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The Weill Project blog: Speak Low (song)

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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The performing side of the Weill project consists of Juliana Brandon (soprano) and Joe Mabel (guitar/vocal). "Speak Low" is the third of four rough-cut videos we are posting over a few weeks.

"Speak Low". Paper cut over watercolor by Juliana Brandon, June 2021.

"Speak Low". Paper cut over watercolor by Juliana Brandon, June 2021, with minor digital touchup by Joe Mabel. Part of our concept for our planned concerts starting in February 2022 is to have a "placard" for each song in the performance, in a nod to the Novembergruppe and the tradition of "epic theater".

"Speak Low" was written for the 1943 Broadway musical One Touch of Venus 🔗. The song was one of several that Weill originally conceived at various times for Marlene Dietrich 🔗 but as happened with "Der Abscheiedsbrief" and others, she never ended up performing it. Instead, in the play it was performed by Mary Martin 🔗 in her first starring role and her co-star Kenny Baker 🔗, better known as a film actor and radio star (back when there was such a thing). Guy Lombardo 🔗 (who lived not far from me in Freeport, New York when I was growing up) had the big hit with it. Frank Sinatra (I don't think that needs a biographical link!) did a nice version available on YouTube 🔗. Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and of course Weill's wife Lotte Lenya: the list goes on.

Normally, all of that might be a reason for us not to do it, but the song has been a bit neglected in recent decades, as really have two other Weill/Nash songs we have been working on. Along with a few other songs from that play, "Speak Low" has the interesting distinction of being almost certainly the only dead-serious things Ogden Nash 🔗 ever wrote. Nash was mid-20th-century America's best-known writer of light verse (back when there was such a thing). "Speak Low" wasn't intended to be the big number—it's a rather understated piece for a hit song—but in the midst of World War II with so many young men shipping off to the theater of war, its theme of love as something fleeting, "a spark lost in the dark too soon," struck a chord. A solid hit play that ran on Broadway for 567 performances, One Touch of Venus had the bittersweet fate of being almost univerally acknowledged as the second-best musical of 1943, the year of Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (I don't think that needs a link either, but just in case… 🔗). Very atypically, Weill's score was probably the less innovative of the two, probably the most conventional Broadway musical of his 15-year American career.

We take a bit of a hybrid approach to this, which I think works. Juliana sings the song rather classically, though holds firmly back from going full-on diva; I provide an accompaniment that is somewhat along "lounge jazz" lines. I think the two work together well, now that we got them to meld. In some ways, that's very "period": in the 1940s it would have been much more common than now for a more jazz-oriented guitarist to accompany a more classically-trained singer. (N.B.: I make little claim of being a "jazz guitarist," that probably requires better chops than I've got, but I'm perfectly capable of writing and playing a jazz-based arrangement.)

So here's a "living-room recording", just using the mike on my DSLR camera (and this time a little amplification on the guitar); apologies about any problems with levels and balance, this is pretty primitive. Work in progress, our stage version of this will probably be longer (guitar solo, reprise), but I think it gives a good sense of what we are up to.




All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Original date: 25 July 2021
Last modified: 25 July 2021

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