Source: Radio program hosted by Margaret Arlen and Harry Marble, broadcast January 7, 1950.
Transcription in the Maxwell Anderson Papers, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. The first two pages of the transcription are omitted.
Arlen: You’ve heard of Kurt Weill, the famous composer, I know. Kurt did the music for STREET SCENE, KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY, LOST IN THE STARS–in fact, many of the most beautiful plays that have been done on Broadway we owe in part to him. And it’s a pleasure to have you with us again this morning.
Marble: But you know what I want to ask you right off, Kurt? I heard somewhere that you actually have a trout stream about twenty feet from your house.
Weill: Yes, I have a trout stream in back of my house.
Arlen: Do you actually catch any trout?
Weill: I try to. Other people catch them.
Marble: Where is this house and trout stream of yours, Kurt?
Weill: In New City in Rockland County. I have about half a mile of property.
Arlen: That’s quite an artistic colony up there.
Weill: I wouldn’t call it that exactly. Maxwell Anderson lives there and Milton Caniff . . .
Arlen: I ran into Bill Mauldin not long ago. He said he had just bought a house there.
Weill: Yes, he’s across the street from me.
Marble: That’s quite a collection of talent.
Weill: But artistic colony sounds so awful.
Arlen: I think you’re very lucky to live next door to Maxwell Anderson–maybe that geography is responsible for your collaboration.
Weill: That wasn’t entirely chance. I moved out there when we wrote KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY. Maxwell Anderson has several houses and he gave me one to live in. Well, I liked it so much I decided to stay. We’ve been living there ever since.
Marble: But with all your plays, you must spend a lot of time in New York City.
Weill: I come in only once or twice a week normally, except when a play is in production. Then I’m in much more. And during rehearsals I live in town.
Arlen: One of the good things about being a composer is that you can work just where you want–you don’t have to go to an office every day.
Weill: No, a musician can work practically everywhere.
Marble: You’ve done just that, too, haven’t you, Kurt?
Weill: I certainly have. I started off in Germany, you know. I was born there, grew up there and studied there. I even had my first successes there.
Arlen: When did you come over here, Kurt?
Weill: In 1933 I moved to France and in 1935 I came to the United States.
Marble: How do you like it?
Weill: I love it. What a question! Seriously though, I not only like it but I can work very well here. I have lots of friends too. And I think the American theatre has become–at least in my own field of the musical theatre–the most important theatre in the world.
Arlen: The musical theatre has come a long way, hasn’t it?
Weill: Yes, in the last ten years the musical play has made enormous advances.
Marble: What was the first one you did?
Weill: A play called JOHNNY JOHNSON. That was the first I did here and in a way the first that was put on in this country. Then after that came KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY and LADY IN THE DARK.
Arlen: Two of my favorite plays of all time.
Weill: I’m delighted to hear that. Then I went a step further in musical drama with STREET SCENE and another step with LOST IN THE STARS.
Marble: What’s the difference between a musical play and an opera?
Weill: In opera, music is everything. Music is the dominating element. Everything else is subordinate. In a musical play, the music is integrated into the play. It’s more interwoven than in opera.
Arlen: You wonder why it wasn’t developed before.
Weill: It always existed, but in this country musical comedy developed from the revue, which came out of the minstrel show.
Marble: But it seems like such a natural form.
Weill: It is, but until this time the elements haven’t been blended. Ever since I started in Germany, my main interest has been somewhere between musical comedy and the opera.
Arlen: That’s an enormous field.
Weill: And until now it’s been very neglected. When I came over here playwrights were very hesitant to work with music. They just wrote plays–that was all.
Marble: Somebody had to break the ice.
Weill: That was done with Paul Green who wrote JOHNNY JOHNSON and Maxwell Anderson who did KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY.
Arlen: Did they have to be talked into using music as part of their plays?
Weill: I should say. At first they refused, but later they got very interested. They realized it was a form of musical theatre that should be exploited. And today it’s the most outstanding form in the theatre, I think.
Marble: You don’t have to talk playwrights into it anymore.
Weill: No, now no playwright is ashamed of a musical. Robert Sherwood has written one, Elmer Rice did STREET SCENE with me, Maxwell Anderson is using this form of course, so are Oscar Hammerstein and Moss Hart.
Arlen: And they’re all pretty outstanding theatre people, I would say. Well, the theatre has really changed a great deal in the first half of the century. I wonder what the next fifty years will bring.
Weill: That’s a difficult question.
Marble: Margaret’s good at asking them.
Weill: Well, I hope the next fifty years will bring a further development in this form of theatre–something like an American opera. We’ve started that already with PORGY AND BESS, STREET SCENE, and REGINA.
Arlen: This will be distinctively American.
Weill: Yes, I think this might develop into something very important and different from European opera. I have the feeling that America will be leading culturally much more than in the first half of the century.
Marble: Why do you think so?
Weill: Not only do we have more money and power, but we have great talent here and audiences are getting more and more interested in better things all the time.
Arlen: Is there a great difference between American and European audiences?
Weill: Yes, American audiences are much more receptive to emotions in the theatre. You can play on an American audience much more than a European audience. They can switch from laughing to crying in a moment. They’re very emotional and therefore wonderful.
Marble: Isn’t that funny. I would have thought it would have been just the other way around.
Weill: No, that is my experience. I was amazed to find this out myself. Before I came here I thought Americans were cold and money conscious. Well, I found just the opposite. They’re perfect audiences.
Arlen: And–you said a moment ago–getting better all the time. Then what’s all this talk about the theatre dying?
Weill: People have been saying that for about two thousand years. The theatre is always dying–but never dies. And I’m sure it never will.
Marble: Why are you sure about that, Kurt?
Weill: It’s a very basic part of human expression of feelings. It’s as basic as music, painting, or poetry. But there will always be ups and downs in the theatre–there’s no doubt about it.
Arlen: I wonder whether it will change very much.
Weill: It may take entirely different forms as there’s more interest from more people. And there will be, because of radio, television, and films.
Marble: And you don’t think any of these other mediums will do away with the legitimate theatre?
Weill: No, I think the theatre with live actors will resist all onslaughts from technicalized mediums. You know, when radio started people said it meant the end of the theatre.
Marble: It hasn’t worked that way at all.
Arlen: No, people still like to get dressed up and go out to the theatre.
Weill: Yes, and see live actors. The same predictions were made when talkies came in. Everyone said it was the end of the theatre. Business was down for a few years, but then the theatre came back.
Marble: Very luckily for you–although of course you could work in any other medium too.
Weill: I could write music for the movies, radio and television if the theatre were dead–in fact I have done all this. But I keep coming back to the theatre. It’s more fascinating.
Arlen: Can you explain that fascination to us a little bit?
Weill: It’s small, for one thing. It’s not an industry. The rest are industries, and the creative artist has to adapt himself to the requirement of that industry. There’s no use fighting it. There are enormous amounts of money involved and the industries want certain rules followed to protect those investments.
Marble: There’s a lot of money invested in the theatre, too, though.
Weill: Nowhere near as much. Since the theatre is smaller, the investments are smaller so one is much freer.
Arlen: I guess that’s true. Kurt, what are you working on now? LOST IN THE STARS is getting along very well and I suppose you’re working away at something new.
Weill: I haven’t really started working yet. Maxwell Anderson and I have been discussing the possibility of a play based on the Mississippi books of Mark Twain–TOM SAWYER, HUCK FINN, and LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI.
Marble: What a wonderful idea.
Arlen: How do you start working out an idea like that?
Weill: We talk about it and try to develop a story.
Arlen: You don’t come in on it later after the story is all done.
Weill: Oh, no. I’m always in right at the beginning. I’m never lucky enough to find a libretto and set it to music.
Marble: After the story line is set, then what’s the next step?
Weill: Well, when you’ve developed the story with the playwright it already contains the musical elements. Different people work different ways of course, but with Maxwell Anderson, he sits down and writes the scenes and the lyrics within the scenes.
Arlen: Then you get what he’s done.
Weill: Yes, and I work on the music. I try to catch up with him from then on. We do a first draft, a second draft, and a third draft.
Marble: Wait, when does this stop?
Weill: Not even then. When we go to work with the director, then we do a fourth draft. And when the actors come in, we change everything.
Arlen: It’s quite a process, isn’t it?
Weill: It’s a long pull. It always takes a year. It’s a year of very hard work and nothing else. But it’s a lot of fun too.
Marble: When a show is on Broadway and off to a good start, do you just forget it?
Weill: Oh, no. I go to see LOST IN THE STARS at least twice a week. I check on performances and if necessary I call a rehearsal or give notes to the cast.
Arlen: That certainly takes care of those two days you spend in town every week. You sound like a very busy man.
Weill: I am.
Marble: It’s not like the old days when a composer sat in a garret composing and never stirred out of there.
Weill: I don’t believe those days ever existed. With symphonic composers, yes. But for theatrical composers, no. They always had to work with librettists and go to the theatre. Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini certainly never could cut themselves off from life.
Arlen: I guess not. Kurt Weill, we have one more question for you. We’ve asked several actors who have been our guests what was the most thrilling experience they ever had on the stage or in an audience. We’d like to ask you–as a composer–that same question.
Weill: AD LIB ANSWER
Arlen: Kurt Weill, we want to thank you again for being with us today. It’s been a great pleasure to talk with you.