Kurt Weill’s Music Has Made Something New out of ‘Street Scene’
by Shana Ager
Source: PM Magazine, February 9, 1947
To describe a piece of theatrical entertainment as “historic,” “epoch-making” or even just plain “unique,” is, 99.4 times out of 100, a pretty bold thing for anyone but its press agent to do. This season, however, there is a show on Broadway to which one can apply these adjectives without seriously undermining the English language. It is an opera called Street Scene.
Street Scene, of course, is a hit, but that’s not what makes it an event. Its claim to more than transient fame is that it represents the first successful attempt in Broadway history to transform an American theater classic into a full-fledged opera. (George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was less in the operatic tradition; the play on which it was based, Porgy, was anything but a theater classic.) The unusual memory audiences carry away from Street Scene is that they have been through a real emotional experience. They can’t remember many Broadway musicals that did that to them.
To devise a new kind of opera, bring it to Broadway, and make people like it besides, took not only adventuresomeness but talent and lots of work. The basic material for Street Scene was Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winner of the same name. For it Kurt Weill, generally regarded as the theater’s most effective composer, wrote a score complete with arias, octets and recitatives, designed for opera-trained voices. To provide the lyrics for Weill’s songs, Langston Hughes, the poet, was called upon. The opera was more than a year in the making.
This and the next four pages introduce you to the men who created the opera and give you a look at the show itself.
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The man most responsible for Street Scene‘s transformation into an opera is gentle, stocky, granite-faced Kurt Weill, the composer who wrote the scores of Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, and One Touch of Venus since coming here from Germany, via Paris and London, in 1935. Though he often looks as foreboding as movie villain Peter Lorre, Weill is a small, gemuetlich man who enjoys most sitting around in sweater and slacks, talking to friends and drawing on a pipe like a contented Bavarian peasant. Since 1941 he has lived in New York City with his actress-wife Lotte Lenya, and an enormous English sheep dog, Woolly (pronounced Voolly by Weill), a gift from Moss Hart. Everything about the 5-foot-4 Weills, except Voolly, is small and sturdy; their doll-sized, stone house with hand-hewn planks and beams and a brick-floored kitchen looks as if it were growing out of the tiny hillside on which it was built 150 years ago.
Of Street Scene, the 47-year-old musician said recently, “It was a particular challenge to me; I had been leading up to it all my life.” In Europe he had composed many successful operas and musicals, but a year after coming to the U.S.A. he wrote an article saying, “It is my conviction that if there will ever be anything like an American opera, it is bound to come out of Broadway. I’m all in favor of the Metropolitan–as a museum, to play the classic opera which we should hear again and again. But to start a movement of an American musical theater, you cannot go to the Metropolitan. They haven’t got the means to do it and they haven’t got the audience.”
He hasn’t changed his mind. “Most operas have been taken from plays,” he says. “Because a good play that lends itself to musical treatment can come alive in that way with something added to it. This play really was written like a tone poem, a symphonic piece.”
Like Greek Tragedy
Elmer Rice always was convinced that an operatic treatment of Street Scene did not mean revolving stages, elaborate costumes, dream-ballets, or any of the usual Broadway methods of jazzing up long-hair drama, and Weill agreed. Believing that Street Scene was constructed “very much like Greek tragedy, with tight unity of time and space and the inescapability of fate,” Weill says, “I felt that if we spread out, or tried to interpolate, we would kill the whole thing. Either we have Street Scene or we haven’t got anything.”
To prepare himself for making opera from the play, Weill studied Verdi’s treatment of Shakespeare’s plays in Othello, Falstaff, and Macbeth. He found that Verdi had thrown out all detail, atmosphere, and connective scenes, retaining only the plot-skeleton, and then simply leaped from one emotional climax to the next. “So I told myself, ‘I’m doing that–and adding good music,’ because out of something good you create something good.”
Weill decided to include spoken dialogue in his opera because “I address myself to Americans and I don’t think they want ‘Do you want another cup of coffee?’ to be sung.”
About a year-and-a-half ago, Weill, Rice and lyric-writer Langston Hughes began meeting regularly at Brook House, the name Weill’s home derived from the rushing trout stream 20 feet in front of the house. “First we said, what do we take out? Then we decided what the big musical moments would be, and after that we went through it in detail and decided the contents of the numbers.” In between bouts at the piano, Weill used to relax by fishing from the window of his tiny study.
Though German-born, Weill was not tripped up by the American story and setting of Street Scene. “First, I could see the country from the outside, so I had more respect for it,” he says.
“Second, my whole musical background is very closely related to American Jazz. That’s why the Nazis attacked me so.”
Right now Weill has no other new projects, he said, but he hopes other serious composers will try Broadway opera.
“The big trouble is,” he says, “that we have no real librettists here, we have only playwrights, who so far haven’t been interested at all in writing for music.”