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Kurt Weill in Hollywood–But Not of It

Source: Four-page unpublished typescript held in the Yale Music Library, Weill-Lenya Papers, box 74, folder 4.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

From Paul Davis
J. Walter Thompson Company
420 Lexington Avenue
New York, N. Y.

Hollywood got a big surprise last week in the small person of Kurt Weill, composer of “Johnny Johnson,” “The Eternal Road,” and a half a dozen music plays which put him out in front as Germany’s most successful living composer–until the Nazis wouldn’t let him live there anymore.

It is the fashion for celebrities to hit the film capital with brass band percussion, but Weill descended on it as softly as a snow flake. He is like that. This modernist composer moves in an aura of quietness. But it is a listening silence. His ear, you feel, is attuned to rhythms, overtones. Sitting with him in the study of his apartment in Beekman Place, overlooking the pearly waste of the East River, the day before he took off for California [i.e., on or around January 22, 1937], this reporter was acutely conscious of every accent of sound. Before your eyes were circling gulls, tugs with plumes of steam, and in the middle distance the grim gray walls of the Blackwell Island bastile [sic]; behind you the throb of the city.

Here the plump little man sat and puffed his pipe. The room was bare save for a couch, a long oak work table, a piano and, on the back wall a gaudy map of the United States. What significance has the map? Weill is a man without a country. Probably it doesn’t bother him greatly; not any more. He lives in the world of music which knows no borders. But there on the wall hangs the outline of this vast new country which to him spells new opportunities.

Within the space of little more than a year he has produced two outstanding scores, those for “Johnny Johnson” and “The Eternal Road” and now [The text breaks off at end of typewritten page].

[page 2] What preconceptions of America would such a man bring with him to these shores? What would he hope to find here? One thing he hoped to encounter was some new form of musical instrument. Had the American genius for invention evolved any new means for creating music?

George Gershwin answered this query by introducing him to the Hammond organ which produces tones electrically and has three times the tonal range of any other instrument.

Weill immediately went to work with the organ and round it built his score for “The Eternal Road.” But it was in “Johnny Johnson” that he really disclosed its resources. Through its voices he gave a musical portrayal of the rumble of caissons, the rolls of drumfire, the whirr of sewing machines, the thunder of Big Berthas and, in combination with a small orchestra, infused his score with such exotic qualities that it offered a new adventure in the theatre.

“This instrument has an identity all its own,” he says. “It is so responsive–it functions, you know, with the speed of light–that it gives you superb attack, as sharp as a piano. An organ, yes, but there is nothing oily or unctious [sic] about the tone. Yet it can be as subtle and insinuating as you please. Or you can get the most terrific forzando [sic] from it. There is no limit to the volume. You can multiply it indefinitely by adding more sound cabinets, and by locating your cabinets where you choose, your sound will emanate from any given spot. You can see what an asset such an instrument is to theatrical and picture producers.”

Weill will find that the electric organ has preceded him to Hollywood for it is already standard equipment in the studios. What he will do in celluloid opera remains to be seen, but although he has gone to Hollywood, there is no danger of his “going Hollywood.” For twenty years he has been working in and about the theatre as conductor, director and [page 3] composer, and he is secure in his personality, his sense of values and his ambition. That ambition points directly to creative work in the theatre. Hollywood is an interlude to Weill.

Not that he won’t enjoy it, or that he underates [sic] the films. His first assignment is one that almost any composer would jump at: to provide the musical setting for Walter Wanger’s production of Clifford Odets’ original screen play, “The Loves of Jeanne Ney.” But two months’ time will see him headed East again to concentrate on the work which he feels is his own, namely, to collaborate on a new form of music play, plays with poetic implications which rise at times to fantasy, plays in which words and music do not merely consort with with [sic] each other but are so closely mated that they are “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”

And why cannot this be done in pictures as well?

“I think it can,” Weill agrees, “but–I want to work in the theatre. No time clocks. No production supervisors. Just the author and composer taking an idea and nursing it along, helping it to grow. That is the way we wrote ‘Johnny Johnson,’ Paul Green and I. When I first met up with the Group Theatre they asked me if I had any ideas. I said I had the beginning of one, and told them about the scene in the trenches where the big cannons thrust their muzzles through the murky night and sing a lullaby to the sleeping soldiers.

“Well, the Group believes in direct action of a sort. They took me to Pennsylvania Station, put me on a train for South Carolina [sic], and wired Paul Green, ‘Weill coming South with an idea. You two write play. We will produce it.’

“Working side by side for six months, Paul Green and I evolved ‘Johnny Johnson,’ and I am sure this is the right way for me to work.”

[page 4] “Johnny Johnson” fell short of real box office success, yet it is marked with a red star as a production that may be the beginning of a new theatrical era, for it points the way to a new form of poetic drama with music. The poetry may not be expressed in metered lines, much less in rhymes, but at the more emotional or poignant peaks, speech will assume a lyric value and the parallel musical accompaniment will make incandescent the soul of the scene. To the degree that music and words are indispensable to each other, Kurt Weill’s hope for music drama will be realized.

But isn’t this form trespassing on opera’s preserves?

“I hope so,” says Weill. “Opera should be removed from its splendid isolation and made acceptable to the whole theatre audience.” [Close quote supplied; not in original typescript.]

Again the question, why is not this form particularly well adapted to the screen?

Again Mr. Weill agrees that it may be, but as for himself, he feels he can work best in free association with a given author uninhibited by any sense of other obligations. But the movies deserve the credit, he feels, for making playwrights and producers conscious of how music can color a story, flood it with emotional power, create and sustain a mood. Yes, music hath power.

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