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Street Scene: An Appreciation

Street Scene main page

by Mark N. Grant

Elmer Rice was characteristically ungracious in accepting the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for his play, Street Scene, when he remarked, “I do not enjoy playgoing.” Others did; the play ran 601 performances on Broadway, was translated into many languages and widely performed abroad, and was filmed in 1931 by King Vidor. Composer Deems Taylor, who had written incidental music for Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine and whose opera The King’s Henchman was a success in 1927 at the Met, obtained Rice’s permission to turn Street Scene into an opera in March 1929, but he abandoned it for Peter Ibbetson.

Soon afterwards, Kurt Weill saw Street Scene in Berlin, and later saw the movie as well. In 1936, upon meeting Rice, Weill expressed interest in musicalizing Street Scene, but Rice declined. Later Weill contributed some incidental music to Rice’s short-lived 1940 play Two on an Island, although he was credited only with supervising the musical arrangements. In 1945, with two Broadway successes under his belt, Weill asked again, and this time Rice assented. Today Weill’s opera is better known than Rice’s play. A polystylistic blending of operatic arias and ensembles, musical comedy songs and dances, dramatic dialogue both unaccompanied and underscored, and extraordinary emotional drama, Street Scene is arguably Weill’s breakthrough. “Not until Street Scene did I achieve a real blending of drama and music, in which the singing continues naturally where the speaking stops and the spoken word as well as the dramatic action are embedded in overall musical structure,” wrote the composer in surveying his entire catalogue, American and German works alike.

At first Weill enlisted Maxwell Anderson to help adapt the play, but Rice preferred to do the work himself. He proved a difficult collaborator, bent on preserving his original script, and perhaps justly so; it still holds up as a beautifully gauged piece of dramatic writing eighty years later. Despite his extensive directing experience (including the original play in 1929), Rice did not feel up to the demands of directing a musical, much less an opera. Weill asked Rouben Mamoulian, but the job eventually went to Charles Friedman, who had directed Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s reworking of Bizet.

Weill and Rice made an inspired and daring choice of lyricist: the African-American poet Langston Hughes, who had already written an opera libretto (William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, which didn’t premiere at New York City Opera until 1949). For research, Hughes and Weill went to Harlem nightclubs together and watched children playing street games. After the show opened, Rice insisted on co-credit for several of the lyrics, but it is clear that some of the most eloquent, as well as the street-savviest (“Hey Babarebop!”), are Hughes’s alone. When Rice rejected the word “cockroach” in “Lonely House,” Weill muttered, “Brecht would have left the cockroaches in.” As pressures mounted even before the out-of-town opening, Hughes complained to his friend Carl Van Vechten, “Shows, I do believe, were designed to bring authors to an early grave!”

Backing for the show was provided by the Playwrights’ Company (a producing organization to which Rice and Weill belonged) and Dwight Deere Wiman, who had produced many Rodgers and Hart shows. In addition to his great personal fortune (from John Deere tractors), Wiman had a passion for opera and was a benefactor of Ballet Theatre (now the ABT). Wiman brought his regular casting director Lina Abarbanell, who had to go beyond the usual Broadway talent pool to find the needed opera singers, but also hired young movie starlet Anne Jeffreys (Rose Maurrant), who happened to be appearing in Tosca at the time of her audition. When Rice insisted Jo Mielziner reproduce his original naturalistic set from the 1929 play, Mielziner objected but ultimately gave in. Choreographer Anna Sokolow took on her first big Broadway musical; her modern dance jitterbug for “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed,” with Sheila Bond and Danny Daniels, stopped the show and made Life magazine.

The three-week tryout in Philadelphia in December 1946 bombed disastrously with both press and public. Rice was down with the flu, so Moss Hart, Marc Connelly, and Oscar Hammerstein all made play doctoring calls, and Weill redoubled his efforts to encourage the company and improve the show. It all paid off at the Broadway opening at the Adelphi Theatre on January 9, which drew very enthusiastic reviews; for two months Street Scene was a hit. In February 1947 Weill wrote to his dear friend, German set designer Caspar Neher, “The press greeted it as the first American opera and called me the foremost theater composer in America (which isn’t such a great compliment, when I look at my competition). The important thing is that for six weeks an opera has been running in a Broadway theater without subsidies.” But business dwindled and the show closed in May after 148 performances–still one of the three longest first runs ever of an opera composed for Broadway. Weill later claimed (exaggerating slightly) that some 200,000 people had seen Street Scene, while Langston Hughes reported income of over $10,000 for 1947 (95,000 in 2009 dollars), far more than he earned in any other year of his life. The cast recording, produced by Goddard Lieberson for Columbia, featured a remarkable fifty-two minutes of music, conducted at very brisk tempos by Maurice Abravanel, as if trying to pack as much of the opera as possible onto six 78-rpm discs.

The musical demands of Street Scene went well beyond Broadway norms of the day. Like the score of The Firebrand of FlorenceStreet Scene employs every major orchestral instrument. With an orchestra of 35, Maurice Abravanel had to be even more sensitive to balance than usual because so much of the dialogue was underscored. The eight-performance-a-week schedule must have been a strain on some of the operatic voices; bass Norman Cordon (Frank Maurrant), for example, missed a few performances with laryngitis. On the other hand, soprano Polyna Stoska (Anna Maurrant) not only sang the entire run, but according to Anne Jeffreys, she stopped the show every night with “A Boy Like You.” (Jeffreys herself battled the flu for the first several weeks of the run.)

Even though we hear veiled reminiscences of Puccini, Gershwin, Wagner, Bizet’s Carmen death theme, and even Irving Berlin (“Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed“), the sound is unmistakably Weillian. (There are even self-borrowings: “Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?” recalls “Life, Love, and Laughter” from Firebrand, and the second act prelude quotes from incidental music he had written in 1928.) Street Scene inaugurates the signature melos of Weill’s late sentimental style: a gapped minor scale that he uses for pentatonic or modal effects (“Somehow I Never Could Believe“), also employed in Down in the Valley and Lost in the StarsStreet Scene‘s harmonies are lush with ninth, raised eleventh, and thirteenth chords, triadic parallelism, juicy non-stepwise chromatic sequences, and a particularly ingenious “jazz/blue-note Liebestod” motif. The score’s subtle transformation of leitmotifs is extraordinary. The bright major triad sequence first heard at bar 23 in the overture is immediately turned into minor triads for the choral parts in “Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?” and then returns in the orchestra in major to support Mrs. Maurrant’s hopeful moment in “Somehow I Never Could Believe.” And the authors make room for sly humor even in this tragic work: the “Ice Cream Sextet” not only spoofs ensembles from Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi, but winks at advertising jingles as well. Though Rice’s play was set in the 1920s, the popular music references are pure 1940s (the Glenn Millerish foxtrot “What Good Would the Moon Be,” the jitterbug “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein charm song “Wrapped in a Ribbon“–the latter two orchestrated by Ted Royal).

Weill now routinely receives credit for his brilliant orchestrations, but the vital dramaturgical function of his complex and superb choral arrangements still does not get enough attention. Street Scene represents the summit of his choral writing; he renders the street-level coarseness of the characters into vocal polyphony, while elevating their hopes and dreams by merging them into a gorgeous body of massed sound.

Today Street Scene is Kurt Weill’s most frequently revived American stage work. Perhaps the least dated of all Weill’s American works, it still “lands” on stage because it is so emotionally committed. Undoubtedly Weill felt a special connection to Street Scene because he, like its characters, was a grateful emigré to America. His heartfelt letters to Lenya in the spring of 1945 relishing the defeat of the Nazis are immensely moving, and it is hard to imagine that those powerful emotions didn’t carry over into his music for Rice’s play. The composer’s own judgment of the work was correct: Street Scene is Kurt Weill’s American masterpiece.

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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