Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

Kurt Weill: That’s How You Tell an American

Kurt Weill

One of the best albums I’ve heard recently is something of a rarity: a new recording of the 1938 Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson musical, “Knickerbocker Holiday” issued by Ghostlight. This is the show that famously starred Walter Huston as Peter Stuyvesant and introduced “September Song.” It was never revived on Broadway, but in January of this year a concert version of the show was presented at Lincoln Center, starring Victor Garber as Peter Stuyvesant, Kelli O’Hara and Ben Davis as the lovers, and Bryce Pinkham as Washington Irving, the narrator and author of “Father Knickerbocker’s Stories,” the source material of the musical.

Kurt Weill’s contribution to the American musical has unfortunately been overshadowed by the popularity of Rodgers, Porter and Berlin–for want of a better term, more “native” composers. Although “Speak Low,” “My Ship” and “The Saga of Jenny” are now standards, Weill’s most famous song dates from his earlier career in Berlin, the “Moritat,” otherwise known as “Mack the Knife,” from “The Threepenny Opera.” Weill’s other collaborations with Bertolt Brecht–“Happy End” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”–regularly turn up in revivals and on the opera stage, but his American works have not been that fortunate. Except for “Street Scene,” which has largely become opera house property, his other shows, such as “Johnny Johnson,” “Lady in the Dark,” “One Touch of Venus,” “Love Life” and “Lost in the Stars” lie dormant. Some of these shows predate the arrival of the original Broadway cast album as a marketing tool, and what some call his best score, “Love Life,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, lost out altogether because of a recording strike. Even worse, none of Weill’s American shows was ever turned into the type of blockbuster Hollywood musical that would have kept his work in circulation. And Weill’s premature death of heart disease in 1950 ended his work on a musical version of “Huckleberry Finn” that would have been fascinating to hear.

What I love most about “Knickerbocker Holiday” is the joy of hearing Kurt Weill trying out a new musical language–it’s the equivalent of a non-English speaker suddenly spouting American slang. Although he’s not yet the composer who could write the sinuous “Speak Low” or the jitterbugging “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed,” he’s well on his way.  To be sure, the “Threepenny” Weill is still present—there’s a tango (“Sitting in Jail”) and a dynamite rumba (“We Are Cut in Twain”), even though the show is set in the 1600’s, and some of his melodic inflections are straight 1920’s Berlin jazz—in “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up” the phrases giddily seem to alternate between American pop, operetta and pure “Bilbao Song.” It makes you wonder what the audiences of 1938 were thinking when they heard this show for the first time.

The performers are uniformly terrific. Victor Garber does a wonderful job as Peter Stuyvesant, and I only wish the conductor had given him more latitude in “September Song.” While I realize it’s easy to overdo the sentiment, the tempo is too metered–Garber should have been allowed more space. Kelli O’Hara as Tina, who finds herself betrothed to Stuyvesant, and Ben Davis as Brom, the man who can’t take orders, couldn’t be better. It’s worth the price of the CD just to hear O’Hara effortlessly float the end of their duet, “It Never Was You.” Davis and Bryce Pinkham’s song, “How Can You Tell an American?” once again makes you wish for more Weill revivals.

One can only hope. In the meantime, we’ve got this great new recording, and, if you’d like to hear more top-notch Weill, try the original cast album of “Lovemusik,” the 2007 show based on the lives of Weill and Lotte Lenya. Although the musical, which starred Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, flopped, more than one critic recommended skipping the play in favor of the recording, also issued by Ghostlight. It’s terrific–the performances are virtually a perfect 10 and the orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, the absolute master. One minor quibble: some day I’d like to own one Kurt Weill album that doesn’t feature “Surabaya Johnny,” just as a change of pace.

Enjoy.

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