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The Alchemy of Music

Music may be the ingredient that will transmute the play into living theatre

by Kurt Weill

Source: Stage, vol. 14, no. 2 (November 1936), pp. 63-64

When we consider the theatre not in its character today but in the light of its origins and historical development, we find the term “musical theatre” a tautological one. The great theatre culture of the past, from which all that we have today derives, the Japanese theatre, the Greek, the medieval mystery, are unthinkable without music; they regard music as an indispensable element of dramatic art; they do not use music merely to intensify the dynamic growth of the action and the rhythm of the performance, but as a substance which, when blended with language, becomes one of the most powerful formal values of theatre. In the Greek theatre the chorus represents the heart and frame of the action, and in the Japanese No-play the chorus draws its song from the very lips of the actor in the middle of his sentence. In the great theatre cultures of the past, music was an inevitable and intrinsic feature of the drama.

In the course of the centuries, concepts have so succeeded each other that today, after an era of musicless theatre, talk about musical theatre is being heard again; drama and music, inseparable in their origin, are trying to come together again. The break between drama and music occurred in the Renaissance, when Italian theatre people and musical composers, in the effort to revive ancient drama, deliberately invented the form of opera. The natural sense of fusion had gone; unfortunate self-consciousness set in. In the beginning opera was musical theatre in the best and purest sense of the phrase; it sought a new blending of song and speech on the basis of great theatre tradition. In fact, the music of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which was really the first opera, bears a strong resemblance to ancient drama.

But gradually the theatre as drama and the newly discovered genre of musical theatre began to take separate paths. The Elizabethan theatre and the Italian commedia dell’arte continued to use music, and opera found in the masterpieces of Mozart a new blend of speech and music where the drama justifies its right to existence in spite of the clear predominance of the music. It was the nineteenth century which brought the definite break. Opera, love-child of the European court, became more and more the property of the music lover. It developed its own style, cultivated its own public, and therewith established an independent life. In this form music is the leading element; ideas of form are far more important than dramatic ideas; the spoken content is pushed farther and farther into the background (so that today, in this country, operas are performed in foreign languages which almost no one understands).

On the other hand the theatre as drama has developed a realistic form which is contented with such a direct photographic representation of life that there is no further relation whatever with music. In this development we find musical theatre only in the light vein, and relegated to such a separate territory that we regard as a matter of course the sharp division between “serious” and “light” theatre. The more that serious music wanders into esoteric regions where very few can follow, the more is light music despised. It is completely forgotten that, in the time of Mozart, such a distinction scarcely existed and that the light muse has produced such geniuses as Offenbach, Sullivan, and Johann Strauss. I consider it one of the most important realizations of recent years that the distinction between good and bad music has replaced the distinction of light and serious, and that good light music is appreciated as being more valuable than bad serious music.

The musical theatre as it exists today consists on the one hand of the opera completely isolated from drama and on the other hand of musical comedy, which is to say a handful of topical events surrounding a group of hit songs. Without contesting the right to existence of both of these veins, since both have their audiences, it can be said that a reestablishment of the true musical theatre is scheduled to take place inside of the enormous territory between the two genres; it has been ripe for a long time. It is obvious that the playwrights of our time are seeking a way out of the realistic theatre, since this art form has found its realization in the films on a scale which the limited stage cannot touch. The dramatists have realized that, alongside the films, the stage has a reason for existence today only if it aspires to a rarer level of truth, only if it restores poetry.

Claudel, Gide, and Cocteau in France, Auden and Eliot in England, Georg Kaiser, Bert Brecht, and Franz Werfel in German drama, each in his own way, have striven to express the ideas and events of our time in poetic drama. This movement is gaining more and more strength in the United States, which has the most exciting theatre in the world after Russia. An entire generation of American playwrights is beginning to concern itself with the non-realistic theatre. Maxwell Anderson finds in verse-drama the possibility of modernizing the Shakespearean form; Paul Green creates a kind of lyrical-epical folk play; Clifford Odets builds his social studies on a poetic structure; and a great number of the younger writers strain to break loose from the theatre form of the last few decades. Playwright and poet are becoming one person again.

That way lies the musical theatre, for musical theatre is the purest and most direct form of poetic theatre. The presence of music lifts the play immediately to a high level of feeling and makes the spectator far more disposed to pursue the poetic line. In a poetic drama without music the author is obliged to use an exalted verse-speech and to get farther and farther away from everyday truth and language. But this has succeeded in very few cases recently, because of the difficulty in finding the right mode of rendition. The actor, in seeking to make the language comprehensible to an audience which has grown unused to it, must approximate as closely as he can the prosaic forms of speech.

In the musical theatre the author is much better able to remain within the bounds of reality because the music assumes the task of widening and deepening the range of effects, of illuminating the action from within, of making the implications and the universality of the events clear to the spectator. Thus the musical theatre creates a basic extension of the material of drama. Music can aid, for example, in restoring the romantic element, which the modern theatre has had to do without for so long. One glance at New York at night, at an industrial photograph, at a flash of any newsreel, at a page of any newspaper, reveals to us the richness of romantic quality that life today contains, and presents dazzling possibilities of new form, once it is concluded that the romantic element deserves to be revived. Here is where music’s power could be so great.

One of the most difficult form problems of contemporary playwrights is the balancing of the opposed values of humor and tragedy without having one destroy the other. I have seen numerous plays where I was unable to rise sympathetically to the dramatic climaxes of the story because the previous humorous scenes had not prepared me for them at all. In a musical play the author can mingle these elements with far greater freedom; his comic scenes can be more comic, his tragic more tragic, since music creates the balance.

The final scene in Mozart’s Don Juan is the classic instance of how a single scene can change from the most abandoned gaiety into the most appalling horror with only one chord. All experiments in musical theatre have unanswerably proven that true theatre music is a great driving force, that it can lead a scene to its climax with unparalleled speed and directness, that it can establish the atmosphere of a scene instantaneously, where the playwright so often needs great stretches of dialogue. Music can do what the greatest performer does at the height of his playing: it can win over the spectator with passion, it can create an exalted mood which makes the poet’s fantasy so much simpler to follow and accept.

It would be wrong to conclude that the form of musical theatre which we are here considering could be brought into existence by turning out some incidental music and then leaning back, or by using music as a marginal sensual stimulant. A play must be conceived from the very beginning as a musical play, if [page 64] the demands of musical theatre are to be at all fulfilled; the form of the play must be created from the musical point of view; the action of the musical play must be more pliable than that of sheer drama, so that lyrics can be planted; the suspense is created not so much through the progress of the action as through the dynamics of the epic tale; and psychology, which has been such an intrinsic feature of drama during recent decades, is replaced by simple, human, universal events.

The aim and meaning of the musical theatre is the binding of speech and music, the most thoroughgoing fusion of the two. Only when speech and music truly combine in song can one speak of the musical theatre. Song is not a simple interruption of action, which could proceed very well without it. It is an indispensable aid to comprehension of the play and its nature; it projects the actions of the play to a different and higher level; over a stretch of scenes it provides a commentary on the action from a human, universal point of view; it lifts the characters out of the frame of the play and makes them express, directly or indirectly, the philosophy of the author. The power of music makes it possible to extend the movement of a word and its operation so that the values of speech find their complement in the values of music.

The common task of poet and composer is to see to it that the song is not inserted in the text as a number, but that it rises naturally and inevitably out of the scene and that it sinks back just as unobtrusively. Thus, in the ideal musical theatre, the dialogue has a musical quality even when there is no actual music, so that the transition can be entirely simple and unforced when the actor switches from speech to song. Of course it is never singing in the sense of pure singing art, like opera. The actor sings with his natural voice, the voice he would use to give speech its highest intensity. This makes it imperative for the composer to produce a clear, simple, melodic line so that the performer will not be faced with any unnatural burdens. But in general I have found (and my collaboration with the Group Theatre has sharply confirmed it) that actors work with great excitement and devotion on musical problems, that they are astonishingly musical, and that one can impose greater musical difficulties upon them than anyone imagines.

Once song has been acknowledged as an exalted medium of expression and as an intrinsic feature of dramaturgy, we begin to glimpse infinite possibilities for its use in solos, in small groups and in a chorus. One can cover (as I did with Max Reinhardt for The Eternal Road) all the middle tones of the scale from pure speech to song-speech, recitative, half-singing, and even pure singing. And with the aid of music one can enter the realm of fantasy and give speech to “superhuman” qualities which can only be referred to in the realistic theatre. This occurs twice in Johnny Johnson; when song is understood as coming from a statue and then from a machine.

But all this is possible only on the basis of intimate collaboration between author and composer from the day the play is conceived to the night it achieves its first performance, so that the composer cannot content himself with the creation of music, but assists in the construction of every scene of the action, to the point where his music becomes an integral part of the whole.

I have always striven to collaborate with the best dramatists I could find. The three operas I wrote with Georg Kaiser, the five stage plays with Bert Brecht, the experiments with Caspar Neher, Jacques Deval, and Franz Werfel–all these were efforts to win playwrights over to the idea of musical theatre. I consider it a great stroke of luck to have collaborated with such a writer as Paul Green in my first American attempt, Johnny Johnson, since he had already grappled with the problem of musical theatre himself before this and had a concept thereof which amazingly resembled the one I had worked out in Europe.

From the day I visited him in North Carolina to discuss the idea of a musical play, my convictions have grown stronger and stronger that, in the rich musical quality of his speech, in the simple human approach of his theme, in the true folk humor of his characters, and in the beauty of his poetry, all the conditions for the creation of a new musical theatre stand ready.

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