“Street Scene” Becomes a “Dramatic Musical”
by Kurt Weill
Source: New York Times, January 5, 1947
In my twenty years of theatrical activity I have had many occasions to examine and re-examine the “fabric” of the musical theatre. Starting out as a composer of grand opera at the age of twenty-five, I soon discovered the limitations of a form of entertainment in which almost all of the other demands of the theatre had to be sacrificed to the music, or, more often, to the delicate condition of the vocal chords [sic] of the prima-donna. When I began to branch out into other fields of the musical theatre I discovered the simple truth that the varying categories of musical shows were actually nothing but different ways of mixing the same ingredients–music, drama and movement.
Our theatre has developed a number of standard formulas for musical entertainment–revue, musical comedy, musical play, operetta, light opera and grand opera, each of which follows a time-tried recipe. At the same time there has always been a special fascination for the composer in trying out different mixtures of the same ingredients. The special brand of musical entertainment in which I have been interested from the start is a sort of “dramatic musical,” a simple, strong story told in musical terms, interweaving the spoken word and the sung word so that the singing takes over naturally whenever the emotion of the spoken word reaches a point where music can “speak” with greater effect.
This form of theatre has its special attraction for the composer, because it allows him to use a great variety of musical idioms, to write music that is both serious and light, operatic and popular, emotional and sophisticated, orchestral and vocal. Each show of this type has to create its own style, its own texture, its own relationship between words and music, because music becomes a truly integral part of the play–it helps to deepen the emotions and clarify the structure.
Some of the shows in this form which I wrote in Europe (“The Three Penny Opera,” “Mahogany,” [sic] “The Silver Lake”), indicated that there was a vast, and at that time almost untouched, field for a musical theatre somewhere between opera and musical comedy. Then, a few weeks after my arrival in this country eleven years ago, George Gershwin invited me to an orchestral rehearsal of “Porgy and Bess.” Listening for the first time to that score I discovered that the American theatre was already on the way to the more integrated form of musical that we had begun to attempt in Europe. That gave me courage to start working on a serious musical play for the American stage–“Johnny Johnson.”
During a rehearsal of “Johnny Johnson” I was introduced to Elmer Rice. I had seen his “Street Scene” in Europe and had thought of it many times as a perfect vehicle for a musical play. It was a simple story of every-day life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device–life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.
At that time Elmer told me that he had been approached by several composers with the same idea, but that he thought it too early for a show of that type. Ten years later, on a hot summer day in 1945, as we were leaving a Dramatists Guild meeting together, we started talking about “Street Scene” again and decided that now was the time to do it. The Broadway musical scene had changed quite a bit in the ten years since we had first discussed the plan. Broadway composers had become more “book conscious.” Opera was now a popular entertainment; the public had become interested in singing. Before the second drink arrived (we were planted in a cool bar by this time), Elmer and I had made up our minds to go ahead with “Street Scene.” We decided to do it as a musical version of the play, to cast it entirely with singers, so that the emotional climax could be expressed in music, and to use spoken dialogue to further the realistic action. In discussing the problem of lyrics for a show in which the music had to grow out of the characters we decided that the lyrics should attempt to lift the everyday language of the people into a simple, unsophisticated poetry. We chose Langston Hughes for the job.
As soon as I began to think about the music for “Street Scene” I discovered that the play lent itself to a great variety of music, just as the streets of New York themselves embrace the music of many lands and many people. I had an opportunity to use different forms of musical expression, from popular songs to operatic and ensembles, music of mood and dramatic music, music of young love, music of passion and death–and, overall, the music of a hot summer evening in New York. I have worked for over a year on the score of “Street Scene.” All I can say now is that it has been one of the most exciting years of my life.