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Liner Notes for "Street Scene"

Source: Street Scene original cast recording (released 1947), Columbia Masterworks set M-MM-683 (six 78 rpm discs)

Note: The first part of the original liner notes consists of an essay sometimes published separately as “Two Dreams Come True.”

Among all the theatrical works I have written, operas, operettas, musical plays, musical comedies, ballets, pageants–about twenty-five altogether–Street Scene occupies a niche of its own. It means to me the fulfillment of two dreams which I have dreamed during the last twenty years and which have become a sort of center around which all my thinking and planning revolved.

Dream No. 1. Ever since I made up my mind, at the age of 19, that my special field of activity would be the theatre, I have tried continuously to solve, in my own way, the form-problems of the musical theatre, and through the years I have approached these problems from all different angles. One of the first decisions I made was to get the leading dramatists of our time interested in the problems of the musical theatre. The list of my collaborators reads like a good selection of contemporary playwrights of different countries: George Kaiser and Bert Brecht in Germany, Jacques Deval in France, Franz Werfel, Paul Green, Maxwell Anderson, Moss Hart and Elmer Rice in America.

The obvious approach to the musical theatre for a young composer in the early twenties was, of course, grand opera. So I wrote three operatic works in short intervals and saw them produced in German opera-houses between 1926 and 1928. But soon I discovered that the special requirements of the opera-house, its performers and its audiences, forced me to sacrifice certain elements of the modern theatre, and it was at that time that I began to dream of a special brand of musical theatre which would completely integrate drama and music, spoken word, song and movement.

All the theatrical works I have written since then, have been stepping stones in this direction; in each of them I tried out certain elements of the musical theatre which I was dreaming about. In the Three-Penny Opera, which was my first musical play, we deliberately stopped the action during the songs which were written to illustrate the “philosophy”, the inner meaning of the play. Mahogany [i.e., Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny] was a sort of “dramatic review” [sic], using elements of the theatre from slapstick to opera. The Silver Lake was a serious musical which mixed realism and fantasy and used actors together with a singing chorus and a symphonic orchestra. But not until fifteen years later, 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.

Dream No. 2. When I arrived in this country, in 1935, another dream began to get hold of me–the dream of an American opera. My first Broadway show, Johnny Johnson, was still a continuation of the formula which I had tried out in Europe. But through this show I learned a great deal about Broadway and its audience. I discovered that a vast, unexploited field lay between grand opera and musical comedy, although the ground was all ready [sic] well prepared. I discovered that there was a highly receptive audience with great sensitivity for music and a great capacity for emotions. I discovered also that there was a rich collection of young singers with great acting talent, full of ambition and eager to work, but frustrated by the lack of outlets for their talents. The more I studied this situation the more I became convinced of the possibility to develop out of this material a musical theatre which could eventually grow into something like an American opera. But at the same time I made up my mind that such development could only take place on Broadway, because Broadway represents the living theatre in this country, and an American opera, as I imagined it, should be a part of the living theatre. It should, like the products of other opera-civilizations, appeal to large parts of the audience. It should have all the necessary ingredients of a “good show”.

In the different Broadway shows which I wrote during the following years, I tried to make the music an integral part of the plays; especially in Lady in the Dark, with its three little one-act operas, I continued the story in musical fantasies when the realistic story stopped. In the meantime, the whole Broadway scene began to change in the same direction. Porgy and Bess became a big popular success, Carousel and Carmen Jones introduced operatic elements, and the American public became more and more opera-conscious. When I finally decided that the time was ripe for a real Broadway opera, I found in Elmer Rice’s famous play, with its gripping story and its richness of characters, a perfect vehicle. The form I decided on as the best possible realization of an American opera-form was exactly that complete integration of drama and music which I had attempted in my earlier works. And that’s how Street Scene became to me the fulfillment of two dreams.

* * *

The recording of the music from Street Scene offered a problem. The integration of music and drama has been carried so far in the case of Street Scene that the work has been regarded as an “operatic” event ever since it opened in New York, because “opera” is the form of theatre in which the dramatic action is expressed through music, and the emotional power of the original play is heightened and intensified through the use of singing voices and orchestra. Therefore, if we wanted to set down on discs the real values of the Street Scene score, we had to keep in mind that only some of the people who will listen to these records will have seen the show while many others will have to rely on this album to find out what sort of musical treatment I have given to Elmer Rice’s famous play. That’s why I was very happy when Goddard Lieberson, Vice President of Columbia Records, suggested an album of six twelve-inch records. This made it possible to show, in about fifty minutes of music, the variety of musical forms which I have used in this score, to include songs, arias, duets, ensembles, orchestral interludes and even dialogue which, in Street Scene, takes the place of the recitative in the classic opera. It also allowed me to work out a sort of continuity so that, in listening to these records, we can follow the action and the emotional up-and-down of this play about life in a street of New York.

We see, in the beginning, the women who live in the house, sitting on the steps, complaining about the heat (“Ain’t it awful, the heat”), talking to the janitor who comes up from the cellar singing his blues song (“I got a marble and a star”), gossiping about Mrs. Maurrant’s love life (“Gossip”) and making fun of young Buchanan whose wife is having a baby (“When a woman has a baby”). Then we hear Mrs. Maurrant’s aria (“Somehow I never could believe”), expressing her troubled mind and her secret desires; the song of the young girls coming home from the graduation exercises (“Wrapped in a ribbon and tied in a bow”); Sam Kaplan’s song of adolescent melancholy (“Lonely House”); then Rose Maurrant’s scene with her “boss”, Mr. Easter, who is trying to lure her into a different sort of life (“Wouldn’t you like to be on Broadway?”); Rose’s decision to live her own kind of life (“What good would the moon be?”) and the scene of young love between Rose and Sam, dreaming of lilac bushes and happiness (“Remember that I care”).

The second act opens with the morning music, the awakening of the house and the “Children’s Game”, and goes on to Mrs. Maurrant’s touching song to her little son (“A boy like you”), to a passionate duet of the two lovers, Sam and Rose, who have decided to take life in their own hands (“We’ll go away together”) and the horror-stricken death scene of Mrs. Maurrant (“The woman who lived up there”). In the last scene we see the two nursemaids trying to sing the babies to sleep, while at the same time gossiping about their parents (“Lullaby”); we see Rose meeting for the last time her father who has killed his wife and is being taken away by the police (“I loved her too”); and finally Rose saying goodbye to the one she loves (“Farewell Duet”). Of course, some important parts of the score, like the Ice-Cream Septet and the Trio in the second act, had to be omitted, but we offer enough material to give a complete impression of the Street Scene score and its blending with the action of the play.


Note: In Columbia Records’ promotional flyer, “Disc Digest” (June 1947), the second part of Weill’s text above was reprinted largely unchanged, except three paragraphs were added, one at the beginning and two at the end. These paragraphs are reproduced here.

added introductory paragraph

The recording of music from Broadway shows in album form, with the original cast from the show, has become extremely popular, both with the record-buying public and with the theatre people themselves. Usually it is a very simple proceeding–one picks out the most successful songs from the show and records them in the same way as they are being done in the show.

added closing paragraphs

Maurice Abravanel who has conducted all my shows since Knickerbocker Holiday lends his great experience in opera and in Broadway shows to this score. The careful recording job which the Columbia sound engineers have done, helps to bring out the beautiful quality of the voices and proves again the fact which has been commented on so much, that we have succeeded in assembling a cast of outstanding singers who also show an astonishing acting talent. Like everything in the theatre, this cast was the result of hard work, mostly on the part of Lina Abarbanell, Dwight Wiman’s indefatigable casting director, Abravanel, the conductor, and myself. Lina Abarbanell must have auditioned more than 1000 voices. One of her most sensational “finds”, of course, was Polyna Stoska who was, at that time, one of the stars of the New York City Center Opera. When she sang for us, we were all overwhelmed by the richness of her voice and the charm of her personality.

One of the most difficult parts to cast was Rose Maurrant. I happened to read that a young Hollywood star, Anne Jeffreys, was on her way to New York to sing Tosca in Brooklyn. I asked Maurice Abravanel to go and see Tosca in Brooklyn. When I showed him a clipping with a picture of Anne in a bathing-suit, he agreed that it was the prettiest Tosca he had ever seen, and off he went. The same night I got a glowing report of her lovely voice, her great acting talent, and of course her physical beauty. A few days later she was signed for the part.

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