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Lost in the Stars: An Appreciation

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by Mark N. Grant

Twelve bars of passionate outcry played by a chamber orchestra, a song leader intoning Alan Paton’s line, “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills,” a Greek chorus of voices mournfully echoing the minor pentatonic scale of the melody–just the first minute of music in Lost in the Stars proclaims a Broadway musical unlike any other. In the late nineteenth century, when Reginald DeKoven’s operettas ruled Broadway, musical numbers were predominantly choral. Then from Victor Herbert onward to Kern, Gershwin, and Porter, solo and duet songs dominated book musicals, with full ensemble writing saved for special moments (e.g., “Make Our Garden Grow” in Candide). Two experimental shows in the 1940s–Marc Blitzstein’s 1941 No for an Answer and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 Allegro–ventured to reintroduce the full chorus as a recurring device. But No for an Answer‘s vocal ensembles are largely unison writing, and Allegro‘s seem collegiate compared with Weill’s. In no other musical in the Broadway literature does the chorus provide so much momentum, or interact so seamlessly with the parallel score of solo songs, as in Lost in the Stars.

Weill created a prototype of the polystylism of composers of the late 20th and early 21st century, and Lost in the Stars is, perhaps even more than Street Scene, his most polystylistic work. It contains operatic arias with recitative (“O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!”), chorales (the prelude to “The Little Gray House,” “Bird of Passage”), blues (“Trouble Man”), folk music influences (“Train to Johannesburg”), Tin Pan Alley pop tunes (“Lost in the Stars”), even jitterbug (the coda to “Who’ll Buy”). But there is more to it than merely cataloguing different types of songs, for music is deployed throughout the show in multiple–and sometimes revelatory–ways. The tone is naturalistic, but the Greek chorus is a principal player, commenting on the action from a perspective unavailable to the characters. Some of the principals sing, some do not. (The chorus itself is a principal player.) There are underscored dialogue sections, and there are intense passages of dialogue unadorned by music. Seen in the theatre, the work plays not as a musical or opera so much as an intense dramatic play enhanced by music, poetry, and movement.

In its distinctive use of heightened poetic language, Lost in the Stars is also one of the most peculiarly literary musical plays ever staged on Broadway. Two voices, two literary sensibilities–Alan Paton and Maxwell Anderson–inform its text, thanks to Weill’s, Anderson’s, and Paton’s agreement that Anderson should incorporate some passages from Paton’s novel directly into his lyrics. Something similar happened with Porgy and Bess, to which Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward both contributed lyrics, but it’s much more difficult to tell their efforts apart than to distinguish, say, the complex metonymies of Anderson’s “The Wild Justice” from the scriptural evocation of Paton’s “Who can enjoy the land? Who can enjoy the seventy years?” in “Fear.” And Weill’s chant-like vocal settings of the lyrical prose passages from Paton’s novel render their free, unmetered cadences with a splendid indifference to Broadway convention, belying his reputation in some Broadway quarters as an approval-seeker.

The scoring includes no violins, an interesting choice for a piece with so many moments of “heart-string” sentimentalism. The muted quality of Weill’s orchestration–there are few passages in high treble registers in any instrument, and apart from the accordion in “Johannesburg” almost no instrumental licks that call attention away from the actors and singers–was clearly a choice, not only to underline the “tragedy” in “musical tragedy” but to compel the audience to attend to the serious drama onstage. The doleful A minor pentatonic “Ixopo” gamut, and its sunny antipode, the C major pentatonic “Thousands of Miles” gamut, are woven leitmotivically throughout the score, as is the railroad-rhythm motif of the latter (which rhythm must have been noted by composer Frederick Loewe, for he copied it in “They Call the Wind Maria” from Paint Your Wagon).

Weill avoided using African music when he composed Lost in the Stars, as Richard Rodgers rejected the Siamese music Bernard Herrmann lent him for The King and I. But whereas “March of the Siamese Children” still comes across as chinoiserieLost in the Stars never sounds faux-African. Despite the differing provenance of parts of its score (the title song, “The Little Gray House,” and earlier versions of “Trouble Man” and “Stay Well” were all written in 1939 for the abortive Anderson-Weill collaboration Ulysses Africanus), in execution it somehow sounds all of a piece. Always the practical theater man, Weill wrote “O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!” for Todd Duncan only after he was signed for the role and the bulk of the score was already finished, and the startling 11 o’clock number “Big Mole” expressly for young Herbert Coleman (the Ethel Merman of boy sopranos). The 1949 production’s white-hot intensity, owing much to director Rouben Mamoulian, is captured on the original cast album, possibly the least canned, most spontaneous OC album ever recorded. Listening to it one feels as if one were witnessing the actual live performance in the theater.

The composer, who achieved fame in his twenties etching Brecht’s sarcasm in musical acid, capped his career with arguably his most un-Brechtian, heart-on-sleeve work. Here and there perhaps it is almost too sentimental: Anderson originally placed the title song at the end of the show, but the finale was later changed to a tear-jerking Hollywood-style final reprise of “Thousands of Miles.” (Commented Agnes de Mille: “Beethoven would have been hard-pressed and Kurt delivered a dear little sentimental ditty.”) Nevertheless the score shows a sincerity and fearlessness of emotional expression that lifts it above such criticisms. Lost in the Stars is not only a fitting end to Weill’s career, but it provided his epitaph: a portion of Maxwell Anderson’s lyric to “Bird of Passage” (a paraphrase of a quotation from the Venerable Bede) is engraved on the composer’s tombstone in Haverstraw, New York.

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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