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The Weill Project blog: Street Scene

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #langstonhughes #elmerrice #mauriceabravanel #streetscene #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], [25].

Bust-length portrait of Langston Hughes, smiling
Langston Hughes, 1942.
Hughes, the lyricist of Street Scene, was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Photo by Jack Delano. Public domain.

Street Scene was probably Kurt Weill's most commercially and artistically successful attempt to create what he called Broadway opera: plays with the musical and dramatic depth of opera, but which would resonate with the broad American audience. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1929 play by Elmer Rice 🔗, who collaborated on the book (the text for the musical), and with Langston Hughes 🔗 as lyricist, Street Scene takes place entirely in 24 hours (evening to evening) in and around a decaying brownstone in New York's then-working-class Upper West Side. Much of the music is operatic, although there are also several more "Broadway-ish" melodies, especially for some of the shallower characters.

I figure that very few of you have ever heard this piece. I've certainly never had a chance to see it onstage. Here's a full-length recording for free on YouTube 🔗; no visual, but more than twice the material that is on the original cast album, and I think it shows the piece's strengths much better. It was recorded in 1991 by the Scottish Opera and Chorus. Enjoy!

Elmer Rice, an American Jew, had grown up quite close to his paternal grandfather. His grandfather had, like Weill, arrived in America after political events forced him out of Germany. In the grandfather's case it had been the failure of the 1848 Revolution, in Weill's case the rise of the Nazis. Like Weill, Rice was known as "a man of the left", and he was even more removed than Weill from Judaism as a religion. Whereas Weill would best be described as "secular", Rice was an outright atheist. He was one of the founders of the Playwrights' Company (see prior blog post), as was Weill's friend and frequent collaborator Maxwell Anderson. Anderson was involved in some of the early discussions about the project before bowing out in favor of Hughes. During the course of working on Street Scene in 1946, Weill himself became a full-fledged member of the Playwrights' Company.

I first became familiar with Langston Hughes in tenth grade, when for the first time ever I had an African-American English teacher, whose name I know only as "Mrs. Sullivan." Along with the usual Shakespeare, etc., she assigned us works by quite a few African-American writers, of whom Hughes was the most memorable. What probably stuck most in my head was his short poem "Harlem", perhaps better known as "A Dream Deferred", from which Lorraine Hansberry 🔗 drew the title of her play A Raisin in the Sun. It's only eleven lines; here it is on the site of the Poetry Foundation 🔗. Anyway, Hughes had that hard edge that, in my view, made him a very good collaborator for Weill. He also apparently did a lot to introduce Weill to Black New York well beyond what Weill had encountered on his own.

Weill had seen the original play Street Scene in Berlin in 1930 in a German translation by Hans Reisiger, and had first discussed the possibiity of an adaptation with Rice in 1936, shortly after Weill arrived in America, when Rice visited the rehearsals of Johnny Johnson. Weill was hardly the first to approach Rice with the idea of musicalizing the play, and at the time Rice was not interested in doing so. They finally launched into the project a decade later, at the beginning of 1946. Weill described his work on Street Scene as his most intense period of work ever, which is saying a lot when you consider, for example, that Threepenny Opera had about four months from pitch to premiere.

The play's themes of birth, death, infidelity, and violence culminating in murder certainly were suitable for opera, and the gritty New York setting in the middle of the summer heat was suitable for Broadway. (If you want a plot synopsis, Wikipedia does a great job 🔗 and I don't think I can improve on it.) As with so many of Weill's works, Street Scene is not easily pinned down as to genre. It was originally promoted as a "dramatic musical," but later Weill characterized it as "an American opera." I think the latter is more on the mark, as long as you take the word "American" as meaning culture as well as geography. Its "American-ness" comes through as much in certain musical choices as it does in the New York setting. In particular, some of the musical diversity reflects ethnic diversity (Henry Davis, the African-American janitor of the building, certainly gets bluesier songs than anyone else in the cast) and several times more distinctly Broadway-ish music suggests the relative lightness of certain characters (which means that Weill at least somewhat accepted the prevailing belief that more traditionally "operatic" music connoted seriousness, in comparison with more frivolous popular song).

In a letter from Weill to Caspar Neher, a frequent collaborator in his German years, Weill described Street Scene as "a type of number opera" adding that "I had to make up my mind to really write an opera for Broadway" and that with basically recitative rather than spoken lines between the numbers, "the dialogue melts into the musical numbers and creates a unity of music and drama I had never achieved before." He wrote of trying to use "the technique of opera without ever falling into the artificiality (Unnatürlchkeit) of opera" and of "trying to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play." As Stephen Hinton notes, there is a tension between classicism and naturalism, between opera and Broadway theater, between numbers opera and through-composition and motifs. This tension apparently was not only in the writing but in the production: at the time of the Philadelphia tryouts, Weill noted the danger, in places, of falling either into straight "legitimate" theater or into musical comedy. I personally think that the tensions proved to be very productive: the motifs and musical repetitions serve the drama rather than being mere musical formalism. Hinton has a lot of interesting things to say about the ways the structure of the music relates certain plot and character elements to one another, etc. I'd pretty much be faking it if I reproduced much of that here, and I think that when listening to the music, I registered a lot of this more on an unconscious level than a conscious one. The one thing I will say is that there are cycles and recurrences of various lengths: the usual repetitions within a particular song, the recurrence of musical themes, the structuring of much of the day by the songs of children at play, and the fact that the play both begins and ends at early evening with the camaraderie and gossip of "Ain't It Awful, the Heat?" To me, these also echo another cycle: the recurring threat (and sometimes actuality) of violence.

Weill considered the song "Lonely House" the heart of Street Scene. The score begins with a fortissimo extract from this song. Later, in the first act, it is sung by the young romantic lead, Sam (you can hear Sam sing it at 48:10 in the 1991 Scottish Opera and Chorus recording 🔗 linked above). The song sits roughly in the middle of the play's spectrum from operatic to Broadway/popular music. Although the song is written for a young man, Weill's wife Lotte Lenya sings it wonderfully, and I can't resist also including her version.

Weill's wife Lotte Lenya singing "Lonely House".

I'm going to take up a good bit of the rest of this through the lens of what some critics haven't liked about Weill's score. (And let me acknowledge that I have a lot of this secondhand through Stephen Hinton's book Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform. I have not done anything like a proper "survey of the literature" myself.)

Larry Stempel (a professor at Fordham and author of Showtime, a widely respected history of the Broadway musical) certainly knows a lot more than I do about both Broadway theater and 20th-century classical music, and is certainly generally well-disposed toward Weill. Still, he feels that the three most typically "Broadway" songs in Street Scene take away from the unity of the piece as a whole. Those songs are "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed", "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway", and "Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow". Stempel is not alone in saying that these songs break the flow of the opera and represent an undesirable compromise. In particular, Stempel objects to what he sees as a lack of irony in this incorporation of more conventional Broadway material, and especially sees "Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow" as imitation Richard Rogers. As Hinton notes, any incongruity of these pieces may be exacerbated by the fact that "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed" and "Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow" were orchestrated by Ted Royal 🔗, not Weill himself.

I feel these songs are part of the structure, a counterpoint of sorts to the more operatic material. These songs are sung by characters whose very thoughts are couched in terms of the popular song and popular culture of the time. In particular, the song "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway" goes to one of the play's few interpolators from outside the neighborhood: Harry Easter, boss of the young female romantic lead Rose, who walks her home on the first of the play's two evenings and is definitely coming on to her. He's a con man ("I've got three or four friends in show business!"), trying to convince her that if she runs away with him, he could make her a star. The brash song is exactly right for him. "Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow" is sung by a bunch of high school girls just back from their graduation ceremony, and neighbors echoing their enthusiasm. Yeah, it is pretty Richard Rodgers-y. "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed", probably the best of these when considered as a song independent of the play, is sung by two young soon-to-be-lovers back from an evening out dancing. Their dancing continues in the street in front of the building with this jitterbug number. This melody also appears a couple of other places in the play, including once coming out of a radio, as if to underline the degree to which their emotions may be a bit secondhand. When used for the street dance, it also sets up a contrast for the immediately following much more romantic scene between Rose and Sam, which is followed by an equally sharp contrast as the play takes a darker turn into a painful childbirth. On the whole I think this works. Stempel (and others) apparently think it doesn't. If I have any criticism here it's that "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway" isn't that great a song. Weill himself acknowleged to Hughes that none of these were really "hit parade material". Benny Goodman did record "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed" with a Johnny Mercer vocal shortly after the play came out, but it wasn't particularly a hit.

Interestingly, no one seems to have similar objections to the romantic duet "We'll Go Away Together", which, as Stephen Hinton points out, could pretty much have been written by Jerome Kern 🔗, to which I would add "pretty damned early Jerome Kern, at that." Dramatically, this works well: Sam and Rose (the same Rose wooed by Harry Easter, daughter of Anna, who is soon to be killed by her husband, Rose's father) sing this together in the play's most simply romantic scene. They are longing for a very different world, a simpler world, and this musical throwback captured that well for a 1940s audience. Now this music seems a bit dated in a way that other elements of the score don't.

The other frequent critique of Weill's score is that it is "second-hand Puccini." There's definitely some Puccini in there, just like there's some Richard Rogers, and some Jerome Kern, and some Verdi. According to Hinton—I'd never have known this myself— there's even a smidgen of Wagner, a "motif of longing" from Tristan and Isolde. The "Ice Cream Sextet", one of the show's lighter moments, begins as pretty straight bel canto, maybe a bit parodic because of its subject matter, although it brings in a few more "Broadway" elements as it goes. (The latter may be a bit more apparent in the version that begins at 28:46 in the 1991 Scottish Opera and Chorus recording 🔗 that I linked above than in the production below.) I didn't hear this song when I originally heard the music from Street Scene: it is sadly missing from the original cast recording, a victim of the space limitations on recordings at that the time. Anyway, if you are going to listen to one thing I've embedded here, this would be a fine choice (unless you hate opera, in which case just skip it).

I know nothing about the time or place of the production this was drawn from, but I like it.

Kim Kowalke, now president and CEO of the Weill Foundation, points out that several of the echoes of Puccini in Street Scene are specifically musical quotes and paraphrases from Madame Butterfly. Again, I'm out of my depth to do anything but pass this along, but apparently "We'll Go Away Together", Rose's Jerome-Kern-like duet with Sam, quotes three measures from just before Pinkerton's ship Abraham Lincoln shows up, indicating at least to the more classically inclined that their relationship is doomed. Whether the "second-hand Puccini", etc., in Street Scene is a problem or not seems to me to come down to whether or not you feel that all good music must be radically original. Weill's experiment here was to seek a musical language that would preserve the strengths of opera while reaching a broad American audience. The result is certainly not as original "in the small" as some of his other work. Its originality comes only in the piece taken as a whole, an amalgam of diverse elements that at least to me seem well integrated into a whole. So, yeah, he borrowed from Puccini—and from Richard Rogers, and Jerome Kern, and so forth—because he was seeking a synthesis. The question seems to be whether he achieved a decent synthesis (I think he did) or just a pastiche.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is the strength of Anna's aria in Act I, "Somehow I Never Could Believe". It is the most traditionally operatic and least "Broadway" thing in the play, and so un-"Broadway" that Weill had to fight repeatedly to keep it intact. It is basically an operatic setting of a naturalistic monologue. While its stucture involves some song-like repetition, it is not at all conventionally verse-chorus-verse. I don't really have the musicological vocabulary to say that much about it; as I said in a previous post, as we get to about 1945 I find myself with less of my own to say about Weill's music. Hinton gives a pretty thorough structural analysis of the piece, but I don't think I'd be capable even of a decent summary of that. The best I really can do is embed what I think is a good performance of the aria and invite you to listen.

A very nice performance of Anna's aria "Somehow I Never Could Believe", sung here by Dana Schnitzer.

Early efforts to get Rouben Mamoulian 🔗 to direct failed; in the event, the play premiered January 9, 1947 at the Adelphi Theatre, directed by Charles Friedman and conducted by Weill's former student and frequent conductor Maurice Abravanel. It was a definite critical success. Kim Kowalke has characterized its run of 148 performances as "a mediocre run for a 'dramatic musical,' but an unprecedented string of consecutive performances for an opera." It had rather hefty competition on Broadway at that time: it was up against Finian's Rainbow and (2 months later) Brigadoon. Both of those have been endlessly revived; revivals of Street Scene have largely been confined to university productions and the occasional opera company.

Weill certainly considered the play an artistic sucess, a stark contrast to his feelings about The Firebrand of Florence (1945) which he once summarized tersely with "ouch!" In his notes for the original cast album, he wrote that Street Scene was the culmination of two dreams: a dream of "a special brand of musical theater which would completely integrate drama and music, spoken word, song and movement" and "the dream of an American opera." Two months before Street Scene opened, he wrote to his brother Hans, "it is without a doubt the most important piece I've written since Die Bürgschaft, and it might turn out to be the best of all my works." I don't think Street Scene is the best of all Weill's works—I'll save that honor for Threepenny Opera—but it's a first-rate, ambitious piece that still stands up well 75 years after it premiered, and I wish there were more opportunities to see it on stage.

[This essay draws heavily on Stephen Hinton's Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California, 2012) and to a lesser extent on Jürgen Schebera's Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy. I've also taken the usual liberty of snagging a few facts from Wikipedia (such as the bit about Elmer Rice's grandfather).]

Next blog post: Down in the Valley

Next Weill biography blog post: Down in the Valley

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Original date: 14 February 2022
Last modified: 14 February 2022

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