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 November 23, 2012

In a Little Weill and Lenya

We’re all so lucky to live in an age where Ethan Mordden writes about musical theater.

Many of us feared that Mordden might retire after writing seven amazing volumes on the 20th century Broadway musical. Happily, he hasn’t. A vibrant tome about the 20th century Broadway play and a potent Ziegfeld biography have followed.

And as if chronicling the life of one musical theater icon weren’t enough, now he’s tackled two: Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya in Love Song.

Yes, for Weill viewed Lenya as the second-greatest love of his life. “You know you come right after my music,” he unabashedly told her – and he meant it as a compliment. Mordden states that if you were talking to Weill, you might find mid-sentence that he’d pull out a piece of paper “and scribble a staff and some notes on it.” First things first.

If you assume that Lenya had to settle for less and was a long-suffering spouse, Mordden informs us that she had a zesty sexual appetite. When she married Weill, her maid of honor was a lesbian with whom she’d had an affair. After she closed in Weill’s The Firebrand of Florence after too short a run, “Lenya,” writes Mordden, “was devastated (though she did console herself with an affair with one of the lads in the ensemble).” To Weill, Lenya’s infidelities “showed spirit and a love of life.” The enthusiasm spread to gambling, for after Lenya’s first visit to a casino, she became “a merry addict of games of chance.”

Weill’s actual name was Curt Julian Weill; his middle name came from his mother’s fondness for Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black. Mordden describes Sorel: “He starts by seducing the wife of his first employer.” (Hmmm, sounds as if there’s at least some blue in The Red and the Black.)

They met when Lenya, who at the time was little more than a gofer for a theater company, was summoned to meet-and-greet the already illustrious Weill. She had to row him across a lake to his destination. Can you picture that?

Better: can you picture Lenya as Juliet Capulet? In fact, she played it. Even harder to envision is her doing a German-language production of the 1928 Broadway play Hoboken Blues -- in blackface. In fact, as soon as she and Weill arrived in New York in 1933, they went to Hoboken to see what they had mistakenly assumed was the seat of black culture.

By then, Lenya was known. But not too many years before, she was struggling. When she finally got her breakthrough role, she learned on opening night that her name had inadvertently been left off the program. Many out there who are reading this are nodding, for this happened to you, too, in some school production. But were you as mature and confident as Lenya when it happened? She shrugged and said, “They’ll know who I am tomorrow.” (And they did.)

Of course, any book on these two is also going to have something to say about Bertolt Brecht. (Not Bertholdt, as we sometimes see it; Mordden informs us that that spelling is incorrect, and tells us why.) Brecht impressed Weill with one of his radio plays, which led to their The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. For the latter, Lenya claimed she gave Brecht one of its most pungent lines: “Do you want me with panties or without?”

Because Germans blew whistles in lieu of booing shows they didn’t like, Brecht outfitted his Mahagonny cast with whistles so they could blow right back. Mordden understands both reactions: he admits that Mahagonny is “one of the strangest things ever written.”

Greater acclaim and popularity was to meet Threepenny. Mordden has found that The Pimps’ Opera was a working title; in Vienna, it was called The Boy Friend of All London; in France, it became The Fourpenny Opera, which, Mordden teaches us, was a better title for French audiences. As if all these alternate titles weren’t enough, Brecht wanted the Threepenny film to be called The Bump on the Head.

No matter what The Threepenny Opera was called, it wouldn’t have pleased the Nazis. You may not be surprised to hear that they tried to destroy prints of the film, but Mordden reveals that if the Nazis encountered a show they didn’t like, they’d release mice in the theater. This is only one nugget of Mordden’s extensive look at German history, from when Berlin was “the Wild West without a sheriff” to the dictatorial state that sent Weill and Lenya packing. And as bad as the revelation about Nazis and the mice is, a story about Lenya and a rat is even more harrowing.

In case you’ve wondered why there weren’t more Brecht-Weill collaborations, Mordden has the answers. He points out that the playwright “never stopped stealing, never stopped screaming and never stopped stooging for the totalitarian crushing of the human spirit.” Brecht was hardly a family man (“There’s so little one can do with children except be photographed with them.”) and barely a human being: he usually smelled like a hamster cage. His odor was only one reason that Lenya didn’t like him. After Weill stopped working with him and greatly eclipsed him in popularity, Brecht tried to revive the collaboration with some smiles and sweet talk. Said Lenya, “It is not surprising that someone gets soft when he is down and out.”

Weill’s American fame and fortune came only after experiencing success d’estime after success d’estime in the ‘30s. Finally, the early ‘40s brought two blue-chip Broadway smashes: Lady in the Dark, which ran more than a year, and One Touch of Venus, which ran even longer.

Mordden addresses the long-held belief that Weill Americanized his style, which was responsible for his acceptance in the states. “The relentless hectoring by critics at the way Weill supposedly changed his style from uniquely German to stereotypically American,” he writes, “ignores the fact that he changed his style from work to work.” Exhibit A is Weill’s suddenly found French voice for Maria Galante. “Weill’s works,” writes Mordden, “do not startle us today because we have got used to the works conceived under their influence.”

He also tells us about works that almost-but-not-quite happened; some 38 years before Her First Roman, Weill thought about musicalizing Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Add to this some charming little factoids -- as late as the 18th century in many European countries, actors could not be buried in churchyards – and you’ve got quite a book.

First and foremost, though, are analyses of the works, to which Mordden gives ample coverage. Of Lady in the Dark: It was “neither straight play nor musical – nor a blend of the two – but rather two genres taking turns.” Regarding Street Scene: “Weill’s use of every practice in the musical-theater manual created a blend that amounts to a new genre.” As for Love Life, one reason that lyricist Alan Jay Lerner didn’t allow a new production in the 10 years after its failure (and absence of a recording) is that he wanted to someday recycle one of his best lyric ideas: “I Remember It Well,” which, of course, he eventually did re-use.

Mordden not only mentions celebrities of the day, but offers witty comments on them: “Joan of Arc would give in before Helen Hayes would” and “Schonberg was clearly turning himself into what detractors used to call Modern Music: the kind nobody likes.” He also lets us know that long before Groucho Marx sang about “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” a German entertainer used precisely such a persona.

Just like Bobby in the Weill-influenced Urinetown, Weill dies long before the work’s conclusion: he leaves us on page 258 of the book’s 318 pages. Thus, most of the last fifth of the book centers on Lenya. Somewhere in heaven, George Davis – one of her many husbands – is smiling, for Mordden gives him the credit for getting her to abandon a too-early retirement. Her return also helped the world to rediscover Weill.

Even after Mordden completes the tale of Weill and Lenya, he has two more terrific chapters. First comes “Sources and Further Reading” (“George Bernard Shaw was happy to do business with the Nazis during the war.”) and then a discography. Of John Reardon’s recording of “This Is New,” Mordden has this hilarious observation: “Reardon oversings it shamelessly, pouring out tone till the piece rings like church bells when peace is declared.”

Actually, those bells should ring out every time Ethan Mordden gives us a new book on musical theater.

         — Peter Filichia


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