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Pensacola Wham

Source: The New Yorker, June 10, 1944, pp. 16-17

Some people, after attending two new pictures, "Lady in the Dark" and "Knickerbocker Holiday," and the current Broadway musical "One Touch of Venus," might, as the result of seeing Kurt Weill credited with music in all three productions, get the idea that he is the most prolific composer in the business, but they would be wrong. Good, yes; quick, no. Actually, those three scores and a batch of music for a World's Fair pageant, "Railroads on Parade," constitute his total output for the last six years. Weill, a small, gentle man of forty-four who wears thick-lensed glasses and has only a fringe of hair remaining, is not especially elated by his coincidental popularity. "Too many times there has not been anything of mine showing, even on Third Avenue," he told us when we called on him last week. He is elated, however, by the news that an old song of his, one he wrote back in 1934 for a French musical play called "Marie Galante," has been adopted by the French underground. It is called "J'Attends un Navire"--"I Am Waiting for a Ship"--and in the play was sung by a lonely prostitute, marooned in Panama, who longed to get back to Bordeaux (ah, the French drama!). As sung these days in the cafés of Paris, it connotes invasion barges.

Weill was born in Dessau, about sixty miles southeast [i.e., southwest] of Berlin, the son of a cantor. Dessau was the capital of the little dukedom of Anhalt and had an opera house which was subsidized by the Duke, who lived across the street and had himself driven over every day in a coach and four to attend rehearsals. Weill was taught piano by the conductor of the opera and at fifteen became the official accompanist, travelling with the stars when they made concert tours of the smaller cities. When he was eighteen, Weill went to Berlin and studied for a year under Humperdinck, whose last opera--rather a bad one, Weill remembers--he helped to orchestrate. Then, when he was nineteen, he went to the town of Lüdenscheid, in Westphalia, where as director of the opera he handled all sorts of productions--grand opera, operetta, revues, and plays. They wanted him to become Kapellmeister, or the civic musical director, but he went back to Berlin to study with Busoni, then the best composer and pianist on the Continent.

For several years, Weill studied under Busoni by day and played the piano in rathskellers at night. The stepping stone to success was a children's ballet he tossed off in an odd moment. It came to the attention of a playwright named Georg Kaiser, who suggested that they collaborate on an opera. They turned out a grand opera entitled "The Protagonists" [sic], which went over so well that Weill never again had to play in rathskellers. At that, it wasn't as big a hit as a subsequent piece of his, "Three-Penny Opera," which ran for three years in Berlin. Weill then composed the score of a fantasy called "The Rise and Fall of Mahogany City" [sic], all about the United States. "For every age and part of the world, there is a place about which fantasies are written," Weill explained to us. "In Mozart's time it was Turkey. For Shakespeare, it was Italy. For us in Germany, it was always America. You have no idea how little we knew about America. We had read Jack London and we knew absolutely all about your Chicago gangsters, and that was the end. So of course when we did a fantasy, it was about America." The story concerned the inhabitants of a [page 17] city who lived in careless luxury until threatened by a hurricane. "When the hurricane was coming, I got out a map and looked for places for it to hit," Weill said. "I found Pensacola. It has a marvellous name for a city to be hit by a hurricane in a musical. I built up a whole chant around it--Pensacola, Pensacola, Pensacola wham!"

Weill let the Nazis know what he thought of them in 1933, in a thinly disguised allegorical music drama called "The Silver Lake," which included a number with the unmistakable title "Ballad for the Death of Caesar." He and his family left the country shortly afterward, when the wholesale arrests that followed the Reichstag fire began. Weill's father and mother now live in Palestine. Weill and his wife--she is a Viennese actress who appeared in one of his Berlin productions--came here by way of Paris and London. After eight years here, Weill is pretty well acclimated, except, he says, for ice-cream sodas and the comic strips, neither of which he fully understands. When he isn't working in Hollywood, he and his wife live in New City, Rockland County, right next to Maxwell Anderson. "If I were removed to a place like off the earth, I would never be homesick for Berlin or Dessau or Lüdenscheid," Weill assured us. "I would be homesick for the drugstore in New City."