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The Weill Project blog: New York, New York

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14], [15], [16], [17]. Also, see this post on the Novembergruppe. Washington Square Park from the 9th floor of NYU's Kimmel Center, on the south side of the park.
I took this picture looking north over Washington Square in New York in 2012, but a remarkable amount of it looks pretty much as it did in the 1930s. On the other hand, my point of view on the 9th floor of NYU's Kimmel Center would not have existed at that time.
Photo by Joe Mabel, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Our last blog post told the story of how work on the enormous pageant The Eternal Road brought Weill and Lenya to America. That production took so long to come together that by the time it opened, Weill already had made connections in New York and written the music for an unrelated Broadway play. This blog post takes up that other thread.

Weill and Lenya, back together but not yet formally remarried, arrived in New York City 10 September 1935 aboard the SS Majestic. As in Paris, he (and Lenya) initially settled into a good hotel; as in Paris, things did not go entirely well, and they had to "downsize". Unlike 2-1/2 years earlier in Paris, Weill arrived in New York almost unknown outside of avant garde music circles.

His Violin Concerto had been played once in America, in Cincinnati, to no particular acclaim. Leopold Stokowski had conducted Der Lindbergflug, in George Antheil's translation, 4 April 1931 with the Philadelphia Orchestra (see prior blog post about Der Lindbergflug); the performance made no large impression in Philadelphia, let alone 80 miles away in New York. Similarly for two amateur performances of Der Jasager (see prior blog post), one in New York and the other in Salem, Massachusetts. Threepenny Opera (blog post) had played in New York. On Broadway. Sort of. I've never heard a single good word said about the 1933 translation by Gifford Cochran and Jerold Krimsky, which played at the Empire Theatre. It doesn't appear that anyone involved with the production—not the director, not the actors— had the slightest idea what to do with the Brecht/Weill concept of "epic theater," and we can be pretty certain they did not have musicians on the level of Theo Mackeben and the Ludwig Ruth band. It was a colossal failure, closing after 12 performances. Some of the reviews did note that the tunes were pretty good—"a new and fascinating rhythm", wrote the New Yorker—but the general verdict on the production was that it simply didn't belong in a Broadway theater.

In an effort to remedy this, the New York-based League of Composers 🔗 presented an all-Weill evening 10 December 1935, heavily promoted to critics, producers, and publishers. The retrospective of Weill's work since 1927 featured Lotte Lenya and ten other singers, but it didn't go over well. It was seen as "uncommercial art" by an audience for whom music was a business. Weill would have to find a different way to make his mark in America.

Ruby Elzy as Serena in Porgy and Bess
Ruby Elzy as Serena in Porgy and Bess.
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1935, now in the public domain.

Not that he wasn't making an impression on some in the New York theater world, and they on him. Within a few months of his arrival, he attended rehearsals of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which gave him strong hopes for the possibility of serious musical theater in America. Years later, after George Gershwin's death, Ira Gershwin would become one of Weill's most frequent collaborators. But for the moment, Porgy and Bess may have given him more hope than was due: that initial 1935 production ran 124 performances, not exactly a flop, but not a hit, either. His own Eternal Road would do a bit better than that, but made him very little money.

I want to set the context a bit for mid-1930s New York theater. And I want to particularly acknowledge Jürgen Schebera's Weill biography for helping me sort out some things I didn't have as clear coming into this a year ago.

Of course, Weill arrived in an America that was deep in the Great Depression, but he also arrived in a city that was, more than any other, the financial and cultural engine of the United States. The arts scene, and theater in particular, had been slammed by the Market crash, but that had also resulted in unprecedented federal support for the arts, including the Federal Theater Project 🔗, which had begun only weeks before Weill and Lenya disembarked. Besides the Federal Theater Project, there were two other notable alternatives to traditional commercial theater in New York: Since just after World War I, the Theatre Guild 🔗 had worked to widen American tastes in theater by producing plays by European playwrights and less blatantly commercial American playwrights. Besides being responsible for finally bringing numerous works by Shaw 🔗 to Broadway, they were key to the careers of Eugene O'Neill 🔗 and future Weill collaborator Maxwell Anderson 🔗. At the time Weill arrived in New York, they were producing Porgy and Bess; they would produce several Rogers and Hart plays, and eventually produced Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!.

Luther Adler and Stella Adler
Stella Adler with her brother Luther in 1936. Both were members of the Group Theatre. Their father, Jacob Adler 🔗, "The Great Eagle", had been the greatest star of Yiddish theater. Nearly the entire family went into theater in one form or another. Stella Adler was the only member of the Group Theatre to study directly under Konstantin Stanislavski 🔗, inventor of "method acting". She would eventually break with the Group over her and Lee Strassberg's differing interpretations of Stanislavski's ideas.
Publicity photo by Vandamm Studio, New York. Now in the public domain.

And then there was the Group Theatre, which broke off from the Theatre Guild in 1931. The list of prominent figures in this group is as long as my arm; among the most prominent in this era were Harold Clurman 🔗, Cheryl Crawford 🔗, Lee Strasberg 🔗, and Stella Adler 🔗. The latter two would go on to mentor some of the most famous actors America would ever produce (for a very partial list, Strasberg mentored Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, and Al Pacino; Adler mentored Marlon Brando, Harvey Keitel, Elaine Stritch; Robert De Niro studied under both). Although the "method acting" 🔗 favored by the Group was antithetical to Brecht and Weill's (and Eugen Piscator's) concept of "epic theater" (see prior blog post), everything else about them fit Weill's temperament. In particular, he liked their collective approach. They maintained a ten-room apartment on West 57th Street and all all spent a lot of time there including meals. Those with less money slept there. Summers, when the New York theaters closed, they retreated together to the countryside. Weill initially connected particularly to North Carolinian Paul Green 🔗; apparently Green and Lenya hit it off as well: they had an affair. ("It's complicated.") Meanwhile, Weill and Green began a collaboration on the musical play Johnny Johnson 🔗, conceived as an American Schweik 🔗. More on that later, because I think another piece of context is in order.

I think a lot of us tend to think of the Broadway musical as an older form than it really is. In the 19th century, there was really only one native-born musical-theatrical genre: the blackface minstrel show, including some pretty extended skits; most of the related "Tom plays" (based on Uncle Tom's Cabin 🔗) also included some music. Pretty much everything else was either a European import (opera, operetta) or had no real plot (vaudeville, variety, revue), or used music only incidentally. Around the turn of the century, a few Americans wrote operettas, but really none that are remembered today. The first clear ancestor of the Broadway musical is George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones 🔗 (1904), though the plot is paper-thin and would hold no interest without the music. Flo Ziegfeld's 🔗 Follies, beginning in 1907, had the look we associate with a Broadway musical, but no plot. Into the late 1920s, musical plays on Broadway had lots of "numbers," often a couple of very strong hit songs, but little or no "book," nor did they cohere as musical works. Throughout the Twenties, Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers were writing great songs for unmemorable plays.

The first real Broadway musical is probably Show Boat 🔗 (1927), adapted by Jerome Kern 🔗 and Oscar Hammerstein II 🔗 from an Edna Ferber 🔗 novel of the same name, and produced by Ziegfeld. It ran for a year and a half, but for four years afterward nothing else of the sort followed.

Then George S. Kaufman 🔗 teamed up with the Gershwins for Of Thee I Sing 🔗 (1931) and the darker and much less successful sequel Let 'Em Eat Cake 🔗 (1933), which began to establish a genre of actual plays with coherent music. There had been another half dozen or so such plays by the time Weill arrived in New York, and shortly after his arrival, George Balanchine 🔗, who had come to America almost immediately after collaborating with Brecth and Weill on the Seven Deadly Sins (see prior blog post), added the element of balletic choreography when he collaborated with Rogers and Hart on On Your Toes 🔗 in 1936. So, when Weill entered the scene, the Broadway musical as we know it was just an emerging challenge to older forms and was still evolving. Minsky's burlesque was still at the Oriental on Broadway, and Ziegfeld, despite producing Show Boat, had parlayed his Follies into the plotless "Broadway Melody" films. So, entering the scene in the mid-1930s, Weill was there pretty early in the process: he was collaborating on plays in a genre that was still defining itself.

So, like I said above: with the Group Theatre's blessing, Weill and Paul Green settled in to work on Weill's idea of an American Schweik. Green was teaching at University of North Carolina, so Weill spent most of May 1936 in Chapel Hill. The piece evolved into Johnny Johnson, set in World War I. Weill did much of the composing that summer at the Group Theatre's "summer camp" at Pine Brook 🔗, Trumbull, Connecticut, summer workplace of many New York actors and directors in that era. (This was the occasion of Green and Lenya's affair). By this time, Weill had determined himself to "become American" and was attempting to function entirely in English rather than German. In an English-language lecture he gave at Pine Brook that summer, "What is Musical Theater?" he described a dichotomy between a "museum" at the Metropolitan Opera and musical comedy "which tries to be sophisticated and low brow at the same time" with "nothing between." He expressed the ambition of filling that gap.

Paul Green
Paul Green.
Uncredited photo from Carolina Magazine, 1943. Now in the public domain.

The Green/Weill play Johnny Johnson defies genre. It veers successively from comedy, to tragedy, to satire. The titular character is a young American man, more or less a pacifist, who nonetheless goes off to fight World War I. He and a German sniper of the same name try to stop the war; they are undercut, of course, but their commanders. Johnny incapacitates a meeting of generals with laughing gas; they recover and war resumes, bloodier than ever, and Johnny is committed to an insane asylum. Whe he is finally released ten years later, he finds that his former girlfriend Minny Belle has married a capitalist. Johnny settles down as a toymaker who will create anything except tin soldiers.

Rehearsals for Johnny Johnson started in October 1936. Things were rocky at first becuse American dramatic actors were totally unused to singing, but things came together. The piece had many of the elements we associate with a Broadway musical, although there were no big production numbers, and parts of the play feature a realistic treatment of war very atypical of musical theater, and Weill's music for those portions is definitely not typical Broadway music. In general, Weill's music in Johnny Johnson is becoming more American than anything he wrote in Europe, but he still hasn't quite found his new sound, and he definitely reworks some musical themes from the ill-fated Happy End. For example, the tune of "Mon Ami, My Friend" has been considered a bit of a self-plagiarism of the "Bilbao Song". (Here's Marianne Faithfull singing "Mon Ami, My Friend" 🔗 and here she is doing an English-language version of the "Bilbao Song" 🔗).

Johnny Johnson premiered 19 November 1936 at the 44th Street Theatre, directed by Lee Strasberg, and conducted by Lehman Engel 🔗, then near the start of his career but soon to become a name to reckon with. The cast included Elia Kazan 🔗 and and Lee J. Cobb 🔗. Russell Collins 🔗 played the title role, probably the most prominent role of his long career. The run lasted only 68 performances, not quite enough to break even. The lack of a clear genre apparently confused the audience: not exactly comedy, not exactly straight drama, and not exactly a musical: there are no production numbers, and the leading man has only one song (at the very end). Plus its anti-war political message was undoubtedly controversial.

After the Broadway show folded, the Federal Theater Project picked it up. It ran successfully for four weeks in Boston, and six weeks in Los Angeles, easily meeting their much lower threshold of success than Broadway. Still it was never again performed in Weill's lifetime.

Three men behind a large, curved modernist desk. On the desk are a lamp, telephones, and a flower in a tall vase. At left, seated, is 
Johnny Johnson in a U.S. Army uniform with peaked cap, listening attentively. The man in the middle, directly behind the desk, is standing, 
gesticulating, his arm on Johnny's shoulder and apparently speaking. His white clothes suggest the precision of a uniform, but no one 
uniform in particular. The seated man at right
has his arms thrown up in the air. Unlike the others he is bearded (a Lenin goatee); he is wearing a dark suit. The look on his face is hard to
read, but may be close to a laugh.
A scene from the original production of Johnny Johnson
Public domain (WPA photo).

Critics' views of the play were mixed, but it won Weill one very important admirer: Marc Blitzstein 🔗 saw it as the start of a new form. Blitzstein, formerly a student of Arnold Schoenberg (although the two apparently did not get along well) would go on to be one of the most important advocates of Weill's music in the English-speaking world (and also write the first successful translation of Threepenny Opera.) Also, the songs gained Weill a contract with the London-based music publisher Chappell, although to Weill's surprise and chagrin none of the songs from Johnny Johnson went anywhere commercially.

As noted last time, Johnny Johnson was still running when The Eternal Road opened at the Manhattan Opera House. Weill didn't yet have an American hit on his hands, and he was just getting by financially, but he had two plays on Broadway at the same time and was becoming a known name in America. And, on 19 January 1937, in a small ceremony north of the city in North Castle, New York, he and Lenya made it official again, and he was once again a married man. As remarked last time, though, rather than any sort of honeymoon, Weill headed to Hollywood with Cheryl Crawford 🔗 of the Group Theatre, while Lenya borrowed Crawford's Beekman Place apartment with a view of the East River, and continued to sing the role of Miriam in The Eternal Road for the next several months.

[This essay draws heavily on Jürgen Schebera's meticulously researched Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy).]

Next blog post: Lotte Lenya from Threepenny Opera to America

Next Weill biography blog post: A period of adjustment

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Original date: 15 November 2021
Last modified: 15 November 2021

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