Cellini (Earl Wrightson), Angela (Beverly Tyler), Duke (Melville Cooper), Duchess (Lotte Lenya) in the original Broadway production of The Firebrand of Florence, 1945
Lotte Lenya (Duchess) and Earl Wrightson (Cellini); Broadway, 1945
Attempting to hang Benvenuto Cellini is a frequent occurrence in The Firebrand of Florence, although somehow his enemies never quite succeed in doing him in; Broadway, 1945
Lenya (as Duchess) and Melville Cooper (as Duke); Broadway, 1945
Entrance of Duchess in Act I; Broadway, 1945
Cellini (Earl Wrightson) and Angela (Beverly Tyler); Broadway, 1945
Concert version of The Firebrand of Florence: Nathan Gunn and Anna Christy with MasterVoices; Alice Tully Hall, 2009 | Photo: Erin Baiano
Florence, 1535. Sculptor Benvenuto Cellini has been sentenced to hang for the attempted murder of Count Maffio (). The people of Florence gather in the public square, gaily celebrating the hanging . On the gallows, the unrepentant, rakish Cellini says it’s been a good life anyway (). Suddenly Alessandro, Duke of Florence, pardons Cellini, because the statue of a nymph he commissioned from the sculptor hasn’t been finished yet, though Alessandro has already paid for it. Walking away from the scaffold, Cellini is set upon by Maffio; this time he kills him (or so it seems).
Back at Cellini’s workshop, his apprentice Ascanio and servant Emilia rejoice in the reprieve (), as Cellini presents an embellished version of his latest duel with Maffio (). He resumes work on the statue, but he has trouble concentrating because of his attraction to his model, Angela. Angela reciprocates the attraction but with reservations (). The French ambassador enters, telling Cellini that the Duke intends to hang him for Maffio’s murder, and suggesting that he flee to Paris, where the king wants him to decorate Fontainebleau. But before Cellini can bolt, Duke Alessandro arrives () to ogle Angela. The Duke decides to carry off Angela to his summer palace, and he puts Cellini under house arrest ().
Cellini escapes his guards and hurries to the summer palace to rescue Angela. He accidentally encounters Alessandro’s wife, the Duchess of Florence () on her way to Pisa. The Duchess makes no secret of her yen for Cellini, and she’s not interested in romance, just sex (). The two plan an assignation for later. Next Cellini encounters the Duke’s cousin, Ottaviano, who demands that he conspire to kill the Duke, but Cellini refuses, and Ascanio helps him escape. At the summer palace, the Duke exults in the opportunity to have his way with Angela (). But Cellini has sneaked in, and he eavesdrops as the Duke makes his move. The Duke senses Cellini’s presence and is unnerved, and his attempt at seduction degenerates into spoonerisms (). Cellini emerges, and a commotion ensues during which Cellini escapes with Angela and the Duchess unexpectedly returns, to the Duke’s chagrin. The act concludes in a merry .
Back in Florence at Cellini’s workshop, Benvenuto and Angela finally consummate their passion. But they bicker the following morning, and when a missive from the Duchess arrives () inviting Cellini to decorate the summer palace, he sets his mind on the Duchess rather than Angela. Cellini’s inconstancy aggrieves Angela, who blames it all on Cupid (). Meanwhile, at the city palace, the guards always have their spears at the ready (“Just in Case”). Inside the palace, the Duke schemes to woo Angela by writing her a love poem, but he can’t come up with . When he learns that Cellini has taken Angela away, the Duke again threatens to hang him, but the Duchess persuades him to put him on trial first.
The people of Florence gather in a carnival atmosphere once again (). The judges read the charges against Cellini () but Cellini protests that his past behavior, like everyone else’s, is predetermined by the stars (). For a moment the Duke is amused by this, sensing that this astrological alibi covers his own amatory transgressions. Then Ottaviano testifies that Cellini conspired to kill the Duke. Just when Cellini appears doomed, Ascanio testifies that it was really Ottaviano who was plotting against the Duke (), and the Duchess supports the accusation. So the Duke again reverses himself, arresting Ottaviano and pardoning Cellini. Now Cellini decides to accept the commission to redecorate Fontainebleau. For the greater glory of art and posterity (), he swears off both the Duchess and Angela, while they commiserate with each other ( reprise).
The scene shifts to Fontainebleau () where Cellini, deprived of Angela as a model/muse, has a bad case of “sculptor’s block.” Suddenly the Duke and Duchess of Florence arrive, with Angela in tow. Cellini reconciles with Angela. Finally he finishes and unveils his nymph statue, as commedia dell’arte players perform a motley dance. Bizarrely, Maffio reappears–he hadn’t been killed after all. As Cellini and Maffio draw their swords, a spirit of gaiety lights up the stage in a final reprise of .
"Eminently satisfying. Gershwin . . . has never been more ingenious and eloquent. . . . He has outdone himself in this latest feat of fitting rhymes to music. . . . [Weill's] score is prodigal with tunes and represents a remarkable variety of moods and modes."
Herald Tribune, 1945
"Weill's score is one of his best and the composer's orchestrations polish the exhilarating melodies. Ira Gershwin's lyrics are among his top lines, being more easily singable and hearable than many an operetta of the past."
"A musical with the excellent music and musicianship of an operetta, and the fast pacing and gayety of a musical comedy . . . . The Kurt Weill music . . . gives the Firebrand its greatest charm."
"Where has The Firebrand of Florence been all our lives? . . . Listen to how Weill drapes lovely and chipper tunes around Gershwin's impish words--and you know how unjust the neglect of Firebrand has been. Throughout the show, astonishing musical phrases are complemented by wise, winsome lyrics . . . . Weill's choral writing is more sophisticated than most heard on Broadway . . . . Another pleasure is . . . the colors and cheeky details in Weill's orchestrations."
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1999
"A charming work."
"A wonderfully rich and imaginative musical . . . . Weill's sublime and memorable music brought the house down."
Daily Telegraph, 2000
"The score is gorgeous . . . . Long passages of the work are through-composed, and Weill's sense of how to build drama is manifest. And there are several luminous melodies, the recurrent 'Life, Love and Laughter' and the song he wrote for Lenya, 'Sing Me Not a Ballad.'"
New York Daily News, 2009
"It doesn't get more classy than Kurt 'Threepenny Opera' Weill and Ira 'Porgy and Bess' Gershwin . . . An ambitious hybrid, musically a mixture of old-fashioned operetta and up-to-date musical theater."
Associated Press, 2009
"A lush pastiche of chorales, madrigals, arias and duets . . . ingenious rhymes and scintillating wordplay."
"Weill's marvelously diverse score and Gershwin's often hilarious lyrics . . . truly are musical theatre gems . . . . Weill's melodies . . . range from traditional waltzes to almost purely classical arias to more traditional musical theatre-style songs . . . . Once the performers began delivering Gershwin's delectable lyrics, it was almost impossible not to be swept along by this dizzyingly daffy tale."
Much Ado about Love 2017
Suite of dances from The Firebrand of Florence.
Conceived and edited by Kim H. Kowalke and John Baxindine.