Skip To Content

Biography of Kurt Weill

Source: Three-page unpublished typescript, dated April 20, 1945, held in the Yale Music Library, Weill-Lenya Papers, box 74, folder 4. The typescript bears the following heading:

1041 North Formosa Avenue
Hollywood 46, California
GR 5111

Composer Kurt Weill, whose ten years in America have produced some of our most representative music, says that the motion picture industry is learning to use music properly just as the stage had to learn. He is now applying his theories to Mary Pickford’s production of the smash Broadway hit, “ONE TOUCH OF VENUS.”

“In the future motion picture,” says the German-born composer, “music will be an integral part of the film. Just as the screen writer completes his work before production starts, so must the composer. The musician is assuming his rightful place. Along with the other artists responsible, the musician should no longer be called in when filming is completed, so that his score is only a patchwork.

“I don’t mean underscoring, or dubbing. I mean the theme music of the film.

“Film musicals will not be handled so that the action will stop when the song starts. The music should and will come in as naturally as dialogue.”

Weill, who did the music for the stage production of “VENUS,” also wrote the scores for the stage shows “LADY IN THE DARK,” “KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY,” “JOHNNY JOHNSON” and the currently successful, “THE FIREBRAND.” To prove that his writing was as commercial as classical, he provided the music for the Railroad Association Pageant in the New York World Fairs of 1939-40.

Born in Dessau, Germany, he has been in America 10 years. A short, near-sighted, balding man, whose dress is as neat and tidy as his mind, Weill is married to Lotte Lenya. Married in 1929 [sic], his wife was a well-known Viennese actress and diseuse who has since transferred her talents to the American stage and is currently appearing in “THE FIREBRAND.”

[page 2] In New York, they live in a fashionable mid-town hotel. Their home and pride is at New City, N.Y., about 40 miles upstate. Their nearest neighbor, and one of their best friends, is playwright Maxwell Anderson. When Weill arrived in Hollywood to begin his chore on “VENUS,” he moved into the Bel Air Hotel. Occupying the suite next door was Maxwell Anderson, in Southern California to convert a reigning movie queen to the rigors of the stage. Weill said he would not participate in this venture. “. . . [ellipsis in original] I have to grow feed on my farm for Anderson’s cows, should I also provide people to speak his lines?” The question was rhetorical and no answer given nor expected.

Weill has used the technique he is bringing to the screen to good advantage on the stage.

“In ‘KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY,'” he explains, “Walter Huston moving naturally, walked out of the cast, upstage [sic] to the footlights and sang the song ‘September.’ That became a high point in the theatre. In ‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS,’ Mary Martin picked up a chair, walked to the footlights, sat down, and sang the eloquent torch song, ‘That’s Him.’

“Is it not natural that in the movie, as on the stage, four men in a barbershop should harmonize? In the film ‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS’ it will happen that way. It is not necessary that a character walk over and put a nickel in a juke box for the convenience of the participants. Americans are smarter than many people in Hollywood will admit.”

This revolutionary idea is not so unusual when we examine Weill’s background. When he received his final American citizenship papers several years ago, he said, “It’s strange, our family tree in Germany goes back to 1329 in Freiburg and I lived in Germany until I was 36 [sic]. Yet I never felt the oneness with my native country that I do here. The moment I landed I knew I was home.”

He started composing at 11, later studied with the great Humperdinck and then with Busoni. When he was 24, George Kaiser, the “German Eugene O’Neill” invited him to compose the music for a tragedy, [page 3] “THE PROTAGONISTS” [sic]. This was a great success, as was their next collaboration, a comic opera, “THE CZAR HAS HIS PICTURE TAKEN.”

Then Bert Brecht, the poet playwright, suggested Weill put to music a series of his poems about a mythical American city, which he called “Mahogany” [sic]. Well received at Baden Baden, the pair determined to do a full opera on “Mahogany’s” history. To raise funds they wrote a modern version of John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera.” Phenomenally successful, they completed “Rise and Fall of the City Mahogany.”

The Nazis, just then flexing their muscles, did not like the show when it opened in Leipzig. They closed it there, but it was successful elsewhere. Now 1932, Weill joined forces again with Kaiser, wrote an anti-Nazi piece called “The Silver Lake,” a mixture of drama and opera. The show opened simultaneously in many cities in February, 1933, to rave reviews. But the next day [sic], warned by a friend, Weill left Germany.

He went to France, where he stayed until he came to this country in 1935. He did some work in England during this period.

Weill has been in Hollywood twice before. In 1937 he did a film for Paramount called “YOU AND ME.” In 1944, he worked at 20th-Century Fox on a fantasy called “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?”

Weill’s friends are his Broadway collaborators and neighbors, including the Andersons, Moss Hart, and Ira Gershwin. His home in New City is an old colonial structure, built more than 150 years ago and called Brook House. A clear, mountain stream runs through the fifteen acres of his property.

He has dammed the stream to make a pool for swimming, his favorite sport. He has an English Sheep Dog, given him by Moss Hart and called Wooley, after the late Alexander Woolcott [sic]. His number one love is, naturally, music. His number one hobby, American history, on which he has become a great expert.

He hopes to do more films after he completes “ONE TOUCH OF VENUS” for Miss Pickford. “VENUS” is a United Artists release.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.