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Johnny Johnson (1936)

Play with music in three acts.
Book and lyrics by Paul Green.

Performance Information
Synopsis
Song List
Recordings
Press Clippings
An Appreciation

Johnny Johnson

Performance Information

Cast: Singing roles -- Mayor, Minny Belle Tompkins (soprano), Grandpa Joe, Johnny Johnson (high baritone), Aggie Tompkins, Captain Valentine (baritone), Sergeant Jackson, Private Harwood, Chief of Allied High Command, French Nurse (soprano), American Priest (tenor), German Priest (baritone), Dr. Mahodan (baritone).
Speaking roles -- Anguish Howington, Dr. McBray, Johann Lang, Brother George, photographer, messenger, villagers, orderlies, generals, officers, soldiers, politicians, madmen.
Orchestra: Reed 1 (cl, E-flat cl, bass cl), Reed 2 (cl, bass cl., alto sax, bari. sax); 2 tpt, tbn; Hammond organ (piano), guitar (banjo), timp & perc; 2 vn, cello.
Duration: full evening, 65 minutes music
Critical Edition: Kurt Weill Edition, Series I, volume 13 (full score and libretto with critical report)
Performance Rights and Rentals: USA, CAN: EAMC
GER, AUST, SWIT (German language): FBE
All other territories: KWF
Authorized Translation: German -- Fred Berndt and Jörg Gronius
Authorized Adaptation: German -- Richard Weihe
First production: November 19, 1936, New York, Group Theater, 44th Street Theatre, Lee Strasberg, dir., Lehman Engel, cond.

Guide to orchestration, territory abbreviations, and publishers' symbols.

Synopsis

by Mark N. Grant

Act I

It is April 6, 1917, in a small-town square somewhere in middle America. The villagers gather to unveil a monument carved by the local stonecutter, Johnny Johnson. The Mayor reminds them that President Woodrow Wilson has declared America must stay out of foreign wars ("Over in Europe"). Minny Belle Tompkins, Johnny's sweetheart, reads an original poem in honor of peace ("Democracy's Call"), though her Grandpa Joe recalls his Civil War combat with unseemly relish ("Up Chickamauga Hill"). Then a messenger delivers President Wilson's declaration of war. The whole town, except Johnny, is instantly inflamed with a mindless martial spirit. Even weakling Anguish Howington, Johnny's rival for Minny Belle's affections, vows he will enlist. Johnny finally unveils his monument after everyone exits; it is a dove ("Johnny's Song").

A few days later, Aggie, Minny Belle's widowed mother, discusses Johnny with Grandpa Joe as she sews ("Aggie's Song"). Johnny gives a locket with his picture to Minny Belle, who receives it rapturously ("Oh, Heart of Love"), then steels herself against his departure ("Farewell, Goodbye"). When Johnny tells her he's not sure he wants to go to war, Minny Belle breaks their engagement, and Johnny decides to join up after all ("The Sergeant's Chant"). At the recruiting station, Captain Valentine reads a movie magazine ("Captain Valentine's Song") while Anguish takes his physical. After he is rejected, Valentine and his staff examine Johnny. His unorthodox replies cause him to flunk the intelligence test, and two hulking privates throw him out. But when Johnny knocks one of them flat with a single punch, Captain Valentine inducts him after all. Not long afterwards, hundreds of new soldiers sail past the Statue of Liberty, bound for Europe. Johnny addresses the statue, hailing the ideals she represents. As he falls asleep, she replies, explaining that she is merely an inanimate symbol, misused to send young men off to die ("Song of the Goddess").

Act II

As the newly arrived American soldiers walk toward the front lines, a cortege of lame and blind French soldiers stumble away ("Song of the Wounded Frenchmen"). The new soldiers settle into the trenches, and Johnny brings tea and food ("The Tea Song"). At nightfall, one homesick soldier sings of Texas ("Oh, the Rio Grande"), and Johnny dreams of Minny Belle. Three cannon muzzles take center stage and sing to the sleeping soldiers, saying that they are only metal that might have been put to better use ("Song of the Guns").

Johnny sets out at dawn to find a pesky German sniper and captures him ("Music of the Stricken Redeemer"). Since the young man speaks English, Johnny encourages him to stoke resistance to the war among the rank and file and sends him back to enemy lines. Captain Valentine appears and tries to gun down the sniper over Johnny's objections. When the Germans return fire, Johnny is shot in the buttocks.

A flirtatious French nurse tends to Johnny in the hospital ("Mon Ami, My Friend"). A doctor enters with a canister of laughing gas, but he loses track of it when a dignitary enters. Still hoping to stop the war, Johnny waits until everyone leaves and sneaks out with the canister. Later the same night the Allied commanders convene in a splendid chateau. The generals plan strategy, casually discussing the thousands of lives that will be lost ("The Allied High Command"). Suddenly Johnny appears and announces that the German soldiers are ready to give up. As the generals try to seize him, Johnny releases the laughing gas. The commanders collapse in hilarity ("The Laughing Generals") and send Johnny back to the front lines with an order ending the war, but they revoke it the instant the gas wears off.

Johnny rushes to the battlefield and proclaims the end of hostilities. Despite the joyful reaction from both sides, two American officers accuse Johnny of spying and order the battle to be rejoined. Over renewed shellbursts, an American and a German chaplain simultaneously intone prayers ("In Times of War and Tumult"). When the smoke clears, Johnny is arrested, returned to America, and committed to a mental hospital.

Act III

The chief psychiatrist, Dr. Mahodan, tells Minny Belle that Johnny must remain indefinitely. Dr. Mahodan goes on to explain (none too convincingly) that modern psychiatry is an improvement on witchcraft ("The Psychiatry Song"). Ten years pass. A group of patients has formed a debating society in which each inmate resembles a well-known American statesman ("Asylum Chorus"). They vote for a Wilsonian "League of World Republics," and Dr. Frewd--another patient--leads them in the "Hymn to Peace." The hospital directors, accompanied by Anguish (now a benefactor), enter the room on an inspection tour. The directors tell him that Johnny is soon to be released. Anguish coldly informs Johnny that he married Minny Belle years earlier.

In the final scene, a prematurely aged Johnny stands on a street corner hawking handmade toys while a war rally goes on in a nearby stadium. He continues his cries of "Toys! Toys!" as the roar from the stadium grows louder. Johnny lifts his voice in a song of hope against the cruelty and dishonesty all around him ("Johnny's Song").

Song list

Over in Europe
Democracy's Call
Up Chickamauga Hill
Johnny's Song (one verse only)
Aggie's Song
Oh, Heart of Love
Farewell, Goodbye
The Sergeant's Chant
Captain Valentine's Song
Song of the Goddess
Song of the Wounded Frenchmen
The Tea Song
Oh, the Rio Grande
Song of the Guns
Music of the Stricken Redeemer
Mon Ami, My Friend
The Allied High Command
The Laughing Generals
In Times of War and Tumult
The Psychiatry Song
Asylum Chorus
Hymn to Peace
Johnny's Song

Recordings

Polydor CD 831384-2 Y-1 Burgess Meredith, Thomas Stewart, Evelyn Lear, Lotte Lenya, Samuel Matlowsky, cond. [excerpts]
Erato CD
0630-17870-2 reissued on Elatus 2564 61359 2
Boston Camerata, The Otaré Pit Band, Joel Cohen (cond.)

Press Clippings

"Makes you laugh, cry and boil. The first anti-war play to use laughing gas in its attack on the stupidity of mankind, and to my mind the most effective of all satires in its class."
--Robert Benchley, New Yorker, 1936

"People who believe that plays should be written about intelligent themes have something to be thankful for. Johnny Johnson is an original and deeply moving piece of work."
-–Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 1936

"A hilarious medley of satire, musical comedy, melodrama, farce, social polemic and parable. A delectable score by that brilliant German exile, Kurt Weill. It is to the eternal credit of Johnny Johnson that in its high moments it has a way of recalling you to the quality of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest comedy Shoulder Arms."
--Richard Watts, New York Herald Tribune, 1936

"It is at once abrasive and gently elegiac in its deep revulsion against modern warfare. Its glory is its score by the late Kurt Weill . . . . It combines the sophisticated, bittersweet tunes of the pre-Hitler Berlin music-hall and the plaintive folksongs of America. Johnny Johnson was his first attempt to mix these two styles, and it is magnificent. One of the great scores of the modern theater."
--Emory Lewis, The Record, 1971

"This score . . . is one of Weill's best. It is both sardonic and lyrical and employs a small orchestra brilliantly."
–-Douglas Watt, Daily News, 1971

"Most 'lost' shows deserve to stay lost, but not Kurt Weill's and Paul Green's Johnny Johnson. Where has this musical been all our lives? It is a knockout . . . . Johnny Johnson is an antiwar fable, yes. But Paul Green's story is about as naive as one of Uncle Remus' tales. You think you’re laughing at it; but it’s laughing at you . . . . Its freshness and relevance are startling."
–-Dan Sullivan, Los Angeles Times, 1986

"A big, broad and stunning show: at times brutal and alarming; at other times as naïve and refreshing as backyard Americana."
–-Ed Kaufman, Hollywood Reporter, 1986

"Paul Green's pacifist libretto about a First World War soldier remains funny and touching, and the music is among the potent best of the too little known, nostalgically melodic style Weill first cultivated in France, between his German and American careers."
–-Leighton Kerner, Village Voice, 1989

"This show still proves to be fascinating, filled with the most haunting songs, one after the other, illustrating a pacifist and premonitory text--a story worthy of Chaplin's Great Dictator."
--Bruno Serrou, Le Croix, 2000

"Both moving and hilarious and still carries an enormous punch . . . . The music mixes the incisive, edgy style of Weill's German period with the more lyrical aspects of his later American musical shows . . . . Johnny Johnson cries out to be given a complete staging."
--Michael Darvell, Classical Source, 2009