is to discover Marie. Themes from both scores will sound familiar to keen-eared Weill fans, as the composer reused them in subsequent work. And why not? Certainly, Marie Galante was heard by very few audiences and Davy Crockett was never performed.

The songs are sung by Joy Bogen, whom we are told in the liner notes was Lotte Lenya's only student (whatever that signifies). It is unfair to ask a lone soprano to sing all the songs, especially when most of the Davy solos were written for men. However, she does extremely well on "J'attends un navire" and Marie's other songs. Victor C. Symonette is the conductor, and he does an especially good job with the French selections. The conductor has Weill in his blood; his mother, Lys Symonette, was Weill's musical assistant on his final shows. She serves as vice-president of the Kurt Weill Foundation, and knowledgeably helps protect the Weill/Lenya legacy.

So if the newly remastered The Threepenny Opera offers enhanced enjoyment, Marie Galante makes an unexpected treat for Weill fans.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com