A musical revue

Book by Gene Lerner
Music by Kurt Weill
Lyrics by many lyricists, including Bertolt Brecht, Marc Blitzstein, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, Maxwell Anderson, Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes

INFO:

Opened at the Theatre de Lys    Oct. 1, 1972    152 performances
Original Director: Donald Sadler
Original Choreographer: Sadler
Original Producer:Gene Lerner & Hank Kaufman
Original Leads: Jerry Lanning, Margery Cohen, Judy Landers, Hal Watters, Ken Kercheval
Cast Size: Male: 3  Female: 2  Ensemble: 0  Total Cast Size: 5
BUT can be done with any number over 5, and could be wonderful with 10 good singers, 20. There’s plenty of great songs to go around!  And a dance company, a choir could be added.  read on.
Orchestra: 6
Published Script: None
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theater International)
Recordings: The Off-Broadway original is simply wonderful, a perfect introduction to the work of Weill, who I believe was the greatest composer in musical theater history. It’s only available on vinyl, and you’ll really need to search, but it’s well worth the effort.
Film: None
Other shows by the authors: The Threepenny Opera, The Rise And Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Happy End, Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday,  Lady In The Dark, One Touch Of Venus, Love Life, Street Scene, Lost In The Stars

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

Every small company, everyone who loves musicals, every theater company with an experimental taste, every college, every little theater, every dinner theater, every stock company, and a lot of pros. This is a small show, with its cast of five and an orchestra of 6. It could be done with just piano, as a last resort and if you really need to go small. Weill’s piano arrangements were always evocative and effective.

I’m going to suggest another way this show can be done, as well, an alternative that makes it dynamic and even perfect for larger theater companies, schools, universities and the like. I think it’s an exciting approach to this show, and should be seriously considered. And it makes this a very strong candidate for nearly any sized group and theater, from the smallest to the largest.

Be Warned:

Some of the material is famously edgy, particularly the Brecht/Weill prices from The Threepenny Opera and other shows. There is suggested violence, strong adult emotions, political commentary. Not a show for young kids. High Schools probably can’t sing it, anyway, but the content might well scare them off. The emotional demands made on performers are too profound for most teen-aged casts, and even some in their twenties.

And though there are many famous songs in the show that you can focus your promo and marketing on, many people today do not know who Weill was, much less his famed collaborators. You may need to find a real marketing angle. It’s a story about a Jewish composer who became Europe’s most produced, and then had to flee the Nazis, getting out of Berlin a day before they came for him, and finally becoming a success in America, on Broadway. That story alone is worth telling, and promoting.

One minor concern, there is a limited – very limited – amount of German and French sung in the show.  You will need someone around to coach this material and get the pronunciation right.  It’s really very little.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: This is a revue, and there isn’t a “story” other than that of Weill’s life. We are told that he was raised in Germany, met his wife Lotte Lenya, who would sing so many of his songs so memorably, and would meet the great German playwright, Bertolt Brecht. Together, they created the mega-hit, The Threepenny Opera, probably the earliest truly great musical, which produced the immortal song, “Mack The Knife”. It would be performed all over Europe within a year, its songs sung everywhere, cafes opening up just to play Threepenny full time! They would go on to write many shows together, including Happy End, and Mahagonny. (There were quite a few more, not mentioned in the revue. It’s just too much!) Then, Weill had to flee from Germany as the Nazis took power, being a Jew. In fact, they came for him a day after he’d left. In France, he wrote another musical, but did not feel he was safe, there. (He was right.) He went to England, and finally, of the ship Majestic, came to New York City, where he would live and work the rest of his life. His first Broadway score was for Johnny Johnson, a strong anti-war piece.

ACT TWO: Weill then began to write a string of hit songs and shows. Knickerbocker Holiday, written with great playwright Maxwell Anderson, produced perhaps his greatest song, September Song. (I believe it to be the most beautiful song of the 20th century.) Lady In The Dark, written with George Gershwin’s brother Ira, and with Moss Hart, became the first show in Broadway history to play to SRO every performance, and gave us another gorgeous ballad, “My Ship”. One Touch of Venus, starring Mary Martin, was his biggest Broadway success, and gave us yet another wonderful ballad, “Speak Low”. He wrote with Alan Jay Lerner (my pick for Broadway’s best lyricist ever), while :Lerner was on a break from writing great shows with Fritz Loewe. Then a Broadway opera, Street Scene, with lyrics from great American poet Langston Hughes, and which won the first Tony ever for Best Score, and provided perhaps the most personal song from any Broadway show, Lonely House. Then another collaboration with Maxwell Anderson, Lost In The Stars, about apartheid in South Africa, which gave us what I think was Weill’s second most beautiful song, the title song. He started to create a musical from Huck Finn, with Anderson, completing six songs.

And then he died of a heart attack, at age 50. It was years after his demise that wonderful musical theater writer Marc Blitzstein translated Threepenny opera into English, it opened Off-Broadway and set a long-run record. And Weill was rediscovered.

THE SONGS:

from The Threepenny Opera How to Survive, Barbara Song, Useless Song, Mack the Knife, Pirate Jenny from Happy End March Ahead to the Fight, Don’t Be Afraid, Bilbao Song, Surabaya Johnny, Childhood’s Bright Endeavor, Mandalay Song, Sailor Tango from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny Alabama Song, Deep in Alaska, Oh, Heavenly Salvation, As You Make Your Bed from Marie Galante I Wait for a Ship from Johnny Johnson Songs of Peace and War, Hymn to Peace, Johnny’s Song from Knickerbocker Holiday How Can You Tell an American?, September Song from Lady in the Dark Girl of the Moment, Saga of Jenny, My Ship from One Touch of Venus Speak Low, That’s Him from Love Life Progress, Love Song from Street Scene Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?, Lonely House, Lullaby from Lost in the Stars Train to Johannesburg, Cry, the Beloved Country, Lost in the Stars

Hits include most of the songs, but particularly Mack The Knife, Pirate Jenny, Surabaya Johnny, Mandalay Song, Alabama Song, I Wait For A Ship, Johnny’s Song, September Song, Saga Of Jenny, My Ship, Speak Low, Lost In The Stars.

MY OPINIONS:

As always, you can elect to skip my opinions and rating.  But if your show closes before summer, remember, it’s a long, long while from May to December…

This is not a “book show,” it’s a revue that relies on the strength of the songs, a mood, and simple narration. Its scripted narration loosely covers Weill’s fascinating life. He authored the first truly great modern musical, Threepenny Opera, in his early 20s, was enormously successful as a composer of modern opera in Europe, and then had to flee Germany as the Nazis took power. He fled to France, where he wrote one show and ran again. Then to England, and finally to America. There, this man famous for edgy, even occasionally bizarre music (but always melodic, haunting, unforgettable) became one of Broadway’s greatest composers of hit songs, and perhaps it’s greatest musical dramatist ever. There is no one who composes music like Weill’s, it is completely unique and distinctive, easily identifiable, and utterly memorable.

I first encountered this show as the original two-record cast album was played on a local radio station that had a show about musicals, in the early 70s. I missed the first five minutes and was not sure what I was listening to, but I simply found it impossible to turn it off. Not only were the songs extraordinary, unlike anything I’d heard before, but the original cast sang like angels, with hell right on their heels. Fantastic vocalizations, tight harmonies that soared and seared, this show is musically designed beautifully. This introduction to Weill’s work grew into a life of research, interest and passion. This show has real power, and that power is in the songs, and in how your performers express them. And that gets us to a production of this show.

Done as it was originally designed. you have got to have four titanic musical theater singers, one for each vocal part. They must be interesting to watch, charismatic. They must move moderately well, though that is not much of a concern. They must be very strong actors, able to evoke and maintain moods that shift almost instantly. And they’re going to need to really, really sing. Not opera singing, which may surprise you after discovering Weill’s classical music background. The score is built with the most remarkable, powerful and beautiful show tunes. Your singers must be, each of the four, fantastic musical theater performers who have an unerring gift for putting the shape and emotion of a song across, while getting all the technical things right (like pitch). They’re going to need to harmonize very well, too. And given the amount of singing to be done, they will need to be nearly inexhaustible. But I believe you will readily find such performers. Few true musical theater lovers and performers would walk away from a chance to sing this material, once exposed. So you may need to have a “demo” of sorts. Or send them to the MTI page where they can hear some of the original recording. They’ll be hooked in short order, and you’ll get the sort of cast you want.

That said, there is another approach that in many ways, I like better.  This approach will open up your cast size to any number you choose, as well as open options for choreography and visual content.  It will help diversify the feel and look of the many numbers, providing your director far more creative options.  More to follow, but believe me, this show will work for any sized theater or theater group, at any level except High School and kids groups.

MY RATING: ** (An excellent show, well worth considering)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

No one composes more interesting and richer music than Weill. The score for a musician is like some astonishing feast. But it is not simple, not easy to play or to learn. Weill’s sense of harmonics is rare and different from the run of the mill. His melodies are filled with unusual jumps and unexpected intervals. Teaching this score will take some time and work. You should try to get four performers who at least read music a bit.

Each of your singers must have great vocal control. They will need to sing with power, to belt well. They will need clear, clean, well-controlled head voices. They will need to act while singing, to present soulful, felt renditions of songs, and then turn around and present self-deprecating irony. The need for effectiveness of each voice, and their ability to flawlessly harmonize and sound like three times the number of singers, cannot be stressed too much here.

Baritone – Sings the most beautiful song in the show, “September Song”, and must break our hearts, but he also sings tons of ironic, comic material. Will need to be able to get just a bit into tenor territory.

Soprano – Must have a soaring, almost belting soprano quality, but be able to withdraw, go breathy and intimate. Sings “Trouble Man”, a ridiculously beautiful and powerful emotional piece.

Alto – Strong, rangy, emotive, the same as the others, should have some soprano notes.

Tenor – Almost classical range, clear, soaring, pitch perfect. Sings “Lonely House” and “Johnny’s Song”, two expressions of loneliness unlike any others.

Narrator – Mostly a speaking part, but I do not see why he could not sing something.

Additional Cast – Okay, so here’s my idea. Say you have a college department, even a High School with a lot of talented students, or a Little Theater with 10 actors who sing and want a part, or a stock company with 20 signed up. USE THEM ALL. Separate out these four roles and the harmonies and create something bigger, but easier to deliver. One reason I think this show has seen rare life is that the roles are simply too hard for most musical theater performers. Each of the four does a lot of singing, and it’s hard singing, and lots of music and harmonies.

So split it up! Get two for each role (except the Narrator, keep him solo). Or split it in odd ways, 5 guys and 7 girls, or whatever – whatever you have available. So long as they can really sing the songs you give them each, and they can harmonize well. There is no dramatic reason why this show must be kept small, though it certainly works that way and provides each of the four performers a star vehicle. But again, if you just don’t have that kind of cast available, that’s no reason not to do this show. If you need to provide roles for more actors, and many situations demand that, this can still be exactly the show for you.

Also, if you are a school with more singers, even a choir, use them. Lots for a choir to sing, here. In short, this show will allow you to use all your resources. There are just so many great numbers that all your performers will have a chance to shine. Adding bodies may increase the chance to get some more movement in, some real choreographic work, and that would be a good thing.

And imagine a lot of beautiful voices singing those tight harmonies in “Heavenly Salvation” and “Cry The Beloved Country”, and “Ain’t It Awful The heat”, oh my!

More on this to follow.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

It’s a show for singers with an interesting look, and strong acting chops. They will need to move, but there should not be a lot of “choreography.” The vocal demands are so great that the provided movement should largely be restricted to evocative gestures and simple steps.

Unless… So you go to a larger cast size. Now, two people can sing while four others dance (as an example). Let’s say you’re doing the “Sailor’s Tango”. Have a few singers go at it, even a group of them, as you see fit. And allow two or four dancers, paired up and with cigars in hand or mouth, to tango, using the whole stage.

For “Mack The Knife”, a quasi-ballet of violence and crime as we see what is being so cheerfully sung about contradicted in mood by movement.

When in Bill’s Beer hall in Bilbao, in “Bilbao Song”, show us the crowd’s drinking, the mess of their lives choreographically.

In “Hymn To Peace”, a simple round musically, show a dozen “soldiers” dying in slow motion, shot, fighting hand-to-hand, even as the simple and eloquent music passes quickly.

In “How Can You Tell An American”, go “Guys and Dolls” on the audience, and do something like that show’s opening dance-mime that demonstrates life in the big city, in this case, as an American.

In “Ain’t It Awful, The Heat,” fill your stage with “common New Yorkers” on their stoops and on the street, interacting in dance as they react to the oppressive heat.

For “Lonely House”, place the soloist in an isolated spotlight, one that moves as he gently strolls. In the shadows around him, dancers lead isolated, lonely city lives, pass each other unnoticed, and no communication occurs. Crowded, but lonely, as the song says. Gradually empty the stage except your soloist.

In “Cry The Beloved Country”, show the victims of Apartheid, beaten, jailed, discriminated against, and do it in dance.

These are just eight examples of something you might do many times in the show. But if you only choreographed these six numbers this way, and then helped stage the gorgeous “Lost In The Stars”, which is the last number and will need to be full cast, you will have opened the show up visually in ways the original production could have only dreamed.

As to the difficulty of the dance, if you take this approach some of your cast can specialize in dance. In fact, you could integrate a dance troupe if they were available and interested. Even the placement of 2-4 dancers would open the show up in dynamic ways that could only improve the evening.

One other thing, you should know which numbers not to “choreograph.” Beautiful solos, as a rule, don’t need the distraction, such as “September Song” and “My Ship”. Talk this sort of thing over with your Director and Music Director.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Pretty well described above, I think. As to age ranges, the casting usually tends to be in the 20s-30s, maybe 40s at the oldest, as it requires so much energy to sing all this material.

SETS:

A bare stage is fine, but I’d do more. Representations of each Weill show, even the banal pseudo marquees, could get used, but I wouldn’t. I think each song in this show is its own universe, and should have some visual life. That said, the show can be broken into sections.

Section one – German works. This is a lot of material, 16 songs or so, and most of Act One. Perhaps start with some sort of hints of rising Nazi-ism in the set, a distant flag, whatever. Go multi-media, this show is a prime candidate if you’re opening it up. Footage of the time in Germany, the Nazi rallies, start to intrude in the background as the numbers pass, or fill in between numbers in increasing violence. You can even use actors as a part of your set. A single Nazi at the edge of your stage, watching the Threepenny songs, with hate and disapproval. Add more to his ranks as the act progresses. Finally, as the narrator informs us, Weill must flee the country. By that time, perhaps the stage is awash in Nazi symbols, soldiers, what have you. All of this would serve to remind the audience of the time and the stakes that Weill and Brecht wrote under. And it will open up the look and feel of the show.  Buy the way, imagine a single “Nazi” seated in the front row or even on stage watching these anti-Nazi numbers, and booing.  He’s eventually joined by a second, a third, and eventually enough that the performers must flee the stage for their lives, demonstrating what happened to Weill.  The growing tension would be dynamic.

Section Two – Short, France. A single symbol, and not just the French Flag. Something to do with the resistance, in line with the narration here. Perhaps a man in the shadows whistling in silhouette,

Section Three – The ship to America, passes in a moment, but it’s a valuable symbol and image.

Section Four – The rest of the show, and Act Two entire, in America. Weill piles on hits, and we could see this with growing numbers of marquees, perhaps. His American works were often written as Americans fought WW II. If you’ve gone multi-media, you can contrast the beauty and charm of Weill’s work with images of the war. Just don’t intrude into the songs much, don’t negate them.

In short, don’t do NO set, or a bare stage, if it can be avoided. This is a musical, and musicals need to be visually interesting, even compelling when possible. I think this show provides a set designer an opportunity to exercise extreme creativity, working closely with the Director and, in the case of an extended cast, the Choreographer. And none of this needs to be very expensive, as it is all suggestive rather than literal. And don’t go literal. Don’t build anything big or clunky that has to be brought on and taken off, as a rule. The show bounces through moods and songs very quickly, and needs to remain fluid.

COSTUMES:

We move form the 1920s through to 1950, from Germany to France to America. The mood of each song is unique, as well. The German pieces tend to be more ironic, harsh, bitter, representative of what the idiot Nazis called “decadent art,” all of which was a social and artistic response to their atrocities. Costumes can reflect the period, and the mood of each piece – if you don’t go in for unit costuming.

I’ve seen this done as a class affair. The women were in beautiful dresses (because they were not required to dance), and the men, in tuxes of sorts. I think this approach pushes the audience away a bit, though it works well enough with a small cast, and explains visually why the audience won’t see much movement. It is not a bad idea for the small cast approach, not at all, though it has become sort of the way all small revues are dressed. You could spruce it up with interesting add-ons such as a pirate hat, a swastika or two, a soldier’s hat for WWII, that sort of thing

Another common approach for show like this is to dress everyone in black. Don’t do it. It’s banal, visually dull, and if your backdrop is at all dark, the movements of the actors become less visible.

However you costume, remember that singing is the primary interest of this show, and your performers must be able to easily breathe. With the small cast approach, that fact is life-and-death.

I think if you have a larger cast and a costume shop at your disposal, you’ll be able to rather easily find what you require and should not need to build many (if any) costumes. This does not need to be a difficult assignment. But with a larger cast, you could get a little creative, and assist in the creation of moods and locations. Depends on budget, the Director and Choreographer’s ideas and inclinations, and your creativity

PROPS:

There aren’t likely to be a ton of these. Cigars, hats and canes perhaps (for “Progress”, another number begging for choreography), perhaps a faux knife for Macheath. Perhaps a lame piece of jewelry the old man plans to give a young, pretty girl in “September Song,” that he fingers ruefully for a moment, and then pockets. You’ll need top work closely with your Director, but this is not likely to be to draining a job.

LIGHTING:

Should be creative, supple, elastic, and evocative. There are a lot of numbers, and each one will need its own look. You’re going to want to light the show well. When needed, the stage will need to pop, to open up with light and energy, and this happens often. It may then need to suddenly dive into an isolated, moody look for a solo. Few musicals have this many numbers, and no book musicals do, so unless you’ve lit a lot of revues, this will be a new animal for you. You’ll want a computerized board, almost certainly. You’ll need a light plot that provides area coverage and full stage coverage, where a single key light can do the job for a solo, and when a few more are added, an area is lit. Think of small, opening up to larger, opening up to full stage, as you design.

MAKE-UP:

Theatrical but unobtrusive. Let the actors do the work.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Music Director, Choreographer (depending on your approach), Set Designer, Lighting Director, Your Performers – all of them

MY THOUGHTS:

This show should be done all the time! It is unique, stunning, and unforgettable. It is also a very inexpensive show to do. It invites a creative approach, which can provide small companies a ton of fun. It can be done in the smallest theaters that will support a musical, no wings, no flies. Small stage, small house – no problem.

But as demonstrated, the show may even work better in a large house, with a large and even specialized cast of singers, actors, dancers. It could work with complex visual effects, dense costuming (though I’d avoid that one), and become a spectacle of sorts, relatively inexpensive for large groups and schools to put up, but extraordinarily effective and rewarding.

By the way, there are a few numbers of Weill’s they did not use. The one egregious exemption was “Tchaikovsky”, the song that made Danny Kaye a star. It is the one where he sings the names of 40 Russian composers in 30 seconds or so, an extreme patter-verse, fast as Hell and very hard to do which is why they probably avoided it. That said, it is a showstopper, and you should use it if possible. This becomes easier to do with the large cast concept, as a singer/actor could be assigned just that one song to master during rehearsals.

Weill was a most unique composer for Broadway and musicals. He was the only composer in our field to do all his own orchestrations, and they are truly orchestral. A classically-trained composer of symphonies and operas, he brought astonishing gifts into the theater, sounds no one else has even thought to apply to musicals that were just coming into vogue in Weill’s youth. He was one of the first classical composers to bring jazz sounds and orchestrations into classical works, and I would argue that he was the best at bringing modern classical ideas into musical theater. Yet there are all those hit songs, those melodies that haunt you for days. September Song, Speak Low, Lost In The Stars, My Ship, Mack The Knife…only Kurt Weill would have composed these. Presenting them on a stage, making them live again, is a thrill and a privilege.