Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Songs Degenerate And Otherwise"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


Alvin Epstein, singer-actor
Beth Anne Cole, singer-actress
Cathy Rand, musical director/arranger

The Market Theater continues to surprise and delight with their boldness and originality, and – considering the risks they take – their excellence. If theatres were restaurants and their programs were menus, then the Market is the place to go when you crave Something Different – you may not recognize each new dish that is set down before you, and its taste might be too tart or spicy for many a palette, but if you know and/or trust the chef, you'll leave the table full and smiling over your latest Adventure (as I do). For their current offering, as a stop-gap between shows, the Market has brought back last year's acclaimed SONGS DEGENERATE & OTHERWISE, with its singer-actors, A.R.T.'s Alvin Epstein and Canada's Beth Anne Cole, performing the theatre songs of Kurt Weill with just the right touch of sardonic humor, earthiness and, yes, tenderness – sometimes, all at once (there are also a few songs from Olaf Bienert and Hanns Eisler). So make your reservations now and come early (at 7:30 p.m.), for it's open seating for these SONGS and it might come down to elbow, elbow – and worth it, too.

To this day, composer Kurt Weill (1900-50) is primarily known for his "Mack the Knife" and "September Song", and the Market's SONGS is a wonderful introduction for those who want to know more of Weill's music, or an equally wonderful re-introduction to those who haven't heard "Pirate Jenny", "Speak Low" and others for awhile. The evening's "Degenerate" songs were composed for German musicals (with Bertolt Brecht as lyricist) in the 1920s to popular acclaim but later banned by the Nazis because (1) Weill was a Jew, and (2) his music drew heavily on American jazz; i.e., "African" music, and therefore unacceptable to Nazi ideology. (The poster for the Reich's Entartete Musik exhibit of 1938 is a caricatured Negro playing a saxophone and sporting a Star of David boutonniere.) The "Otherwise" songs were composed for American musicals in the 1930s and 40s after Weill and his wife/muse Lotte Lenya emigrated here in 1933. Aside from a minimum of narrative, Mr. Epstein and Ms. Cole let Weill's music speak for itself and, by doing so, make a simple yet powerful statement about the effects of suppression – Germany, becoming culturally (and spiritually) impoverished by the exile or deaths of Weill and his fellow artists; a still-provincial America, gaining in wit and sophistication by these same refugees who settled in New York and Hollywood.

Did Weill suffer artistically when he emigrated here? I don't think so - is an apple an orange? Rather than stepping down, Weill stepped sideways – from the politics, whores and street poetry of Brecht to the glamour, fantasies and wisecracking innocence of America, with astonishing results. (In a BBC interview decades later, Lotte Lenya mentions that Weill sealed off his German past upon arriving in America – speaking only in English and wholeheartedly embracing the culture of his new home; a home, Lenya adds, already familiar and loved through American novels, newsreels, comic books and movies.) Of course, Weill was also fortunate to have Paul Green, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Elmer Rice, Langston Hughes, and Alan Jay Lerner as his collaborators, who gave him distinctly American lyrics to help make his transition complete (conversely, the Market's two Eisler songs point up how indebted Brecht as lyricist was to Weill). For all of the flag-waving that has occurred since 11 September, I can think of no better statement of what it means To Be An American than these old yet timeless Market SONGS – not so much in their content, but in their sound; their tone: you get a riveting sense of Weill's mockery and despair as Germany danced on the edge of a volcano, and of his wonder and gratitude for America as the Great Good Place and how he reinvented himself for her (he was working on a musical version of HUCKLEBERRY FINN when he died). This is not to say Germany's darkness ever left Weill; on the contrary, his American musicals are shot through with it: from the anti-war parable of JOHNNY JOHNSON to the three dream sequences that end in nightmare in LADY IN THE DARK; from ONE TOUCH OF VENUS' lurid "Dr. Crippen" to the soul-searching arias (yes, arias) of LOST IN THE STARS and STREET SCENE – and, hauntingly, that neglected little folk opera DOWN IN THE VALLEY, with the young hero going to the gallows for murdering its villain. The "Degenerate" songs dominate the Market SONGS, with an "Otherwise" one added here and there - dollops of vanilla ice cream in between the sauerbrauten. Perhaps, someday, a program of American Weill might come to pass; the "new" Weill can stand on his own without cross references to the "old" one.

But, still, there is much, much to enjoy at the Market….

When I entered the theatre and saw the baby grand piano and the red velvet curtains, I thought, oh, no – an evening of Weill as Art Songs for the Harvard crowd, and, indeed, the audience I sat with seemed to be composed of Brecht's hated "West" (artists and intellectuals), not the "East" (the working class) that he sought to enlighten. Happily, Mr. Epstein and Ms. Cole are so good at what they do – going from cabaret to sprechstimme to crooning to near-opera - that you soon forget the concert setting as they conjure up entire productions through voice, facial expression and gesture.

Mr. Epstein has long been a cornerstone in Boston/Cambridge theatre, yet I must confess I've only seen him in two of A.R.T.'s more overwrought productions where he and his fellow actors were buried beneath the directors' pretensions. But Mr. Epstein himself, in simple black, is on display on the Market stage and, despite his years, is very much the New Kid on the Block. Tragedy seems to be his muse; a secret sorrow, the well from which he draws his inspiration, and thus he is more at home performing the "Degenerate" songs (he turns the American razzamataz on and off like a switch); even when sitting off to the side, watching Ms. Cole perform in solo, his smile is sad and sweet. I was disappointed to not see "The Bilbao Song" on the program, but, happily, Mr. Epstein belts it out as an encore, for it contains Brecht's most joyful lyrics – granted, the subject is yet another seedy dive, but the song builds from the rumble-rumble of its honky-tonk to open up, soar and climax in its three life-affirming "It was FANTASTIC!" phrases. And Mr. Epstein does a mean tongue-twisting "Tchaikovsky" – twice.

Ms. Cole is even more impressive – she has the better voice, for starters, and is equally at home in both worlds. She also has the better songs: if the Brechtian Man is a reckless sower of seed, the Brechtian Woman is the plowed earth, ravaged yet resilient, and it is fascinating to watch yet another victim/survivor float up to the surface of Ms. Cole's face, take over, and leave her on the edge of tears at song's end. Though she, too, is of a certain age, Ms. Cole can also convince us she is the archetypal Broadway ingenue, clear-eyed yet yearning for romance, in "What Good Would the Moon Be?". And Ms. Cole's dress is a third character in and off itself: a clingy black Something that changes with Ms. Cole from song to song: an evening gown, here; a slatternly slip, there.

A nod to Cathy Rand at the piano; it would be nice if she were allowed an occasional Weill instrumental – thus giving Mr. Epstein and Ms. Cole a brief respite from ninety minutes' worth of spilling their guts and singing their hearts out.
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The Songs (listed chronologically):

"Parc Monceau" (1924) (music by Olaf Bienert; lyrics by Kurt Tucholsky)

from THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CITY OF MAHOGONNY (1927) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht): "Moon of Alabama"; "The Life That We Lead"

from THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1928) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht): "The Ballad of Sexual Slavery"; "The Tango Ballad"; "The Cannon Song"; "Instead of"; "Barbara Song"; "Pirate Jenny"; "Mack the Knife"; "The Useless Song" (as an encore)

from HAPPY END (1929) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht): "Song of Mandelay"; "Big Shot"; "Lily from Hell"; "Sailor's Tango"; "Surabaya Johnny" (as an encore); "Bilbao Song" (as an encore)

"Nana's Song" (1935) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht)

from JOHNNY JOHNSON (1936) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Paul Green): "Mon Ami, My Friend"

from KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY (1938) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Maxwell Anderson): "September Song"

from LADY IN THE DARK (1941) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Ira Gershwin): " Tchaikovsky"; "My Ship"

from ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (1943) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Ogden Nash): " How Much I Love You"; "Speak Low"; "Very Very Rich"

"Song of the German Mother" (1944) (music by Hanns Eisler; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht)

from STREET SCENE (1947) (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes): " Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway?"; "What Good Would the Moon Be?"

"Supply and Demand" (1956) (music by Hanns Eisler; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht)
* * *
CD Recommendations:
You can't go wrong with any Weill sung by Lotte Lenya – either in excerpts or complete recordings – though her sandpaper voice might rub you the wrong way in the American songs. A good starting place would be her German songs (rec. 1955) and her American songs (rec. 1957), both for Columbia (now SONY), which have gone through several CD re-packagings so far. If you can locate any of Lenya's recordings from the 1920s, you may be surprised that she started off as a bird-like soprano; by the time she recorded the 1954 off-Broadway production of THE THREEPENNY OPERA, her voiced had acquired the smoky timbre so often defined as the "Weill sound". The 1920s THREEPENNY excerpts (the instrumentals were sold as dance music) are also quite cheeky (to quote Stanley Kauffman, "The first production in 1928 was apparently done in a bitterly high-spirited way, a gallows-humor, let's-at-least-have-some-fun-out-of-this-lousy-world way ... and kicked its heels and snapped its skinny fingers"); post-WWII recordings are more solemn – grim, even – and full of screechy sprechstimme.

LOST IN THE STARS: THE MUSIC OF KURT WEILL (1985) briefly made it to CD on the A & M label, sung by Sting, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull and other rock singers. (My favorite performance of "Moon of Alabama" continues to be that of Jim Morrison and The Doors.)

For Weill's American phase:

Grab the 1963 Columbia studio recording of LADY IN THE DARK with Risλ Stevens and Adolph Green while it's still available (it also includes 1941 excerpts recorded by Danny Kaye, a member of the original Broadway production).

Though the Painted Smiles label is no longer in existence, try to find used copies of Ben Bagley's KURT WEILL REVISITED, Volumes I and II, which, between them, include a ONE TOUCH OF VENUS medley as well as "Dr. Crippin", along with numerous selections from FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE (1945) and LOVE LIFE (1948).

Kurt Weill himself sings and plays piano on TRYOUT (DRG records), a collection of rehearsals between Weill and Ira Gershwin – and includes a sample of the wonderful barbershop quartet, "The Trouble With Women" from ONE TOUCH OF VENUS.

As far as I know, the only CD recording of DOWN IN THE VALLEY is on the Capriccio label (paired with DER JASAGER), but I prefer the original 1950 RCA recording, which was reissued on a 1964 LP with Gertrude Lawrence's 1941 excerpts from LADY IN THE DARK (RCA LPV-503). Good luck!

If you want to sample American musicals that bear the stamp of Weill's influence there is, of course, Kander & Ebb's CABARET with Lenya herself as Fraulein Schneider; but lend an ear to Al Carmines' PROMENADE (on RCA) and the studio recording of Charnin & Thomas' legendary flop MATA HARI (on Original Cast). Interestingly, all three musical came out of the 1960s, when it was America's turn to dance on the edge of the volcano.

Finally, the London/Decca label has put out an invaluable series of "Entartete Musik", offering the long suppressed/forgotten works of Goldschmidt, Krenek and Zemlinsky, to name a few. In keeping with the Market's SONGS, I recommend:

Wilhelm Grosz: "Afrika-Songs"; also included are his "Harbour Lights", "Isle of Capri" and "Red Sails in the Sunset" (London 455-116-2)

"Berlin Cabaret Songs", sung by Ute Lemper in German (London 452 601-2) and in English (London 452 849-2).
* * *

"Songs Degenerate and Otherwise" (2 – 14 April)
One Winthrop Square, Harvard Square, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 576-0808

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide