BACK STAGE WEST
February 24, 2000
Kurt Weill wrote songs that laugh to keep from crying. The orphaned "Happy End" inspired some of his best.
by Rob Kendt
I hate playing favorites and composing "best of" lists, and I studiously avoided the temptation last year to engage in such fast-food journalism as a new century and a new millennium supposedly dawned on us (that's next year, if you please).
But it's an irresistible proposition, just given the dates: Kurt Weill, born in 1900 and dead by 1950, whose greatest popularity has come in the 50 years since, was the definitive composer of the 20th century.
Alex Ross recently gave this distinction, ambivalently, to the maddening ironist Richard Strauss in the pages of The New Yorker. Last year's Gershwin and Ellington centennials made a good case for those quintessential American masters, and there may be others on someone's short list--Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Lennon & McCartney, and so on.
But my vote is with Weill, not only because he set out, with the populist idealism of so many of the century's artists, to bridge so-called high culture and popular media, but because of the peculiarly creative and insistently individual way he did so (and, movingly, continued to do so even after his idealism was tested by the Nazis, by years of flight from his native Germany, and by the exacting demands of Broadway and Hollywood, which reluctantly embraced this eager Weimar emigre). The body of work he produced across two continents over a period of about 25 years may seem, on the surface, a mongrel catalogue of gratuitously sophisticated foxtrots, marches, tangos, and chorales for a variety of performance media. But behind it all was a singular human voice, a defiantly tender and laughing-to-keep-from-crying voice, which still sings to us across the din of the painful, ebullient century that's passing.
Weill did not create a genre or a school, though theatre music since 1928's The Threepenny Opera owes him a debt. Weill went his own often lonely way, between highbrows who scorned him for tunefulness and the wary gatekeepers of the century's burgeoning mass media, to whom Weill made his share of similarly wary concessions. Indeed, if he were the subject of a VH-1 "Behind the Music" segment, the tearjerking comeback part would be his vindication as a Broadway tunesmith, with such hits as Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus. It was bittersweet triumph, though, for as masterful as those popular American scores were, they pale next to both his earlier collaborations with Bertolt Brecht and Georg Kaiser and later works like Lost in the Stars, his last complete score.
Though he famously claimed not to care about posterity--he was writing for his own time, he insisted--it was his posthumous popularity, spearheaded by his widow, Lotte Lenya, that earned him a wide audience for his best music on its own terms, and has led to a reevaluation of his entire body of work, from the ballets to the burlesques, from the protest songs to the caf confections. His centennial, which comes on Mar. 2, is occasion for wistful celebration of a short, intense career that pulsed at the heart of a troubled century.
Apropos "Behind the Music," the famously contentious collaboration with Brecht would provide the brilliant-but-troubled creative partnership required of any music bio. With the controversial poet/dramatist Weill created, among other works, The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and later the ballet with songs The Seven Deadly Sins.
Among the strangest of Weill's Brechtian projects was 1929's Happy End--strange because it wasn't written by Brecht per se but cobbled together by his assistant Elisabeth Hauptmann under the pseudonym "Dorothy Lane," and because it was staged for just a few performances in Weill's lifetime. Its haphazard assembly and truncated stage life reflected the Marxist Brecht's passive-aggressive reaction to commercial success: The producer of the wildly popular Threepenny, Ernst Josef Aufricht, wanted another made-to-order hit from the team, and Brecht-cum-Hauptmann obliged with a feeble gangsters-vs.-Salvation Army narrative which bored Berlin audiences until late in the third act, when Helene Wiegel, an actress who had just married Brecht, reportedly disrupted the premiere with an out-of-character Marxist screed, delivered directly to the audience.
Not quite lost in the shuffle, thankfully, were Happy End's extraordinary songs, which represent the apotheosis of Brecht and Weill's Berlin style, from the torchy cri de coeur "Surabaya-Johnny" to the prickly ragtime "Bilbao Song." More than its infamous production history, the show's songs have sustained interest in the show. Weill himself later wanted to rework the songs into a spiel--a sort of staged song-cycle--but knew it would mean "endless trouble" with Brecht, with whom he eventually, and mutually, fell out.
Happy End received later German revivals and recordings, but it was not until 1972, when critic/dramaturg Michael Feingold was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre to do a "free adaptation" of the original "Dorothy Lane" libretto and the song lyrics, that the show entered wide circulation, at least in English. Feingold transformed the original German script, which he has called "a desperately casual makeshift," into a lean, light book musical that reflects Brecht's salient inspiration--American gangster films--and, most importantly, frames the songs unobtrusively, with English lyrics that are suitably idiomatic and unbowdlerized.
To celebrate the Weill centennial, though, a pair of Los Angeles-based artists have made it their mission to give the Happy End score its due in a way that would reflect its initial inspiration--to give it even more consideration, in fact, than Brecht or Aufricht did.
"We spent a year conceptualizing it," said Weba Garretson, a punk/cabaret performer who, along with director Randee Trabitz, is the driving force behind a new production of Happy End which opens this week at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen branch. "A lot of it had to do with working with the book--to compress it, use fewer actors, and still tell the story."
The result is a radically reworked script, with four performers taking on 19 roles, eight musicians tackling the thorny, lovely score, scary puppets, and projected video and film clips, all sprawled across 22,000 square feet of MOCA's gallery space.
"A lot of times when you see a Brecht and Weill show, it's like a museum piece, like looking through the proscenium into a diorama of another time," said Garretson. "We wanted to give it the kind of life and spirit that it initially had. The irony is, to do that, we're doing it in a museum. Instead of doing a museum piece in a theatre, we're doing a theatre piece in a museum."
But as much as Garretson and Trabitz felt free to tweak the book, Garretson--who'd been performing rock-quartet arrangements of Weill songs with her band, the Eastside Sinfonietta, for a few years--found she couldn't change a note of the Weill score for this full production, let alone reduce the original eight-piece band orchestrations to her quartet's talents, thanks to the stipulations of the Weill estate.
"In a concert version or recording, you're allowed to adapt the music," Garretson said. "But when you're doing a book musical, you have go by the book. As Sinfonietta, we had created arrangements for four pieces, and that was our creative process for two years with the material. We were hoping we could continue in that direction, but found out we couldn't. So we had to shift gears, and MOCA was very supportive."
So, while she still trusts that Weill's music can be communicated effectively with a smaller group--and indeed has been, by everyone from the Doors to Betty Carter--Garretson said she feels that the stipulation to play the score as written "is completely positive. The essence of what Eastside Sinfonietta learned in our process of adapting these songs is still there; emotionally, it's in our bodies. Now we're just expanding it. The original orchestrations are so careful and specific, and beatiful, and to be able to give that to an audience, knowing that they were happy to hear what we were doing with it before--who wouldn't want to do that?"
And who won't want to hear Chris Wells wrap his tenor around the show's ironic hymns and juicy rags, or see Dan Gerrity insinuate his way into the role of the hard-nosed gangster Bill Cracker, or witness the tough/fragile Elizabeth Ruscio assay a series of roles from barmaid to urban missionary? Garretson herself will play Hallelujah Lil, the Salvation Army soldier whose brush with the criminal underworld leads to the show's ironically Brechtian "happy end"--the alliance of outlaws and missionaries into a sort of anti-capitalist army. Along with film and video by Fredrik Nilsen and Daniel Marlos and design elements by some of L.A. theatre's best and brightest, this Happy End sounds more like a happening than a mere musical.
As Weill himself wrote at the time, his Happy End songs were "badly placed in a bad show." One may say the same of a lot of his best material. That this centennial production--like the reevaluation his posthumous popularity has afforded him--may set things right isn't just a happy end but a promising new beginning.