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The Weill Project blog: Firebrand

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #iragershwin #mauriceabravanel #firebrandofflorence #joemabel #weillproject #weillbio

(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14], [15], [16], [17], [18], [19], [20], [21], [22], [23].

Benvenuto Cellini standing beneath the gallows, surrounded by armed men. Behind him, a stage backdrop of the Duomo and other landmarks of Florence.
Earl Wrightson as Benvenuto Cellini standing beneath the gallows in the opening scene of The Firebrand of Florence.
Used on a fair use basis.

So, we are somewhere around the end of World War II. At this point Kurt Weill's story gets a bit harder to tell, and I think not just for me. I've noticed that a lot of the biographical works get a bit thinner at this point. My own take is that Weill, 45 years old as the war ended, spent the next several years mostly laying groundwork for a career direction that, because of his sudden and unexpected death at the age of 50, he never really got to bring to fruition. Weill wanted to create a musical theatrical form that would have musical quality comparable to grand opera, but would reach a broad American public. Much of his work in the last five or six years of his life can be seen as a set of rather varied experiments in this direction. None of it was entirely successful, though nearly all of it is creditable. At the time of his fatal heart attack, he and his frequent collaborator Maxwell Anderson were working on a musical of Huckleberry Finn which just might have been the culmination of this period, but it was not to be. Instead, posthumously, Marc Blitzstein's translation of the 1928 Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera proved to be a bigger hit than any of the plays that Weill deliberately wrote for the American stage. My next few biographical posts will attempt to sketch out these last years of Weill's life, but I will admit up front that it is something I feel I have less of a handle on than the earlier stages of his career.

The period certainly did not get off to a roaring start. As I mentioned a few posts back, Weill and Ira Gershwin wrote songs for the military time-travel fantasia film Where Do We Go From Here? Artistically, this was probably Weill's "least bad" experience with the American film industry, but given that this film about a man who wants to be a soldier finally got released after World War II had ended in Europe (admittedly, it was not yet over in the Pacific Theater), it was not going to be a hit movie. There were some good songs: the title song, "Morale" was at least a moderate hit, as was "If Love Remains"; "Song of the Rhineland" (sung by the Hessian mercenaries before they were attacked by George Washington's forces at Trenton) is also occasionally still performed, but, above all, "The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria" formed the backbone of a nine-minute Columbus sequence that constituted a "musically continuous dramatic unit" almost unprecedented in film at that time, probably the only film sequence Weill was involved with of which he was unambiguously proud. (Yes, I know Columbus is not seen as much of a hero today, more's the irony.)

Weill always saw a lot of potential in film, even if his actual experiences with the film industry mostly went badly. Whereas Weill's colleague Hanns Eisler (co-writing with Theodor Adorno 🔗) would remark of his own Hollywood years, "The truth is, no serious composer writes for the motion pictures for any other than money reasons; and in the studios he does not feel that he is the beneficiary of utopian technical potentialities, but a regimented employee who can be discharged on any pretext," and Weill himself once remarked in a 1937 letter to theater producer Cheryl Crawford "Don't worry, Hollywood will not get to me. A whore never loves the man who pays her, she wants to get rid of him as soon as she has rendered her services. That is my relation to Hollywood. (I am the whore.)", Weill was not usually quite that cynical, and continued to see unfulfilled musical potential in film. In particular, with reference to creating an American equivalent of opera, he seriously considered that it might happen in film rather than on stage. While he found efforts to make films of classical operas generally dismissible, he believed that various animated cartoons, as well as Ernst Lubitsch's 🔗 early musicals and Rouben Mamoulian's pre-Code musical comedy Love Me Tonight 🔗 pointed the way to a type of film that would be deeply structured by music. He never really got a chance to pursue this idea on a large scale, and as I've recounted, his proposal to take such an approach to Fritz Lang's 1938 film You and Me 🔗 was largely rebuffed, either by Lang or by the studio.

In late June 1944, having completed Where Do We Go From Here?, Weill and Ira Gershwin settled into Beverly Hills with dramatist Edwin Justus Mayer to work on a musical version of Mayer's 1924 play The Firebrand, based on the life of 16th-century Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Mayer was a frequent collaborator of Ernst Lubitsch's, probably now best remembered for the screenplay adaptation of To Be or Not To Be 🔗. He was, perhaps, back in his mode of the late 1920s when he and Brecht would head to the Riviera to hammer out a play. The Weill Foundation's timeline for this period of his life mentions that while out in California, he also took tennis lessons and swam, and that Lenya joined him for the tail end of his time there.

White marble sculpture. Apollo stands tall, naked, left hand on his hip, right hand on the head of kneeling, wounded Hyachithus
Apollo and Hyacinthus by Benvenuto Cellini.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons User Yair-haklai 🔗, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 license 🔗.

Cellini had quite a life and wrote an autobiography that gives at least his side of the story, which even in his own account involves his committing several homicides (and surviving several attempts on his own life). There were affairs with his models and others, accusations of "unnatural" sexual practices with both men and women, and further accusations of embezzling from the pope, as well as a close association with the Medici and several other leading families of Europe. Oh, plus he claims to have conjured devils. Plenty of material there to work with: Alexandre Dumas, père wrote an 1843 novel about him, L'Orfèvre du roi, ou Ascanio, which Paul Meurice adapted into an 1852 play simply called Benvenuto Cellini, which in turn was the basis of Louis Gallet's libretto for Camille Saint-Saëns' 1890 opera Ascanio. Those works all focus almost entirely on his time in France; Mayer, Gershwin, and Weill took a slightly different angle.

The play begins in Florence, in 1535, where, amidst a ghoulish carnival atmosphere, Cellini faces death by hanging for the attempted murder of Count Maffio. The utterly unrepentant Cellini is pardoned by Duke Alessandro of Florence, simply because Alessandro commissioned and paid for a statue of a nymph from Cellini, and the project is incomplete. Maffio attacks Cellini who (at least apparently) kills Maffio in self-defence. Back at his workshop, Cellini gives his apprentice Ascanio and servant Emilia an embellished version of the recent events. He returns to working on a statue, but is definitely more erotically distracted than artistically inspired by his model, Angela. The feelings are certainly somewhat requited, but Angela is far more cautious. Meanwhile, the French ambassador enters and warns Cellini that the Duke now intends to revoke the pardon and hang him for what is no longer merely attempted murder. He offers that Cellini can come to Paris: King Francis I wants him to decorate Fontainebleau. Almost at this moment, Duke Alessandro arrives, puts Cellini under house arrest, and carries Angela off to his summer palace, because why not? Have I mentioned that this is basically an operetta? We'll get back to that.

Cellini escapes and heads out to rescue Angela. Along the way, he encounters Alessandro's wife, the Duchess of Florence (played in the original by Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya), who is on her way to Pisa, and who has a rather narrowly lustful, not particularly romantic, attraction to Cellini, as she makes clear in her big song, "Sing Me Not a Ballad". The two plan an assignation. Just in case we haven't got enough plot or characters, the Duke's cousin, Ottaviano, tries and fails to pull Cellini into a conspiracy to kill the Duke. Ascanio helps Cellini escape Ottaviano. At this point the rest of Act One basically descends into bedroom farce: Cellini sneaks in as the Duke puts the moves on Angela; the Duke has some sense of Cellini's presence and bumbles his attempt at seduction; Cellini emerges, chaos ensues, the Duchess returns, Cellini escapes with Angela, and, as Wikipedia puts it, "The act concludes in a merry tarantella."

In Act II, Cellini and Angela consummate their relationship, but bicker the following morning. He accepts the Duchess's invitation to decorate the summer palace, clearly with more than decor in mind. Meanwhile, the Duke tries to write Angela a love poem, believing at the time he writes it that she is still his prisoner. On discovering (some of) the truth, he once more wants to hang Cellini; the Duchess convinces him to hold a trial first. Once again we return to the ominous carnival atmosphere of the initial would-be hanging. Cellini's defense is centered on astrologically-based predetermination (his song here has the wonderful title of "You Have to Do What You Do Do"). The Duke rather appreciates this: after all, it also gets him off the hook for unfaithfulness to his wife. Ottaviano, however, testifies that Cellini conspired to kill the Duke, apparently sealing his fate, but then Ascanio testifies that Ottaviano was the real plotter; the Duchess supports Ascanio in this. Ottaviano is arrested, Cellini is pardoned.

Cellini accepts the commission to redecorate Fontainebleau, leaving behind both the Duchess and Angela, who commiserate with one another. ("My dear," says the Duchess to Angela, "No man ever brings a woman to Paris. There are plenty of them there.") At Fontainebleau, though, lacking Angela as a model and muse, Cellini finds himself unable to create. The Duke, Duchess and Angela arrive unexpectedly. Cellini reconciles with Angela and finishes his nymph statue, which is unveiled amidst a dance by commedia dell'arte players. Then Maffio reappears, alive after all. Cellini and Maffio face off to fight with swords, amidst the same general gaiety that surrounded Cellini's would-be hanging and trial. Curtain.

You can get a fair sense of the musical style of The Firebrand of Florence from this five-minute excerpt from the initial gallows sequence.

The Firebrand of Florence was basically an operetta, though not promoted as one. It's probably the most European thing Weill wrote for the American stage, and commercially it was quite a disaster. Producer Max Gordon 🔗 and director John Murray Anderson 🔗 both tended more toward spectacle than to script-driven plays, probably not the best fit. Weill's former student Maurice Abravanel 🔗 conducted, as he did for so many of Weill's plays. Despite some last-minute "script-doctoring" by no less a luminary than George S. Kaufmann 🔗 during a 3-week Boston tryout that began in late February 1945 under the title Much Ado About Love, the play's Broadway run was barely longer than that tryout. The play premiered in New York at the Alvin Theater on March 22, but closed April 28 after just 43 performances.

Just for the record: it wasn't absolutely insane to imagine that a good operetta could make it on Broadway in 1945, and I can see why Weill wanted to try: as a young conductor, he had conducted a lot of operetta, and by all accounts he liked it and was good at it. Several of his musical comedies (at least A Kingdom for a Cow and One Touch of Venus) had started out conceived as operettas before taking a different form. And as Mark N. Grant points out on the Weill Foundation site 🔗 there were several successful Broadway revivals of classic operettas in that era: The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus (retitled as Rosalinda) were both Broadway successes during the war years, plus the Edvard Grieg pastiche Song of Norway was in its two-year run when Firebrand opened. But all these successful Broadway operettas of the era were very backward-looking. The 1940s audience for operetta seems to have wanted nostalgia, not a somewhat edgy new script. And for the ones who wanted an edgy script, Firebrand may also have fallen a little short: Alan Gomberg writes 🔗 that Mayer "In his attempts to cut down on the play's cynicism and add a bit of sentiment… undermined and sometimes just deleted what was good about his play."

It looks like any remaining chances of success were basically doomed by the casting. Mark N. Grant in the article linked just above sums up the shortcomings: "Cellini [was] a good-sing/no-act unknown, Earl Wrightson… The Angela, Beverly Tyler, was a no-sing/no-act unknown", etc. Even Lenya was generally considered miscast as the Duchess, a judgment that led her to retreat from the stage for several years. Meanwhile, as the Allies streamed toward Berlin, Benvenuto Cellini was not exactly the man of the hour. Also, for the record, my partner in the Weill Project, Juliana Brandon, thinks the music just isn't up to Weill's usual standard. I don't entirely agree: I especially like some of the longer, more through-composed sequences (the opening execution, and the second-act trial), but I'd be lying if I said this was the sort of piece that would have gotten me interested in Weill if I didn't already know his work. The overture is certainly weak, which gets it off on the wrong foot, but the overture may be more Ted Royal 🔗 than Weill. Of all Weill's Broadway works, this seems to be the one where he took the least charge of the arranging.

Here's Ira Gershwin's demo of two more of the songs from Firebrand.

It was over half a century before anyone tried reviving The Firebrand of Florence. While it has never made it back to Broadway or an equivalent, most latter-day productions have received far more favorable reviews than the original. Joel Galant published a full critical edition of the play in 2002, the first time a score became generally available. In conjunction with Galant's work there was a 1999 revival by the Ohio Light Opera. Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna also performed the piece that year, and the next year the BBC arranged a performance and recording for the Weill Centenary (which is the only form of the piece I've heard; most of the spoken parts are dropped, and the songs are instead stitched together by a narration in rhyming couplets). It was also performed in Dessau at Weill Fest 2005 and by the Collegiate Chorale and the New York City Opera Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in New York City in 2009.

[This essay draws on Jürgen Schebera's meticulously researched Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy) and Stephen Hinton's Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California, 2012). I also used some Wikipedia articles, including most notably Benvenuto Cellini 🔗 and The Firebrand of Florence 🔗, plus of course the linked articles by Mark N. Grant and Alan Gomberg].

Next blog post: Broadway Opera

Next Weill biography blog post: Broadway Opera

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Original date: 17 January 2022
Last modified: 17 January 2022

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