ON THE RECORD: Lenya & Weill, Baby & The Nightingale

News   ON THE RECORD: Lenya & Weill, Baby & The Nightingale LOTTE LENYA SINGS KURT WEILL, The American Theatre Songs (Sony Classical)
Lotte Lenya emigrated to America with her husband Kurt Weill in 1935. Over the next 19 years, she appeared on Broadway in two short-lived Weill musicals (which ran a combined total of six months) and two plays by Weill's friend, neighbor, and sometime collaborator Maxwell Anderson (which ran four months). Which is to say, this distinctive and accomplished singer-actress was severely underemployed in the United States. Until 1954, that is, when Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera -- with Lenya very much in evidence -- opened off-Broadway. Thus began a reexamination and rediscovery of the work of Weill, and a successful career on stage, screen, and disc for Lenya.

LOTTE LENYA SINGS KURT WEILL, The American Theatre Songs (Sony Classical)
Lotte Lenya emigrated to America with her husband Kurt Weill in 1935. Over the next 19 years, she appeared on Broadway in two short-lived Weill musicals (which ran a combined total of six months) and two plays by Weill's friend, neighbor, and sometime collaborator Maxwell Anderson (which ran four months). Which is to say, this distinctive and accomplished singer-actress was severely underemployed in the United States. Until 1954, that is, when Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera -- with Lenya very much in evidence -- opened off-Broadway. Thus began a reexamination and rediscovery of the work of Weill, and a successful career on stage, screen, and disc for Lenya.

As a direct result of the American Threepenny -- and the sudden fame of the "Moritat vom Mackie Messer," refashioned as "Mack the Knife" -- Lenya was invited by Columbia to record a 1955 album of Weill's Berlin song hits (which was reissued in 1997). This led to a series of six albums, in all. Weill, who died in 1950 at the age of fifty, has been posthumously recognized as one of the most important and influential composers of the second quarter of the twentieth century. (A reading of his letters to Lenya -- collected in a fascinating book called "Speak Low" -- indicate that he spent much of his energy during his years here struggling to earn a living.)

The 1957 collection, "September Song and other American theatre songs of Kurt Weill," has now been spiffed up with 24-bit technology, as they say, and expanded into "Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, The American Theatre Songs." Which is a fine (if limited) view of Weill's Broadway output. Many of these songs have been recorded elsewhere, of course, but there is something inescapably authentic about Lenya's renditions.

The album is marred, somewhat, by some strangely cheery, 50s-style orchestrations on half of the original tracks (in hopes of hit singles, perhaps). Weill, of course, wrote his own orchestrations for the theatre, and it's a shame that we don't have Lenya singing to his original (and superior) charts for "Speak Low" and "September Song." None of the orchestrations are credited in the extensive liner notes, but the selections from Street Scene and Lost in the Stars seem to use Weill's charts -- and it is on these tracks that Lenya is most effective. Three songs especially stand out: "Lonely House" and "A Boy Like You" from the former, and "Stay Well" from the latter. These are typically performed by singers with an operatic bent; Lenya sings them in theatrical style, simple and straightforward, and I find the songs far more moving than in other recordings.

The folks at Sony appear to have gone through the Columbia archives to add every scrap of miscellaneous Lenya they could find, effectively doubling the length of the original album to seventy-eight minutes. Included is a previously-unreleased song from the 1957 sessions, "Song of Ruth." (This transitional Weill piece was first performed by Lenya on Broadway in Max Reinhardt's 1937 religious pageant The Eternal Road). Some of the other additions are of questionable interest. Songs by Weill's Berlin contemporaries Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler, from the cast album of the 1962 off-Broadway revue Brecht on Brecht, serve mostly to demonstrate how much more interesting Weill's work is; the lugubrious "Song of a German Mother" ("My son, I gave you the jackboots, and the brown shirt came from me, etc.") might well make you want to fling your stein of beer at the CD player. And I suppose that the late Jack Gilford would be startled to find himself singing, in 24 bits, about pineapples on a "classical" label. He's here, nevertheless, with two Cabaret duets -- written not by Weill but by John Kander, with lyricist Fred Ebb -- which we really don't need to hear again, folks. On the plus side, Lenya's opening number "So What?" has apparently been re-remastered since last year's remastering of Cabaret. It sounds crisper and more alive than ever, and I'm always glad to hear Lenya's heart-wrenching performance of "What Would You Do?" And then there's Weill's biggest hit, written back in 1928. First we hear trombonist Turk Murphy's jazz arrangement, with Lenya singing Brecht's original German lyrics to the "Moritat." This was recorded in 1955, but the 55-year-old Lenya sounds 30 years younger. The album ends with an English-language Lenya/Louis Armstrong duet version of "Mack the Knife," recorded six days later. This is a swinging rendition, as you might expect, followed by eight minutes worth of highly amusing session takes. Lenya can't get the syncopation, the patient Armstrong keeps gently coaching her, she keeps missing it. ("That's easy for you, ja" she laughs.)

A slight cavil, though. "Moritat" is a fine song, certainly, and I suppose I would admire it even if it had never been translated. But the song surely wouldn't have achieved its immense international success had it not been for Marc Blitzstein. It was Blitzstein who coined the phrase Mack the Knife, an English-language nickname presumably patterned after Jack the Ripper or Billy the Kid; and it was Blitzstein -- a composer himself -- who was canny enough to wed this moniker to the final three notes of Weill's refrain, giving the song an unforgettable title phrase. With 15 percent of the playing time on this disc dedicated to Blitzstein's version of "Mack the Knife" -- and with lyricists of all the other songs duly noted -- they really ought to have credited him, don't you think?

BABY (Jay CDJAY 1325)
"Warm," "intelligent," and "emotional" are not words normally coupled with "Broadway," "musical," and "comedy." Thus it was that Richard Maltby and David Shire's 1983 Baby was incapable of lasting more than seven months. Baby had its fans, and they were strong supporters of the piece. But the mass Broadway audience, faced with the choice of a warm, intelligent, and emotional tale of three pregnant couples or a glitzy razzle-dazzle Jerry Herman sex-farce of a romp about a female impersonator in sequins, came down decidedly on the side of the latter.

Nevertheless, Baby has a lot to recommend it; I would place it among the top half-dozen Broadway scores of the Eighties. There are no less than seven songs which I especially enjoy: the rousing "I Want It All"; the endearingly mellow "Baby, Baby, Baby"; the folk-like "I Chose Right"; and some warmly emotional duets. All of which are capped by the lump in-the-throat you get from "The Story Goes On."

No, this wasn't a perfect Baby. There were some fairly sketchy sections of libretto, and a lack in clarity of what, exactly, the earnest creators were going after. It almost seemed like they decided to write a musical about childbirth, as opposed to a musical about specific characters experiencing childbirth. (As I understand it, the plot underwent several changes along the way -- including an aborted pregnancy -- as the creators tried to figure out how to end the show.) A part of this problem can be traced, no doubt, to the inexperienced hands on hand. Baby was Maltby and Shire's first collaboration to reach Broadway. (Their other was the decidedly less impressive Big.) They were working with an inexperienced librettist -- three, actually, as the first two were axed -- and an enterprising but novice producer. Perhaps the biggest mistake was to assign lyricist Maltby as director; if ever a show needed a clear point of view, Baby was it.

Among the memorable principals were Catherine Cox and Liz Callaway, two fine musical comedy performers who have been utterly wasted by Broadway. The same can be said of Martin Vidnovic, who played opposite Cox. (The pair were less happily reunited for Footloose, at least until Vidnovic departed during the Washington tryout.) The other sturdy principals were Beth Fowler, James Congdon and Todd Graff. Fans of Kim Criswell will find her in the chorus, contributing the (annoying) narration during the Opening and with a few lines as one of "The Ladies Singing Their Song." The whole is graced with customarily artful orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick. (Listen to those soaring strings in "The Story Goes On"!)

For many years it was available only as a high priced import, and more recently it appears to have been altogether out of print. That being the case, there are surely a whole lot of musical theatre lovers who have never had the opportunity to hear it. They're in for a warm, intelligent, and emotional treat.

THE NIGHTINGALE (Jay CDJAY 1327)
Let us suppose for a moment that Stephen Sondheim undertook a musicalization of the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Emperor and the Nightingale." Yes, this mid-nineteenth century tale is set in ancient China; but in the right hands, it could be ever so relevant to modern day audiences. Okay, now suppose that the music was not written by Mr. Sondheim but by Mr. Charles Strouse, after an earnest and intensive study of Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd (mixed with a modicum of Menotti). And let us suppose that Mr. Strouse, who has no experience as a Broadway lyricist, decided to write the lyrics too, just like Mr. Sondheim does. And the libretto as well. If this sounds like your cup of oolong, then you might want to get a copy of The Nightingale, with book, music, and lyrics by Charles Strouse.

There was a time, after Annie became the smash hit of the Seventies, that composer Strouse could get just about anything produced. That time has passed; his post-Annie record includes eight quick failures, including five -- A Broadway Musical, Dance a Little Closer, Rags, Annie 2, and Nick & Nora -- that played Broadway for a total of nineteen performances combined. (Frightening, eh?) The Nightingale was initially presented Off-Off-Broadway by a children's theatre company in April 1982; it received a full professional mounting that December at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The cast recording of this British production has now been issued on CD, for who knows what reason. (Perhaps the presence in the cast of a 23-year-old newcomer named Sarah Brightman?)

The piece is not as bad as it might sound, actually; it is simply unnecessary and undistinguished. There are some jingly tunes, like "Who Are These People?" and portions of the Emperor's first act death scene, which were recycled, respectively, into Rags and Annie 2. There is also an amusing concerted number called "Please Don't Make Me Hear That Song Again," which does not refer to Annie's "Tomorrow" but certainly could. And there's a creative set of orchestrations, which are unfortunately uncredited. But in The Nightingale, Strouse attempts to write in the Sondheim/Menotti/Lloyd Webber vein, which is not, as they say, his strength. And while Strouse's lyrics are not bad, exactly, the show would surely have benefited from the layers of humor that someone like Lee Adams could have brought to it.

Jay Records has apparently been formed to issue items from the catalogue of England's That's Entertainment Records, most of which were heretofore available stateside at import prices. (They are the same people who, happily, have just brought back Baby.) Included in their holdings are Strouse's Dance a Little Closer and I and Albert. The former was a particularly dire one-night flop which, paradoxically, contains some of Strouse's finest writing. The latter, which has never been issued in America, was written by Adams & Strouse back between It's Superman and Applause. (After David Merrick dropped his option on the piece, it eventually surfaced in the West End in 1972.) It is to be hoped that Jay gets around to issuing these two Strouse scores, as they are both far more interesting and entertaining than this inconsequentially forlorn Nightingale.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com.