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The Weill Project blog: Broadway Opera

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #bertoltbrecht #broadwayopera #georgeantheil #marcblitzstein #iragershwin #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], [24].

Left profile of African-American man in suit, bowler hat, and tie, with open-mouthed grin.
John W. Bubbles as Sporting Life in the original production of Porgy and Bess. Although that play is often thought of as the great triumph of opera on Broadway, the original 1935 production was not really a hit. The hit was the much stripped-down, less operatic 1942 revival produced by Weill's sometime producer Cheryl Crawford.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, public domain.

Around the same time as Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Edwin Justus Mayer were working on The Firebrand of Florence, Weill also made a serious attempt to renew his working partnership with Bertolt Brecht. They made what appear to be pretty serious plans for Weill to reset the songs for Brecht's play The Good Person of Szechwan 🔗; apparently Brecht was not too happy with the original music by Swill composer Huldreich Georg Früh. Through much of 1944, Weill appears to have sought a New York producer for the project. In December, having failed to do so, he reluctantly let Brecht know that he was withdrawing from the project; the desired music was eventually written by Paul Dessau 🔗 who, like Brecht, eventually left the McCarthy-era 🔗 United States and settled in East Berlin. Although Brecht made at least one more suggestion of doing a project together—Schweik in the Second World War 🔗—Weill turned that down, and the pair never collaborated again.

Instead, Weill continued with his efforts to develop what he usually referred to as "Broadway opera" or sometimes "American opera": musical theater with the broad appeal of Broadway, but the ambition of grand opera. A good number of these projects overlap in time, so there is no terribly obvious sequence to take them up. In this post I'm going to give some background; starting with the next post I'll be getting into this period of Weill's career.

In 1930s and 1940s America, the world of opera was probably even farther from the mainstream of American entertainment in general and Broadway and Hollywood in particular, than it has been in recent decades. Opera houses functioned uniformly as museums of a certain type of European classical music, mostly 19th- and very early 20th-century. For the most part, they played to a socially and economically elite and relatively conservative audience and had approximately no interest in contemporary American composers, especially if those American composers were not strictly imitating older European models. Opera singers mostly were not trained to vocalize in English. The era's few experiments in bringing more contemporary and more specifically American sensibilities to something like opera happened outside of the opera house. Notably, not only Weill but all of the composers involved in these experiments had spent time in either Berlin or Paris in the 1920s, though admittedly George Gershwin's stay in Paris was comparatively brief and Ira Gershwin had not spent time in Europe.

George Antheil, whom we "met" a while ago (Ballet Mécanique and the English-language translation of the Brecht/Weill Lindbergflug) had worked with John Erskine to set Erskine's 1925 novel The Private Life of Helen of Troy as a three-act opera under the name Helen Retires. It was completed in 1931 and finally premiered at the Juilliard School in 1934. The score has been preserved, but I don't think there has ever been a recording of the piece as such. The flavor of it is presumably conveyed by this "sound collage" on YouTube 🔗, based on the opera, and originally recorded for the Austrian Theatre Museum. Distinctly avant garde (although with some passages that sound rather like Viennese waltzes). Nowadays, a piece like this would have a fair shot at getting some sort of grant. I suppose being performed at Juilliard wasn't the farthest thing from that. Now, as then, its audience would be basically the relatively small subset of people who attend classical performances and also have some interest in the avant garde. Clearly, that is not what Weill was aiming at.

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts 🔗 featured an all-Black cast, a very radical decision in the 1930s for a piece depicting mostly European characters. It premiered February 7, 1934 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, opened February 20 of that year on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre and ran for 70 performances, a short run for Broadway but a remarkably long run for opera. Stein's libretto was, of course, every bit as avant garde as Antheil's; Thomson's music less so. As far as I can tell, Thomson's music stays largely within the classical mold; it certainly is not significantly influenced by jazz or by the Broadway music of its era. Amazingly, we have a reasonably well-restored 1947 radio broadcast of the piece with most of the original cast 🔗, so we can actually hear roughly what the audiences of the era would have heard.

When Four Saints had its Broadway run, Weill was still in Paris, working on Marie Gallante and on "that Bible thing" The Eternal Road, which would eventually bring him to America. However, for the initial production of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (also with an all-Black cast), he was in New York and attended several rehearsals. That first run of Porgy and Bess ran for 124 performances, which we can again place under the heading of "a [moderately] short run for Broadway but a remarkably long run for opera." (A scaled-down, slightly less "operatic" revival in 1942 ran for a quite respectable 400 performances.) Porgy and Bess became a model for Weill of what might be done with something like opera on Broadway, and after George Gershwin's death Ira Gershwin became one of Weill's more frequent collaborators, creating the very successful Lady in the Dark and the rather disastrous The Firebrand of Florence.

Man at open-faced upright piano, leaned a bit forward left hand on keys, turned partially toward camera. Several singers arrayed behind him in softer focus.
Marc Blitzstein providing piano accompaniment for an oratorio-style performance of The Cradle Will Rock, February 1938.
Photo by Alfredo Valente for Stage magazine, public domain.

One other piece deserves mention in this context: Marc Blitzstein's 🔗 The Cradle Will Rock (1937) Blitzstein had studied under Arnold Schoenberg 🔗 in the 1920s, although the two did not get on very well. In the 1920s, he hadn't particularly liked Weill's music, but Weill's first American play, Johnny Johnson won him over. He later went on to do the translation/adaptation of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera that was such a triumph in the 1950s. Anyway, at the time of Johnny Johnson, Blitzstein was working on The Cradle Will Rock, a play about corruption and corporate greed that was supposed to be headed for Broadway under the aegis of the Federal Theatre Project, and was to be directed by Orson Welles. On June 12, 1937, four days before the first scheduled preview, the Federal Theatre Project pulled the plug, probably for political reasons. There were nonetheless various performances (more like oratorio than than theater) at various venues, and in fact it was produced later that year as part of the first season of Welles's Mercury Theatre 🔗. In any case, the piece is almost entirely sung-through, making it in that respect more like an opera than like a typical 1930s musical, although like many of Weill's works it made use of popular song styles. Although it wasn't particularly a critical or commercial success, it resulted in the first ever "original cast album".

So, Weill was not by any means the first to attempt "Broadway opera", but he was one of the most persistent. Except for Love   Life (1948), a hybrid of a different sort, all of Weill's theatrical works that reached the Broadway stage in the last six years of his life were attempts of one sort or another at "Broadway opera": The Firebrand of Florence (1944), which we've already discussed 🔗; Street Scene (1947); Lost in the Stars (1949); and Huckleberry Finn, unfinished at the time of Weill's death in 1950. In addition, there were two separate versions of the folk opera Down in the Valley, a 1945 radio play and a 1948 stage version intended to be performed by college students. I'll take up all of these works in my next several posts.

[The list of 1930s works that could be considered "Broadway opera" comes from Jürgen Schebera's Kurt Weill: an illustrated life (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy), as did the fact of the play Johnny Johnson winning Blitzstein over to Weill. Other than that, I've cobbled together information from a pretty broad miscellany of sources, including several Wikipedia articles.]

Next blog post: Street Scene

Next Weill biography blog post: Street Scene

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Original date: 31 January 2022
Last modified: 31 January 2022

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