STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Kurt Weill's October Song

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Kurt Weill's October Song
Because of one certain song, September is the month most associated with Kurt Weill. Until this year, this is, when October is the month when we'll hear more obscure Weill songs than ever before.

Because of one certain song, September is the month most associated with Kurt Weill. Until this year, this is, when October is the month when we'll hear more obscure Weill songs than ever before.

Of the works that Weill debuted in America, the one about which we know the least, is The Eternal Road. Check Kurt Ganzl's otherwise marvelous The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, and you won't find a single mention.

What we will find, on the first Sunday in October, is a concert version of The Eternal Road at Avery Fisher Hall at 3 PM.

The work originally opened on Jan. 7, 1937, seven weeks after Weill made his Broadway debut with Johnny Johnson. But, technically, Weill didn't have two shows on the Great White Way, because The Eternal Road played at the Manhattan Opera House. Never heard of it? It's still around, nestled next to the New Yorker Hotel on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street, though it's no longer used for theatrical productions.

The odd site was somewhat fitting, for Weill was never a conventional Broadway composer -- and The Eternal Road was a less likely commercial bet than most. It all began in 1934, when Weill decided to collaborate with Franz Werfel, better known to us as the author of The Song of Bernadette, not to mention the play that S.N. Behrman turned into Jacobowsky and the Colonel and Jerry Herman morphed into The Grand Tour. Together, Weill and Werfel wrote Der Weg der Verheissung, in which a rabbi told his congregation the history of the Jewish people during a period of intense persecution.

Is there any wonder that they didn't get a production in Germany in the mid-'30s? Already their show was politically incorrect by that country's standards.

So The Eternal Road would be the work that first brought Weill to America, even though his Threepenny Opera had already played here in 1933 (albeit for a mere 12 performances, not to be appreciated in America until two-plus decades later). Weill arrived in New York in September 1935, ready to work with the legendary director Max Reinhardt, famed for his lavish spectacles and crowd scenes.

And there would be crowds in The Eternal Road, for Reinhardt envisioned that more than 200 performers would be engaged. Among those hired: Lotte Lenya in her American debut; Kurt Kaznar, who would later worry "How Can Love Survive?" in The Sound of Music; and Roger De Koven, who 27 years later would play Flo Ziegfeld to Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice.

Many kids were employed, including two now-notable names: Dick Van Patten, who's always seemed to work; and Sidney Lumet, eventually an esteemed director. The latter was cast partly because of his father, Baruch Lumet, a star of the Yiddish theater, was in the show, too.

With these economics, was it any wonder that producers Meyer Weisgall and Crosby Gaige had a hard-time raising money? The task would take a full year. So, in the interim, Weill turned his attention to Johnny Johnson, which would wind up closing a week after the new show opened, after 68 performances. But The Eternal Road didn't seem to be a better commercial bet. Reinhardt was spending profligately. For one thing, he insisted on -- and got -- four enormous pillars for the set. Alas, when they were delivered, they soon fell through the stage -- and remained there for the 153-performance run that, by some accounts, lost nearly a half-million dollars.

"An interminable Biblical pageant," says Brewster's Theatre Dictionary. But The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians feels it was "a legitimate successor to Mahagonny. (Its) lofty ambitions are sometimes triumphantly fulfilled, and," it admits, "sometimes not."

For Reinhardt, it would be the end of the line. He would direct no further productions for the remaining six years of his life. Weill, of course, went onto seven more Broadway productions: three hits (Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus) one failure (The Firebrand of Florence), and three successes d'estime (Street Scene, Love Life, Lost in the Stars).

You've heard complete scores, or at least excerpts, from all of them -- but what do you know from The Eternal Road? "Dance of the Golden Calf"? "David's Psalm"? "The March to Zion"? "The Song of Miriam," not to be confused with "The Song of Ruth"?

Therefore, we must be grateful to Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, who has rediscovered the "Jewish oratorio," and will be at the baton for an abbreviated version. (The opening performance ran over six hours. And we thought that Camelot in Toronto was long!)

Says Botstein, "We are doing the final two acts -- Acts III and IV -- called 'Kings and Prophecies: A Road of Promise.' It includes the stories of Ruth, King David, and the destruction of the temple. You can feel in it the transition Weill was making from his distinctly 'German' music to his more Americanized approach. And the subject is unlike any other he ever attempted."

Meanwhile, the Museum of Television and Radio is offering "The World of Kurt Weill," which shows a number of eclectic and programs on the famed composer. Among the most significant coming up: Happy End (Oct. 3-4), The Seven Deadly Sins (Oct. 10, 11, 17, 18), Down in the Valley and the American premiere of Der Lindberghflug Ozeanflug (The Lindbergh Flight); a radio cantata (Oct. 24, 25, 31, Nov. 1); and two Max Liebman television specials from the '50s: Lady in the Dark with Ann Sothern as poor Jenny (Nov. 7, 8, 14, 15) and One Touch of Venus with Janet Blair (Nov. 21, 22, 28, 29). I won't tell you what you've already missed, because the Festival started, of course, as any Weill Festival should, in September. So you'd better hurry, for the days grow short and dwindle down to a precious few.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.

Today’s Most Popular News: