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Johnny Johnson: An Appreciation

Johnny Johnson main page

by Mark N. Grant

When Kurt Weill arrived in New York on September 10, 1935, only two-and-a-half years had passed since his greatest international success, The Threepenny Opera, had flopped on Broadway, closing after twelve performances. A League of Composers concert of his works in December 1935 failed to impress the New York avant-garde. Then in January, the opening of the production that had brought him to the States, The Eternal Road, was delayed indefinitely. He desperately needed another project to establish himself in America.

Weill soon met Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the three young directors of the Group Theatre. The composer hoped to make his first project conceived in the U.S. a truly “American” show, but he and Crawford settled on the concept of an Americanized Good Soldier Schweik, the Czech anti-war novel, set to music. Crawford introduced Weill to the most “American” collaborator she could think of, the Southerner Paul Green (1894-1981), author of the Group’s inaugural 1931 production, The House of Connelly. Green, while traveling in Germany in the late 1920s, had seen not only The Threepenny Opera but the film version of The Captain of Koepenick, another satirical anti-war work.

Why the title? More than 3000 American servicemen in World War I were actually named Johnny Johnson. “Johnny Johnson is a sort of morality play, an Everyman, if you will,” Green reminisced to Cheryl Crawford forty years after its debut. Its title character is a cross between Billy Budd and Forrest Gump. Green, who had co-written the screenplay for State Fair (1933) and had gotten to know Will Rogers on its set, recalled in his later years “in some ways the character of Johnny is like Rogers with a good sense of humor, clear thinking, and despising sham and hypocrisy always.” He also noted, “No doubt Johnny owes a lot to Chaplin”–to the Little Tramp’s Shoulder Arms (1918), and even more, one might add, to silent film clowns Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. Green’s dramaturgy and comic writing in Johnny Johnson have drawn mixed notices over the decades, but the play works best in the theater if its derivation from the popular culture of the 1920s is understood. The script’s cinematic sweep, far-reaching change of scene, and reliance on visual symbolism come right out of the silent film epics of King Vidor and D. W. Griffith; its antique hayseed humor, from the stock exaggerations of vaudeville routines and the broad brushstrokes of the comic strip. Of course, the script also owes a debt to Woyzeck.

There was a little of Johnny in Green himself. A North Carolina farmboy, he interrupted his studies to enlist in 1917. He deployed to France in July 1918, where he laid mines, set explosives, built barbed-wire defenses, and led troops into action, “once even pointing his loaded pistol at the head of a soldier who was afraid to charge,” according to one biographer. His battlefield experiences no doubt contributed to his anti-war sentiments, and his political development led him firmly in the direction of liberalism, particularly in race relations, where his consistently progressive stances helped define his career. While writing Johnny, Green carefully reread Woodrow Wilson’s speeches. Taking an author’s bow at Johnny’s opening night curtain call, he spoke for ten minutes about Wilson.

Green had a number of plays on Broadway–including In Abraham’s Bosom, which won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize, and Native Son–but he spent most of life as a college professor in Chapel Hill, writing plays and pageants that were produced regionally. Some of his later plays involved music, but Johnny Johnson was his first musical venture. Green crafted no-frills lyrics for Weill in short, often iambic lines; his wife, Elizabeth Lay (1897-1989), actually wrote the lyrics to “Oh the Rio Grande” and “Song of the Guns.”

“The preparation of Johnny was unique among musical shows,” recalled its conductor, Lehman Engel. “Since it was done with actors saturated in the Stanislavsky Method according to the gospel of Lee Strasberg, the show was studied, improvised, and dissected for a period of about three months prior to the beginning of actual rehearsals.” This process began in June 1936 at the Group Theatre’s summer base near Bridgeport, Connecticut. Weill fascinated the actors, teaching them his preferred singing style, in which conveying the text took precedence over vocal beauty (few in the cast had any musical training). His orchestrations for Johnny Johnson double the vocal melody extensively in nearly every song–as he did much less frequently in his later American works–almost as if he intended to build the Group’s distinctive “non-singing” style into the scoring. By that summer his English was already fluent, if accented. “Kurt was more the director than Lee was,” recalled Phoebe Brand, the production’s Minny Belle.

When Lee Strasberg took over as director in late September, he cut a lot of music, and his direction confused some of the actors. Nevertheless, the show seemed to play well during rehearsals in the 500-seat Belmont Theatre. But for previews it was moved to the 1465-seat 44th Street Theatre, where the intimate show foundered amid Donald Oenslager’s oversized sets. The actors found it impossible to make their untrained singing voices heard, even though Weill’s 12-piece orchestra was smaller than the usual Broadway pit band. Why wasn’t the Belmont available for the run? It was still vacant when Johnny opened November 19. Had the Belmont been booked well in advance for In the Bag, which opened December 17 and closed after four performances while Johnny still ran at the 44th Street?

The cast was a veritable Hall of Fame of the American theater: Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Luther Adler, Sanford Meisner, Bobby Lewis, Lee J. Cobb, Paula Miller, John (then known as Jules) Garfield, and Elia Kazan, who later directed two Weill shows for Broadway, One Touch of Venus and Love Life. Reviewers and fellow actors alike praised Russell Collins in the title role. (Collins later was the original Starkeeper in Carousel (1945), originated roles in The Iceman Cometh and A View from the Bridge, and was in heavy demand as a character actor on TV in the 1950s and 60s.) Marc Blitzstein liked the show enough to reverse his snide opinion of Weill. Yip Harburg took a cue from Johnny: he used laughing gas as an anti-war device a year later, in his satirical musical Hooray for What!. Harburg may have recalled Johnny’s “Toys!” cry when creating the toy manufacturer for his musical Flahooley in 1951.

The Eternal Road finally opened January 7, 1937; Johnny closed January 16, a succès d’estime. For one week Weill had two shows on the boards simultaneously. He had arrived. Later in 1937 the Federal Theatre mounted productions in Boston and Los Angeles, and the show was revived independently in three other cities. The haunting tune of “Johnny’s Song,” given new lyrics by Edward Heyman and retitled “To Love You and to Lose You,” was recorded by Ray Noble and His Orchestra.

In 1956, after the Theater de Lys production of The Threepenny Opera had revived general interest in Weill, Stella Adler–one of the few Group members who had not taken part in the 1936 Johnny Johnson–produced and directed a one-week New York revival off-Broadway. She cast many of her own students, whose “non-singing” singing, while stylistically appropriate, puzzled reviewers. That same year, Lenya’s second husband George Davis persuaded MGM to record the score, conducted by Samuel Matlowsky, who had conducted both the Theater de Lys Threepenny and the Stella Adler Johnny. (The recording was later released on CD by Polydor.) In addition to Lenya, Burgess Meredith, Evelyn Lear, and Thomas Stewart participated. In 1971, the 77-year-old Paul Green, Lys Symonette, and Lenya oversaw a revision of the entire work which was presented under the direction of José Quintero at the Edison Theatre on Broadway. The production was not well rendered and closed after one night. A 1986 production at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles, performed only with piano, was better received and lasted for 13 weeks.

The only musical produced by the Group Theatre, Johnny Johnson is in some ways a period piece; its pacifist stance doesn’t reckon with Hiroshima, the Holocaust, or other horrors of the last seventy years. But at the same time the play is hauntingly premonitory: its final scene clearly fingers the fascist menace to come; its opening scene captures the recurring American attacks on dissent exemplified by McCarthyism; and it continues to resonate even after the invasion of Iraq. An anti-war CandideJohnny Johnson belongs in the small pantheon of neglected Broadway gems with lofty aspirations. But not only because its themes still address today’s dilemmas. It contains some of the most dramatically compelling and tuneful and colorfully orchestrated music Weill ever wrote. It really demands to be heard.

Mark N. Grant in 2006 became the first composer to receive the Friedheim Award since the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award program ended in 1993. He has written music for both the concert hall and opera/music theater and is also the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998).

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