by Mary Braggiotti
Source: New York Post Week-End Magazine, September 18, 1949
With the Broadway opening of his new show, “Lost in the Stars,” only a matter of weeks ahead of him, composer Kurt Weill was as calm the other day as the cool green trees that surround the 150-year-old house in New City, N.Y., and the unhurried brook that flows quietly, below his terrace, towards the Hudson. While Lotte Lenya–Mrs. Weill–is not the placid type, her vivacity is due to natural exuberance–not pre-opening jitters.
“Kurt is extraordinarily quiet for a composer,” said Lenya (she’s usually called Lenya instead of Lotte) in a Viennese accent which is charming to American ears. “There is really only one moment when he is doing a show that he says, ‘I’ll never get through with that score. This time I’ll never make it.’ I never pay any attention–not the SLIGHTEST–because I know he’s always ahead of time.”
“It is the orchestration I worry about,” said Weill, who is one of the few theatrical composers who does his own orchestrating. “I cannot do it before rehearsals begin because I have to hear the singers’ voices and also work with the choreographer. It means I am at rehearsal all day long and must work on the orchestration at night. I get no sleep . . . ” [ellipsis in original].
“Don’t feel sorry for him,” his wife admonished. “He loves every minute of it. After opening night he always says, ‘Now I am going to have a good rest.’ The rest lasts exactly two days. Then he says, ‘NOW what am I going to do?'”
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Lenya should know her husband’s habits and idiosyncrasies by this time. They have been married 21 years, the last 14 of which they have spent in the U.S. The Weills have lived through more troubles and triumphs together than the average couple living peacefully in the rural suburbs of New York.
Kurt Weill, known in the U.S. for his excellent scores for “Johnny Johnson,” “Knickerbocker Holiday,” “Lady in the Dark,” “One Touch of Venus,” “Street Scene,” “Love Life,” and the American folk-opera, “Down in the Valley,” which has had over 100 productions in semi-professional theatres throughout the country in the past year, was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1900. His father was a cantor (both his parents are now living in Israel) and Kurt’s talents burgeoned in an atmosphere of music.
“There was never any doubt,” he says, “about what I wanted to be.”
Dessau had one of the finest little opera houses in Germany. Kurt grew up with it. He accompanied on the piano the singers who visited his home and wrote songs for them, and his first lessons in composition and harmony were with the opera’s conductor. At 18 he went to Berlin, where he studied for six months with the venerable composer, Humperdinck. In the next three years he got his first real baptism of the theatre in Westphalia. His duties included conducting operas, operettas, and musical comedies, shifting scenery and arranging scores for a 25-piece orchestra.
“As soon as I started writing for the theatre,” Weill recalls, “my music became direct and simple. I discovered I am really a theatre composer.”
That was the year, too, in which Lenya and Kurt were married.
Lotte Lenya was born in Vienna. When she was very young, she went to Zurich to study ballet and eventually danced, sang and acted in the Zurich State Theatre.
“Then I went to Berlin,” she said. She turned to her husband who was sitting beside her on a couch by the old fireplace in the low-ceilinged living room which used to be the kitchen of their stone house. “Now you know the story better than I,” she said with a smile.
“We were doing a children’s ballet in Berlin,” Weill said, “and we were looking for a girl 15 or 16 who could dance, sing and act. One day someone brought in a young lady who I thought was charming. I was playing the piano in the pit. After she’d tried out, she went away and I asked the director where she’d gone. ‘She’ll be back,’ he said. I looked for her, but she didn’t come back.
“A year later George Kaiser invited me to his house outside Berlin. He told me to take the train, then walk from the station through the woods to a certain place on the river where a boat would be waiting for me. Well, there was the boat and there was the girl that I’d seen in the tryout. She rowed me across the lake.”
“And that was the end of him,” Lenya said. “Love on second sight.”
* * *
Lenya played leading parts in several of Weill’s works, notably “The Three Penny Opera” and “The Rise and Fall of Mahogany [sic],” a musical play about, of all places, a mythical town in Alabama. The opening of the latter in Leipzig in 1930 was the occasion of one of the first Hitler scandals. The Nazis bought out part of the opera house and staged a riot. From then on Weill’s professional life in Germany was a continuous battle.
The night of the burning of the Reichstag, he was warned that he was on a list of 120 intellectuals marked for immediate arrest. It was Lenya who insisted that they flee Berlin, leaving all their worldly possessions behind them. After long stops in Paris and London (Weill wrote a ballet-with-words in Paris, in which Tilly Losch and Lenya appeared, and a play-with-music with Jacques Deval), the Weills arrived in New York just 14 years ago this month.
“After ‘Johnny Johnson,'” said the composer, “I decided this was the place I could continue what I’d tried in Europe–a form of musical play between opera on one hand and musical comedy on the other.”
In America, too, Weill continued his habit of working only with the best writers, and working closely with them from the moment an idea for a new play is born. In this way he has collaborated with Paul Green, Moss Hart, Ogden Nash, Alan Lerner, and, of course, his famous neighbor, Maxwell Anderson. Weill and Anderson have written several music-plays together, including the forthcoming “Lost in the Stars,” which the playwright wrote from Alan Paton’s best seller, “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
* * *
And Lenya? Lenya has done some acting here, but comparatively little. The spoken word, unfortunately, is not as international as music.
“I’ve given up acting,” she explained, “because why should I sit around waiting for a part with a little Viennese accent? But I don’t mind–I got it out of my system.”
“She doesn’t have to be analyzed,” her husband smiled.
Lenya is not only vivacious and attractive but also chic. She patronizes only the top designers–or makes clothes for herself on a dressmaker’s dummy she calls “Suzy.” Since leaving Europe she has found she can cook. In fact, her husband says, she is good at anything manual, including repairs around the house.
The Weills swim a little, play a little tennis, ride bicycles a little and enjoy their intellectual and artistic neighbors a lot.
“America,” said Weill, “always seemed a very romantic country to me. It still does.”