by Arthur Pollock
Source: The Sunday Compass, June 19, 1949, p. 18
A little round-faced man, relaxed and soft-spoken, born in Dessau near Berlin of a family that had lived in Baden since the 1500’s, is helping with his music to remold the American theatre. Kurt Weill is the name.
He came here in 1935 from the Germany he described as “horrible at that time,” wrote the music for Paul Green’s beloved “Johnny Johnson” the year after, and has since brought melody to plays by Moss Hart, Elmer Rice, Edwin Justus Mayer, Alan Jay Lerner and Maxwell Anderson. “I have luck with my playwrights,” he says.
And at the moment he and Anderson are casting the musical play they have made from Alan Paton’s admired book, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” picture of the life of the Negro in South Africa. Rehearsals start in August.
On the subject of “Cry, the Beloved Country” Weill is not loquacity itself. “It’s a new form,” he says. “I don’t want to say too much about it.” He enjoys more talking about the genesis and growth of a little opera called “Down in the Valley,” being done now on some 80 campuses and to be sung July 6 by the Lemonade Opera. That, too, is a new kind of thing. But it has already jelled. “Cry, the Beloved Country” is in process.
No Drums This Time
But he will say that the new Anderson-Weill musical play, though African, will have no drums in it. “People think all African music is drums,” he says. “In the South of Africa it is mostly choral. There are as many musical variations in Africa as there are, probably, between our music and the Eskimo’s.” There will be songs, and a chorus to comment on the plot.
How does a composer go about writing music representative of another country and another culture? He does not suddenly try to pass himself off as a native of that country or even as an authority on its music. Bizet’s “Carmen” music had a Spanish ring but it was not Spanish. Weill, way back at the beginning of his composing for “Cry, the Beloved Country,” got out his African records, played them over and over, put them aside and forgot them. A feeling remained.
He did not wait until Anderson finished his dramatization. The two started together from scratch. They live next door to one another up in New City.
Weill is particularly proud of the musical version of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene,” done here in 1947. “It established the musical play form on a high level both as drama and music,” he says. “Street Scene” comes back this summer to be sung in Lewisohn Stadium and at the Hollywood Bowl. And it is also to be put on in Central Europe.
Radio Not Ready
It is these new ways of doing things that absorb Weill’s interest. In Germany in 1931 he began writing opera for schools, and 500 schools sang them. Some years ago he and Olin Downes got the idea of doing folklore programs for the radio. That led to an important development.
With Arnold Sundgaard, author of “Everywhere I Roam,” Weill did a little musical play around the old song “Down in the Valley,” which begins, “Write me a letter and send it by mail.” Radio was not up to it.
Sometime later, however, the dean of Wayne University in Detroit asked the composer if he had something students could do. Weill and Sundgaard expanded “Down in the Valley” to a 50-minute opera. It was done last July in Indiana University before an audience of 3,000. And now 80 theaters all over the country are busy with it.
“They like ‘Down in the Valley.’ It’s like a Western, with love and hate and murder, everything except horse riding. And the old folk songs and folk tales have a lovely flavor.”
“I Never Look Back”
Germany the composer never wants to see again. “I never look back. It was so horrible in the last years I was there and I try to forget it. This is the place for me. I am perfectly happy now. In the years before Hitler, when Germany was a democracy, it was a wonderful place, full of creative work. The theater, all the arts, were doing new things. There was a real renaissance. But then Hitler . . . Germany is Faust, you know.”