THE BOOK SHELF: New Biographies of "Marc Blitzstein" and "Thornton Wilder"

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04 Nov 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World"

The lives to two dramatists are in the spotlight in this month's books column: "Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World" by Howard Pollack and "Thornton Wilder: A Life" by Penelope Niven.


Relatively overlooked among the ranks of influential composers of the American musical theatre is Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964). A serious, "long-hair" composer with conservatory training, he spent his first professional decade struggling in the concert world before more or less stumbling into the Broadway arena in 1937 with the unconventional, unusual and unique The Cradle Will Rock. He turned out only a handful of full musicals — the last coming in 1959 — but his influence was greater than the statistics suggest; while Leonard Bernstein would certainly have existed without Blitzstein's friendship and mentoring, Lenny was clearly influenced by Marc's life and work. Thus, musical-theatre writers inspired by West Side Story (or Candide, for that matter), knowingly or unknowingly, followed Blitzstein's path.

Blitzstein is most remembered for his 1954 English-language adaptation of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera. This piece — which premiered at a college music festival organized by Bernstein, as it happens — went on to have a record-breaking Off-Broadway run of 2,700 performances. (Despite being Off-Broadway, it won a Tony Award and don't ask me to explain why.) When you hear "Mack the Knife," it's Blitzstein's words you are hearing; while the Weill-Brecht "Moritat" was popular in Europe when it was written in 1928, it didn't become a chart-buster until Blitzstein replaced "Mackie Messer" with that snappy nickname.

As for me, his 1949 Regina — adapted from Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes — ranks high upon the musical theatre scale. If you are unfamiliar with it, do yourself a favor and search it out; after decades in the out-of-print bin, the excellent Columbia cast album is now available from Broadway Masterworks/Arkiv (read my 2010 On the Record column about the reissue). 

But Blitzstein, himself, has long been overlooked. This was somewhat rectified in 1989 by Eric A. Gordon's "Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein" [Oxford]. Now we have a second, equally strong biography, Howard Pollack's Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World [Oxford]. Gordon, I suppose you could say, concentrated more on the life; Pollack concentrates on the music.

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