Books: “Love Song”

March 26, 2013

September Song I have always associated “September Song” with Jimmy Durante, who recorded it for an album in 1963. I like Durante’s version because it has a touch of melancholy that doesn’t come through with quite the same effect when the singer is Bing Crosby or Sammy Davis Jr.

Come to find out in Ethan Mordden’s book Love Song that the song was written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson specifically for another entertainer who had no singing voice — namely, Walter Huston. Huston played Peter Stuyvesant in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday and he more or less insisted that he should have a solo in the show. Weill and Anderson accommodated him, devoting only a couple of hours to writing the song. The show was designed to criticize the New Deal by portraying Stuyvesant as corrupt and dictatorial in his rule over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the mid 17th century. The musical closed after about six months, although it was the basis for a later movie. The song didn’t attract too much attention until Walter Huston’s version of it was used in the 1950 movie September Affair. After that, it was recorded by many male and female vocalists, ranging in type from Ezio Pinza to Tex Ritter. Among the females who recorded it was Lotte Lenya, who was twice Kurt Weill’s wife and the love of his life — after his music.

KURT WEILL

KURT WEILL

The composer and the singer are the subjects of Mordden’s book, which is subtitled The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, although Mordden devotes at least as much attention to Weill’s sometime collaborator Bertolt Brecht as he does to Lenya. 

Pretty much everything in this book has been reported before, but Mordden brings to the story a knowledge of music and 20th century culture, and a sharp wit, that makes this a worthwhile profile of three fascinating figures — the trio who, among other things, brought the world The Threepenny Opera.

Weill was Jewish and totally absorbed in music; Lenya, who was born Karoline Blamauer, was flirty and unfettered. They separated and divorced once, but remarried and never really lost their mutual devotion. They became enamored of each other in Berlin during the hiatus between the two world wars, or during the pause in the one great war, depending on how you look at it.

This was the period of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, a part of German history perhaps not well known to Americans — certainly not to me. Mordden shares his own understanding of the uproarious time with its inept government, dead-on-arrival economy, and non-conformist arts scene, an odd recitative to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

LOTTE LENYA

LOTTE LENYA

It was in the Weimar incubator that Weill and Brecht hatched The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s book lampooning the milieu in Berlin at that time.  The show appeared in 1928 and is regarded as a classic, but the nascent Nazi crowd thought it smelled of socialism. Eventually, Nazism drove Weill, Lenya, and Brecht out of Germany. Weill and Lenya went first to Paris and then to New York where the artistic and personal freedom they experienced for the first time had a trans-formative effect on their lives.

BERTOLT BRECHT

BERTOLT BRECHT

The couple hadn’t planned to stay in the United States, but they did stay, and both became American citizens. It may have been inevitable, at least for Weill, because he had long had an interest in using American themes in his compositions.

Weill was prolific and versatile; his work included  cantatas, orchestral pieces, chamber works, and film scores, but he is best remembered for what he wrote for the stage, including the musical plays Johnny Johnson; Street Scene – ostensibly an American opera; One Touch of Venus, which introduced the song “Speak Low”; and, of course,  Knickerbocker Holiday and The Threepenny Opera.

LOTTE LENYA

LOTTE LENYA

Lenya’s career as an actress and singer had its ups and downs. After Weill died in 1950, she became the central figure in a revival of his work. She recorded many of his songs. In 1952, she sang in Leonard Bernstein’s concert version of The Threepenny Opera at Brandeis University; that led to a New York production that ran for 2,706 performances. Lenya won a Tony Award for her performance, even though the show ran off Broadway.

In 1966, she created the role of Fraulein Schneider in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, believed to have been inspired by Weill’s work, and she had highly visible movie roles in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and From Russia with Love.

Brecht, with whom Weill worked on several projects, settled in East Berlin where, Mordden writes, he was a “stooge” for the Communist regime. “Oathed to the extermination of oppression,” Mordden writes, “Brecht allied himself with the most oppressive regime of the century, and he lived by recognizing no one’s rights but his own.’’

Brecht comes across as a character who many found magnetic but who was offensive in many respects, including his abusive treatment of actors and his substandard personal hygiene.

Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) and the navy nurses sing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” in the Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific”

On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

JAMES MINCHENER

The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.

Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.

EZIO PINZA and MARY MARTIN

The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.

RICHARD RODGERS and OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN

We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.

South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.

What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.