It's been a long, long while since anybody's seen composer Kurt Weill's folk opera, Down in the Valley, or "kinescopes" of the composer himself playing "September Song," but the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City has unearthed these and more broadcast gems for a three month "screening series" devoted to Weill's varied world, beginning Sept. 18 and continuing through Dec. 3.
Threepennies and a Touch of Venus: The World of Kurt Weill includes documentaries, music videos, interview programs (including a recently discovered clip from 1949 featuring Weill playing "September Song") and U.S. premieres of TV productions of The Threepenny Opera, the ballet The Seven Deadly Sins, and The Lindbergh Flight Oceanflight.
The obscure TV version of Down in the Valley, a 30-minute slice of Americana, has not been viewed in public since its premiere on NBC in 1950. It's drawn from a little-known 1946 radio opera that Weill wrote with Arnold Sundgaard and later had a 1948 stage performance at Indiana University.
Down in the Valley (Oct. 24, 25, 31, Nov. 1), which Simon says is neither opera nor musical but "folk opera," draws on traditions such as hoedowns and church hymns. The story concerns a young man who escapes jail on the eve of his hanging to be reunited with his sweetheart.
* Why Weill?
"Many of his songs are simply part of the American soundtrack," the museum's television curator, Ron Simon, told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 18). He added that the "spectacular tradition" of 1950s television contributed to Weill's reputation in the U.S. with buoyant, star-kissed broadcast adaptations of Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus.
"(The series) encompasses the full range of his activity, from the German period to his time in America," says Simon. "You get the full flavor of who Kurt Weill was."
The series is divided into two sections: "Berlin to Broadway" features TV productions of major and minor works (2 PM Saturdays and Sundays); and "Weill+Lenya+Brecht" serves up music videos, documentaries and special programs focusing largely on the Weimar-era work of Weill and collaborator Bertolt Brecht, and Weill's muse-wife-interpreter, the late Lotte Lenya, (6 PM Thursdays and Fridays). Weill was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1900 and, by the 1920s, with playwright/librettist Brecht, he helped redefined what European musical theater could do, meshing a strident political narrative with aggressive and sensual rhythms and melodies. The pair fled to America (as did Lenya) where Weill redefined himself, plunging into the culture. Among his Broadway musicals and collaborators are Love Life with Alan Jay Lerner, Street Scene with Langston Hughes, Lady in the Dark with Ira Gershwin and One Touch of Venus with Ogden Nash. He died in 1950.
Lenya, whose memorable voice is so closely identified with the Weill sound before and after they fled Germany, is honored by the museum in her centennial year -- she was born Oct. 18, 1898 -- with a specially-curated 100-minute program, Lenya-A Girl Named Jenny (Oct. 8, 9, 15, 16). The program includes recently uncovered TV performances from 1958 and 1964 and video sequences from Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (1968).
A second specially-curated program, May to December Songs: Interpreting Weill (Oct. 22, 23, 30) culls from international archives, showcasing varied performances by artists including Ute Lemper, Louis Armstrong, Teresa Stratas, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Darin (the ubiquitous "Mack the Knife") and, a surprise: Boris Karloff. The program includes excerpts from the Houston Grand Opera staging of Street Scene.
The museum worked closely with the Kurt Weill Foundation to bring the series together. Among the gems the Foundation suggested was the rare TV appearance of Weill playing "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday) and "Here I'll Stay" (from Love Life) on "The Swift Show" (1949), captured by kinescope recording (a process of filming a live broadcast's video monitor). He briefly talks about the failed Love Lifein the clip (Sept. 18, 24, 25, Oct. 1, 2).
All the series programs are viewed in a large-screen format, says Simon.
Among the more intriguing U.S. premieres is a 1993 German TV "visualization" of Weill and Brecht's radio cantata, The Lindbergh Flight-Oceanflight. At 45 minutes, it is paired with Down in the Valley Oct. 24-Nov. 1.
Also on the schedule:
The Threepenny Opera (1972 ZDF German TV; U.S. premiere) 2 PM, Sept. 19, 20, 26, 27.
Happy End (1986 PBS-TV production) Oct. 3-4.
The Seven Deadly Sins (1984 Granada TV production of the ballet with songs; U.S. premiere) 2 PM, Oct. 10, 11, 17, 18 .
Lady in the Dark (1954 TV production starring Ann Sothern as Liza). 2 PM, Nov. 7, 8, 14, 15.
One Touch of Venus (1955 NBC-TV production starring Janet Blair as Venus). 2 PM, Nov. 21, 22, 28, 29.
September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill (music videos by contemporary artists singing Weill; 1994) and Weill on The Swift Show (1949). 6 PM, Sept. 18, 24,25, Oct. 1, 2.
Omnibus: Lotte Lenya (BBC interview program; 1979). 6 PM, Nov. 5, 6, 12, 13.
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Kurt Weill in America (documentary; 1992). Nov. 5, 6, 12, 13.
The World of Kurt Weill (WGBH-TV production; a song retrospective starring Lenya; 1967). 6 PM, Nov 19, 20, 27, Dec. 3.
The Museum of Radio & Television is located at 25 West 52nd Street in New York City. Admission is $6 for adults. For information about Threepennies and a Touch of Venus call (212) 621-6800. -- By Kenneth Jones