About this Recording
8.120885 - WEILL, K.: Street Scene (Hollywood Bowl Performance) (1949)
English 

Street Scene
Music by Kurt Weill • Book by Elmer Rice
Lyrics by Langston Hughes
Concert Performance at the Hollywood Bowl, 1949
Recorded for overseas broadcast by Armed Forces Radio

 

There are many things to cheer about Kurt Weill and the varied career he led in the American musical theatre, but the sheer unpredictability of it all is what proves most electrifying.

And nothing was more surprising than the creative leap he took that found him writing 1947’s Street Scene.

A man who started out in Germany with Bertolt Brecht, penning works such as The Threepenny Opera, began his Stateside career with a harshly political piece such as Johnny Johnson, reminiscent of his European shows.

But then came Knickerbocker Holiday, which kept the politics, but lightened the mood, to be followed by the elegant frippery of Lady in the Dark, the gossamer sophistication of One Touch of Venus and the frankly outdated operetta of The Firebrand of Florence.

It was after the failure of the last work, in fact, that Weill was reminded of how moved he had been by seeing a Berlin production of Street Scene, Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning drama of life in the slums on the East Side of Manhattan.

In fact, he had approached the testy and egomaniacal Rice years before with his request, only to be told that “Whatever prestige value there would be in a successful musical version would accrue primarily to the composer.”

Still, Weill continued to pursue Rice, who—riding high on the success of his 1945 hit, Dream Girl—finally decided to agree to the composer’s proposal.

As lyricist, Weill brought on black poet Langston Hughes, who had no credits as a Broadway lyricist up to that point. He collaborated beautifully with Weill and some of their combined works written for the show such as Lonely House, What Good Would the Moon Be? and Somehow I Never Could Believe have a unique beauty.

Weill himself felt that the score contained some of his greatest writing and once proudly predicted that “Seventy-five years from now, Street Scene will be remembered as my major work.”

Alas, that’s not the case, despite the musical and dramatic richness which fill the piece. The fact that it never truly succeeded can be traced partially to the antipathy that grew up among its three collaborators (Weill, Rice and lyricist Langston Hughes), which stopped the work from achieving the seamless unity it needed.

Rice felt that his original play was near perfection and didn’t want many changes made to it at all, no matter how long and how passionately Weill argued with him about the differences between drama and musicals.

Every time Weill or Hughes would argue that a cut had to be made in the text to make room for the musical numbers, Rice would dig his heels in, proclaiming, “Now that was a celebrated line!”

Eventually, however, they worked out some kind of compromise which allowed them to finish their labours.

But then, the battle had just begun. Rice was as penurious as he was contentious and was reluctant to allow substantial financial control to any conventional Broadway producer.

Finally, the once-powerful Dwight Deere Wiman, now near the end of his career, took over the nominal leadership reins, allowing The Playwrights’ Company (of which Rice was a charter member) to actually control the production.

Strong directors that Weill favoured, such as Rouben Mamoulian, were eventually vetoed by Rice and the relatively low-key Charles Friedman staged the show.

Battles continued over casting, with Weill wanting strong voices in all the roles. He won in some important cases, such as getting New York City opera star Polyna Stoska (heard on this 1949 concert performance from the Hollywood Bowl) to play the leading role of tortured wife Anna Maurrant. Irish-American tenor Brian Sullivan, also heard on this recording, was a late cast replacement.

In fact, many of the cast found themselves being made expendable during the contentious rehearsal process as opera singers proved to be weak actors and vice versa.

Some of the sturdier survivors were then-ingenue Anne Jeffreys, who went on to play leading roles in later shows such as Kiss Me, Kate, and juvenile Danny Daniels, who emerged in the 1950s as a talented and long-lasting choreographer.

But after the show’s opening on 9 January 1947, it looked like all the work had been worth the effort. The reviews were largely dazzling, headed by Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, who called it “a musical play of magnificence and glory.”

Yet somehow, the show failed to capture the public’s imagination and after two months of solid houses, the audiences began falling off rapidly and Street Scene closed after 148 performances, having failed to pay back its investment.

The antagonistic Rice blamed the “extravagant” production and the “artiness” of Weill’s music (which went on to win the first Tony Award in 1947 for “Best Score”), but the probable cause of the show’s rapid demise can be found elsewhere.

One also only has to look at the musicals which were successful on Broadway during the year Street Scene made its run for glory. They were either fantasies (Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow) or amiable nostalgic romps (High Button Shoes and Up In Central Park).

Audiences still smarting from wartime privation or the loss of loved ones in combat didn’t want to see a grim drama about a poverty-stricken tenement that climaxed with the leading male figure shooting and killing his adulterous wife and her lover.

There were some crumbs of hope thrown to the younger generation in the form of a high school graduation or a jitterbugging romance, which spawned the show’s one pop hit, “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed” (not heard on this recording). But those few upbeat moments weren’t quite enough.

And that’s a shame, because there’s a rich vein of music waiting to be discovered here. After a period of neglect, the show has been re-discovered in recent years and its broad theatricality, deep emotion and extravagant melodic gifts are still waiting to be enjoyed today.

Richard Ouzounian

 

Producer’s Note

This version of Street Scene was part of a two-hour concert broadcast live from the Hollywood Bowl and recorded by the Armed Forces Radio Service, who pressed it on sixteen-inch transcription discs. Program host Jack Little, not heard here, described the proceedings and introduced the performers but said nothing about the plot or characters, and in fact we’ve had to make educated guesses concerning a couple of numbers he did not announce. He also apologized to the radio audience after the opening number because one microphone failed to work, leaving the vocal ensemble almost inaudible.


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