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Broadway and the Musical Theatre

by Kurt Weill

Source: The Composer’s News-Record, no. 2 (May 1947), p. 1. Also published in Music Journal, vol. 5, no. 5 (September-October 1947), p. 15.

It has been my opinion for a long time that the Broadway stage can become an important outlet for the American composer and might even become the birthplace of a genuine American “musical theatre” or, if you wish, an American opera. That this theory has been widely accepted lately, is to me one of the most gratifying results of the success of “Street Scene.” I never could see any reason why the “educated” (not to say “serious”) composer should not be able to reach all available markets with his music, and I have always believed that opera should be a part of the living theatre of our time. Broadway is today one of the great theatre centers of the world. It has all the technical and intellectual equipment for a serious musical theatre. It has a wealth of singers who can act, excellent orchestras and conductors, music-minded directors, choreographers and designers. Above all, it has audiences as sensitive and receptive as any audiences in the world. In watching the audiences at “Street Scene” I noticed that, when the first vogue of “sensationalism” was over, we started building an audience of our own, and there seem to be enough people who like music and drama equally to support a musical play of operatic proportions like “Street Scene” (which, at the time of this writing, has played to more than 200,000 people.)

It is now up to us, the composers in America, to continue this movement which so far has expressed itself only in isolated efforts. There is no doubt that a great number of composers in this country have not only the ambition but also the talent to work for the theatre, but, since we still have not created a real “market” and since we are just beginning to establish a form convention for an American opera, it is natural that composers find it difficult to get their theatrical projects started. I will try to answer a few of the questions I am being asked in this connection.

How can we find a libretto? This, of course, has always been the biggest problem for the theatre composer, and I don’t think it is more of a problem today than formerly. The easiest solution is the one which worked so well with Mozart, Verdi and many other composers: to find a play which is adaptable to the kind of music you want to write. There is a wealth of material in English and American literature, from the Elizabethan theatre to O’Neill. The real problem is to find the right collaborator, and there is no doubt that the art of libretto writing has been very much neglected in America. But there are a number of highly talented playwrights who are vitally interested in the imaginative theatre and who would be willing to work with us if we succeed in developing the musical theatre into an important branch of the general theatre.

How can we find a producer? I don’t think it is much more difficult to find a producer for a dramatic musical today than for any other play. Right now, at the end of the season 1946-47, we find on Broadway a definite trend away from the traditional musical comedy towards a more integrated form of musical theatre, and the big successes of the season have been shows which are unorthodox in form and content. Most producers are very conscious of this development. There are also indications that, before long, we might have some form of institutional outlet for a new musical theatre. But again, the pressure has to come from us. Do we have to make concessions to Broadway? Personally I don’t think we have to do it, for the audiences are willing to accept any musical language so long as it is strong and convincing. On the other hand I cannot see any harm in making such concessions. Certainly it would be much healthier for an American musical theatre to make certain concessions to Broadway showmanship than to cater to a traditional opera form which is European in concept and purpose. The important concessions to Broadway are of a practical nature: limitation in the size of orchestra and chorus, and limitation in the size of leading singing parts. But in the history of the arts, such limitations have often brought very excellent results because they represent a challenge to the imagination and the skill of the creative artist.

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