Composer Kurt Weill and Playwright Maxwell Anderson Air Views on Racial Harmony in Latest Collaboration
by Harry Gilroy
Source: New York Times, October 30, 1949
All the elements of a beautiful and moving parable about racial hate and harmony are in the hands of the company that presents “Lost in the Stars” at the Music Box Theatre tonight. The novel from which this play is taken–“Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton–is widely cherished as a portrayal of the peace that replaces racial bitterness in South Africa when whites and blacks recognize their common humanity.
To adapt this story, Maxwell Anderson has drawn on his talent for poetic drama and Kurt Weill on the gifts that have raised his musical plays to the foothills of opera, and both playwright and composer have been inspired by the feeling that the story says something they have been groping to express for several years.
Whether this story and these talents–plus the directorial touch of Rouben Mamoulian and such voices as Todd Duncan’s–will fuse into memorable theatre awaits the proof of public performance. But, it is apparent that those who have worked on the play have found the experience most satisfying. Some of the reasons for this satisfaction came out during a talk at rehearsal a couple of nights ago with Mr. Weill, a man who might be described as being of a size and general air of amiable unconcern that one would associate more with a retired jockey than with one of the theatre’s more sensitive composers.
Intrigued by Novel
“Five or six years ago,” Mr. Weill said, “Maxwell Anderson and I tried to do a musical play about racial problems. We had to lay it aside finally, but the desire to do such a play stayed with us.”
After a sortie down the aisle to talk about a music cue, Mr. Weill told about the inception of “Lost in the Stars.” Messrs. Weill and Anderson were having dinner with the Oscar Hammersteins 2d and Mrs. Hammerstein urged the playwright to read “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a copy of which she had prior to publication. By the next morning, Mr. Anderson gave his verdict: “This is exactly the story we’ve been looking for.” The story of the Negro minister and the white man who attain friendship even after the minister’s son kills the son of the other man, in Mr. Weill’s opinion, has “a rare quality of lack of violent hate, which makes it not particularly suitable for a drama but ideal for a musical play.”
The play contrived by the dramatist and composer from that story has a message, Mr. Weill said, but he qualified his statement. “By showing the relationship of this father to his son–the one who is thrown into a crime–and showing the relationship of the other father to his son, who is murdered, and then the relationship of the two fathers, we give a picture of the whole world today.
“The really fine thing about this story is that it carries a message of hope that people through a personal approach will solve whatever racial problems exist. I don’t believe that anyone who has worked on the play thinks in terms of its message–you never do that with a play. What you do is present a certain situation–as Alan Paton has done in this book. By showing it in terms of the personal tragedies of these two men we are able to say all that we want to say, and we never do have to declare what the message is.”
In attempting to create appropriate music, Mr. Weill wanted to avoid the tom-tom beat familiar to Americans through many jazz compositions, as well as to avoid the style of the Negro spirituals of our South. “Yet there must be tom-toms in the score at times,” he said. “Also, American spirituals are closer to African music than many people realize.”
Mr. Weill sent to Africa for recordings of Zulu music. While he steeped himself in the story, he played over the records. It was not at all music such as we know, he found. “It’s not harmony, and it’s not melody, and it relies on a great many quarter tones. But, you see, I wasn’t trying to reproduce the native music of Africa any more than Maxwell Anderson was trying to provide with words a local-color picture of life there. I’m attempting to get to the heart of the public, and my public wouldn’t feel anything if I gave them African chimes.”
When Messrs. Anderson and Weill began to write the show, they found one distinctly valuable product left from their earlier effort on the racial theme–the song, “Lost in the Stars,” which supplies the name for their present play. Mr. Weill described the song: “It says that we’re all here on the same little planet, floating along in the universe, and we’re all lost in the stars. Do you see the perspective it gives on the relations between races, between majority and minority groups, between one man and another all over the globe?”
On the stage, as Mr. Weill made this comment, the powerful figure of Todd Duncan–majestic even in a canary-yellow sport shirt–strode into the center of a set that represented in an impressionistic way the crude chapel of the Rev. Stephen Kumalo. “Notice that this is an Anglican church,” murmured Mr. Weill. “That is another influence that appears in the music. In general, the whole play has a Biblical tone that we hope the public will like.”
The rehearsal halted for a rest period, and Mr. Weill, in his shirt sleeves, wandered into the rather chilly air of Forty-fifth Street. “Everyone should learn that amiable feeling between the races not only is common humanity but often brings tangible rewards,” he said.
“Let me tell you about a girl who works for us. When we went to Hollywood some years ago, she went along. Coming back, I engaged a room on the train for my wife and me and another room for the girl, but someone out there said she couldn’t have a room because she was of the Negro race. When we insisted she was going to have it, this person asked if we could see to it that she wore her working uniform for the trip. Finally, we got finished with all this ridiculous nonsense and occupied the space reserved for us, and my wife and I took all our meals in the room with our girl.
“Because it was war time, there was poor service on the train, but the waiters saw to it that the service in that one room was top notch.” Mr. Weill exhibited the quick smile again. “So you see people should learn that friendly race relations pay big dividends.”