|Realism in Language and Music: Kurt Weill's Street Scene|
Kurt Weill (1900-1950) began his musical career at an early age, working for the theater in Dessau, and then studied under Ferrucio Busoni at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin; by the early 1920's he was already well-established and respected within the German musical and dramatic community. His collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, most notably their musical theater productions of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), brought Weill not only financial success, but popular recognition as well. Both of these works, while considered operas by both the authors and most critics, incorporate many elements of popular musical idioms, and in fact produced commercial hits (Schlager) such as "Mackie Messer" and "Alabama Song."|
Weill's popularity in Germany was cut short, however, by the rise of the Nazi party, and he fled Berlin on March 21, 1933 for Paris. By January of 1935 he had moved on to England, and finally arrived in New York on September 10, 1935. Once in the United States, Weill quickly discovered that, although his musical accomplishments were celebrated by the academic institutions and those critics associated with them, there was little public interest in his European-based works, especially in regards to dramatic musical productions. Fortuitously, Weill not only recognized this, but was prepared to make changes to his musical style in order to stimulate a wider audience. He thus began to incorporate elements of American popular music -- chiefly jazz and blues -- without compromising his aesthetic integrity.
Although some critics, particularly those in Germany, believed that Weill had merely "sold out" to American commercialism by producing second-rate musicals for the masses, Weill had a very different opinion, and wrote at length about what he considered his newfound purpose in the United States. In essence, he wanted to bring popular forms of music, towards which he already felt a great affinity, into collision with the 'classical' or European form of opera, and out of that combination produce a new "American Opera" which would not only entertain the public, but provide artistic inspiration and rebirth to the musical scene in the United States. In holding such an attitude, Weill displayed his unbounded enthusiasm about America and its young audiences, who, he felt, embraced music in all forms (but particularly the more popular jazz/blues types) in a manner much more honestly than their jaded European counterparts. "Here in America is the best audience in the world to write music for," he wrote, because "the younger generation may not know or care anything about so-called classical music," but their intimate familiarity with more popular forms makes for a truly appreciative and wholehearted reception. 
Weill's writings from the late 1930's onwards reflect his one true dream of making such an American Opera and, as he put it, of creating a "special blend of musical theater which would completely integrate drama and music, spoken word, song, and movement."  This new theater, he felt, would remain indebted to the European tradition, but in no way merely take over its trappings; instead, popular culture would provide the starting ground for the venture into uncharted territory:
Weill's formulations and theoretical musings about the integration of words and music began long before he actually attempted to produce such an innovative musical drama. In a lecture presented to the New York Group Theater in 1936 (published the same year under the title "The Alchemy of Music"), Weill wrote at length about the historical development and precedents for his break with European opera, and described what he saw as the main problems plaguing both the dramatic and musical theaters of the modern day. In the great theater cultures of the world, such as Ancient Greece and Japan, Weill claims, words and music were blended perfectly to achieve a higher level of dramatic fulfillment: music is, in such theatric cultures:
In modern European operas, however, language has lost its role as mediator: "music is the leading element; ideas of form are far more important than dramatic ideas; the spoken content is pushed farther and farther into the background."  This leads to the commonly cited lack of plot development, poetic language, and realistic sense of portrayal which can be found in even the most celebrated nineteenth century operas. Moreover, the modern 'naturalistic' theater, claims Weill, with its aim toward a "direct photographic representation of life," has lost its relation to music, and thus it, too, has stagnated.  Weill hoped to remedy this situation, painful as he saw it, by bringing language and music back together in a combination where each may set off the virtues and unique qualities of the other, thus creating a synthesis of 'realistic' language  and 'emotional' musical portrayals. He found great joy even in contemplating such an undertaking:
In this new form of opera, a song or aria would take on new significance. No longer consigned to the role of "a simple interruption of action," a chance for the singer to comment on details of the plot, Weill believed instead that a song should be "an indispensable aid to comprehension of the play and its nature."  In other words, both Broadway musicals, with their nonsensical (and often unmotivated) breaks into song and dance, as well as European operas, with their overly pathetic and unrealistically sung arias, were to be replaced by musical dramas whose songs would be written in a popular but still challenging style -- songs that would reveal more about the dramatic action on stage, deepen the plot, advance it, give motivation or insight into the characters and their actions, and provide emotional expressions that language alone could not communicate.
For his foray into the new musical theater, Weill chose, after extended deliberation, what he considered to be the prime material: the Pulitzer Prize winning play Street Scene (1929) by Elmer Rice. Weill had known Rice since around 1936 in his dealings with the New York playwrights' circles, and had already composed incidental music for Rice's Two on an Island in 1939. He was also already familiar with Street Scene, having seen a performance of it in Berlin in 1930; even at that time, he was impressed not only by the play's clarity of language and depth of emotion, but what he saw as the possibility for a new theatric tradition. Since the play dealt with such realistic subject matter -- immigrants and lower-class residents of a New York street pursuing their dreams and experiencing a complex series of seductions, betrayals, and murder -- Weill felt challenged to use music to bring the play's naturalistic tendencies (expressed most of all in its language) into sharp relief. As he described the drama:
In order to achieve this blending of music and word, Weill said, "we decided to do it as a musical version of the play, to cast it entirely with singers, so that the emotional climaxes could be expressed in music, and to use spoken dialogue to further the realistic action."  Thus, realism was the ultimate goal. But could this realism prevail even in the musical settings? For as has been mentioned, Weill saw music as inherently capable of portraying great emotion, in a manner different from language; words, on the other hand, seemed always to maintain their connection to daily life, to reflect natural events. And in Rice's play, it was the dialogue, above all, that Weill found so "naturalistic." The play is suffused with idiomatic and often ethnically colored passages, and although undoubtedly poetic, the language remains stark, dealing only with the events and the emotions immediately arising from them -- leaving innermost thoughts, feelings, and dreams to be expressed in other ways on the stage. Weill hoped that music would then fill in these scenes, giving new insight into the characters and their motivations.
In setting the play, then, Weill and Rice chose to leave much of the original dialogue untouched. Entire passages of spoken word were to be recited by the actors, mostly without any orchestral accompaniment, or occasionally with a slight underlying chord progression from the musicians. The musical high points were reserved for those textual areas that the two felt could not be fully expressed by casual spoken dialogue alone: monologue arias, ensemble jubilees, or intense emotional duets.
Weill's reasoning for leaving many open spoken passages was, again, realism, for he objected to the rather ridiculous tendency of traditional European opera to set even the most banal of phrases to song: "I address myself to Americans, and I don't think they want "Do you want another cup of coffee?" to be sung,"  he joked. In form, this style of dramatic musical hearkens back to the tradition of the German Singspiel, which mixed spoken dialogue with sung arias to achieve a more lighthearted and often comedic effect -- although by no means at the expense of serious and true emotional power.
For the songs in the production, however, Rice felt that his original text would need to be modified, as it was hardly intended to be set to music, and was under no circumstances lyrically motivated. Weill agreed, and together the two approached Langston Hughes, the prominent black poet, to ask if he would work with them on the lyrical aspects of the drama. Hughes readily consented, although he had never worked on a musical project before, and the three set out to bring their ideas together.
The project did not progress as quickly or easily as was hoped, however. Weill, in fact, worked longer and more painstakingly on Street Scene than on any of his previous American works,  going to great lengths to improve upon the musical settings and making certain that his touches did not detract from, but hopefully enhanced the realistic portrayals of the events. Because Street Scene has such a large cast of ethnic and immigrant characters (particularly important are several black characters), Weill felt it necessary to do first-hand research to help him discover the proper musical settings for the different characters and their songs. As a result, he spent several days roaming the streets of New York watching children at play in preparation for the scenes of children singing on their porches and in the street. More importantly, Hughes volunteered to take Weill out to various Harlem nightclubs, where he was exposed to the musical idioms of black America, most particularly jazz and blues. Hughes felt the outcome was a tremendous success, and wrote at length about Weill's genial adaptations of American popular music. "The resulting song," he believed, "was composed in a national American Negro idiom; but a German, or someone else, could sing it without sounding strange or out of place."  In fact, Weill's results were so faithful to reality that Hughes regarded Weill as a truly 'universal' artist -- an artist who could be claimed equally by Germany as a German, by America as an American, and by "me as a Negro."  Weill was, of course, pleased with his success, but remained fairly modest. When asked why he thought he was able to set these songs so successfully, he reasoned: "First, I could see the country from the outside, so I had more respect for it. Second, my whole musical background is very closely related to American jazz. That's why the Nazis attacked me so."  Indeed, as shall be discussed below, the importance of Weill's ever-present jazz touches is undeniable, for they play a salient role in guiding the realism of the songs in the opera.
When it came time to make changes to the original drama in order to adapt it to the musical setting, Elmer Rice started to become nervous. Although he had worked on other musical theater productions, he was wary of making too many changes to his Pulitzer Prize winning play. As one chronicler put it, he simply seemed afraid of destroying the dramatic build-up which had won his play such acclaim in the original production:
Rice was not just proud of his own accomplishments, of course: he had a legitimate fear of the lyricization of his play's naturalistic language and content, and thought that the addition of aria-like songs would slow down the dramatic momentum. In the words of one critic, he "resented the interruptions which music and dance were constantly forcing on the dynamic course of the drama." 
Langston Hughes, too, had problems when it came to setting his lyrical texts to Weill's music. Although he had no fears for the dramatic momentum (for he recognized the importance of the emotional portrayals which could be accomplished musically), he nonetheless "protested at what he saw as the imperialistic tendency of the music to encroach on territories where it had no business to be and undermine the realism of the spoken dialogue." 
Weill tried his best to work within the frameworks laid out by his partners. Although he, too, was concerned above all with maintaining the realism of Rice's play, he seemed to feel there was little need for worry. More immediate were his practical concerns: producing an opera on Broadway did entail certain compromises. There were, to be sure, limitations in the size of the orchestra and the chorus, as well as in the size and nature of the singing roles -- and most significantly in finding cast members who could not only act realistically, but sing Weill's rather challenging vocal scores as well.
Street Scene premiered on January 9, 1947, at the Adelphi Theater in New York. Both the early critical reviews and the audience attendance were, in Rice's words, "pitiable," and the play struggled to fill seats for many months. In total, it ran only 148 performances -- by no means a total flop, but not exactly star quality in the midst of other popular Broadway shows. Weill, nevertheless, felt pleased with the outcome, and went so far as to claim that he had succeeded in fulfilling his goals of producing a new American opera. "Seventy-five years from now," he proudly stated, "Street Scene will be regarded as my major work." 
Contemporary critics did not entirely agree with Weill's prognosis, however. They found little overt fault with the production, but in general they failed to recognize its innovative qualities. Most critics immediately saw a predecessor to Street Scene in Gerschwin's "folk opera," Porgy and Bess (1935), which had also attempted to merge spoken dialogue with operatic musical settings. In fact, Weill had been greatly impressed by Porgy and Bess, and had seen in it the realization of many of his own formulated ideals.
Like Porgy and Bess, Street Scene displays a rather unusual combination of musical styles and idioms, and it breaks many conventions of the traditional musical theater. Already in the introduction and opening ensemble to his work, Weill made it clear to the audience that they were not to be subjected to a 'normal' Broadway musical, but also not to a true European opera. As one critic describes it, the orchestral introduction begins with a "thoroughly Weillian pattern from his earliest days," but it is now "articulated with a fully realized American jazz intonation."  The central soprano aria of the first act, "Somehow I Never Could Believe," is also a striking blend of opera and musical. On the one hand, it is "not only the most conventional aria in the nineteenth century operatic tradition that he ever wrote; it also sounds to many ears almost like pure Puccini."  But on the other hand, this Puccini-like piece is "full of stretches that are jazz and of others that are unmistakably Weill." This combination of elements is really quite innovative and unique -- a fact ignored by most earlier critics, but today more readily recognized by both American and European musicologists.
Other pieces in Street Scene exhibit a similar mixture of styles. The amusing and rousing "Ice-Cream Sextet" is in reality a broad parody of Italian opera buffa ; other forms such as jitterbugs and Negro spirituals abound. Most other pieces in Street Scene are extremely reminiscent of more popular musicals on the order of Rodgers and Hammerstein's works. Small wonder: Weill was in fact not only familiar with and impressed by the duo's works, but even somewhat jealous of their success. He expressed a certain competitive spirit in his praise of their ability to explore what he termed the "vast unexploited field between grand opera and musical comedy."  By using the term "American Opera" to describe Street Scene, it seems, Weill was in fact upping the ante in the race between himself and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Although history has since proven that the duo won this race in terms of commercial viability, Weill may not have come in far behind them, if Street Scene is in fact the realistic Broadway opera which it claims to be.
Weill certainly had no doubts about his work's aesthetic integrity and position within traditional genres. The published score to Street Scene bears the subtitle "An American Opera," and most of the songs in the score are labeled in operatic terminology, e.g. 'aria' or 'arioso.' An in his private writing, as we have seen, Weill referred to this synthetic process as a "Broadway opera." Surprisingly, though, he also resorted to the less pretentious term "dramatic musical" on several occasions. Does this double categorization reflect a possible ambivalence on Weill's part toward the success of his project? In fact, it does not. Upon closer examination it becomes clear that Weill preferred the term 'opera' when discussing Street Scene, and categorized it as such when writing theoretically or to a private audience of friends and admirers. His producers, however, avoided such potentially disastrous terminology when talking to their audiences, and settled instead on "dramatic musical" in all discussions of Street Scene. It was clear to them, and to Weill as well, that the greater American public would hardly take kindly to the encroachment of stagnant European opera upon their beloved Broadway, and would most certainly not support such an endeavor with their ticket purchases.
As stated, music critics remained divided in their assessment of Street Scene's aesthetic value. Some, most notably those who had supported Weill even at his most banal, were quick to praise the work's challenging and innovative stylistic markers: one, for example, claimed that the production "clearly becomes opera while retaining the idioms of jazz and of Broadway all the while."  Others, however, objected to what they saw as the devaluation of the operatic in Weill's use of popular idioms. "Can such lowdown sidewalk chatter really be opera?" one chided.  But Weill's admirers were quick to find a rebuttal: of course the naturalistic language of the play has every right to invade the territory of high opera, for after all, the characters are "Brechtian beggars in a culturally translated form."  Even to the present day, this division among musicologists remains. American critics generally praise Weill's efforts and have come to regard Street Scene as a true Broadway opera, while their German counterparts are still under Adorno's spell, claiming that Weill's success in America was "dearly bought by loss of quality." 
Regardless of such dogmatic approaches to the interpretation of Weill's aesthetic project, the fact remains that Street Scene does truly attempt to break new ground -- and succeeds remarkably well. Weill obviously knew precisely what he was creating by mixing together such diverse elements in one production. Perhaps the most fitting description of the play's success can be termed not in regards to its clarity, but indeed to the ambiguity: Weill follows that "line between opera and musical comedy to the point where the line no longer seems to exist"  -- leaving the listener exactly where Weill wants him: unsure, but open-minded.
This insecurity on the part of the listener is cultivated to an extreme in the arioso setting of Hughes' lyrical text "Lonely House." In addition, this setting provides the best example of Weill's extraordinary ability to merge realistic subject matter and dialogic narrative with an emotionally climactic musical style -- at times sending a contradictory message to the listener. In the end, however, this combination of elements leads to an increase in the realistic portrayal of not only the characters involved, but of the very structure and emotional depth of the drama itself.
"Lonely House" is sung by Sam Kaplan, a poor young student, in the middle of the second act of Street Scene, immediately following an exuberant scene of young high school girls coming home from their graduation party. After the girls have departed, Sam is left alone in the tenement house, and sings his rambling lament. By this point the audience has been made aware of Sam's frustrated love for a fellow tenant, the young Rose, who is friendly toward Sam without reciprocating his adoration. Sam's song, then, is at face value merely a narration of the empty house and its effect on him; in reality, of course, the lamentation reaches much deeper, giving insight into Sam's deepest fear: the loss of Rose.
"Lonely House" is best described as part blues and part opera -- a curious blend indeed for a piece entitled "Arioso" (like an aria). Sam sings, in the words of one commentator, a "rambling melody that could almost pass for musical comedy, except that it is more difficult than meets the ear."  It appears at first glance as if the song structure is a simple AABA pattern, but in fact Weill has expanded and modified the traditional form. When the A returns, it is really quite varied, with not only a different accompaniment, but a significantly altered melody, whose contour and peaks of register differ considerably from the original. In addition, Weill springs several surprises on the listener. A comfortable resolution occurs at the word "night" (bar 45), but is immediately followed by a striking and unexpected rise to the high Ab of "me" -- a phrase which then resolves in due course by bar 49, with the ultimate climax falling on the high Bb of "lonely." This continual building of tension, mediated only by temporary resolutions, has the effect of subverting the listener's sense of security, and causing him to identify with Sam's torturous loneliness, waiting for his love to return.
The title phrase of bars 21 and following is set to a haunting melody that encapsulates Weill's mature style, blending formal operatic elements with the structure and patterns of America jazz and blues. The empty spaces of the falling sevenths again underscore the abandoned tenement building, and the lonely, plangent minor thirds reflect Sam's brooding contemplation. Weill's addition of 'blue' notes in this section contribute to the tension, but at the same time give Sam's lament a modern, popular touch that cannot go unnoticed. Indeed, the influence of the blues in "Lonely House," even if masked by Weill's academic and consciously acculturated standpoint, is remarkable: as one critic notes, "discounting the four-bar introduction and the four-bar 'coda', the verse of "Lonely House" represents a cleverly disguised adaptation of the standard 12-bar blues pattern." 
In regards to the questionable realism of Sam's aria, it seems apparent that the music is 'realistic' in its portrayal of bluesy lament elements: this ghetto lament is appropriate to Sam's character and his situation, and to the drama as a whole. But it is also unrealistic at the same time: by blending more adventurous and operatic elements together with the blues, Weill reminds the listener quite explicitly of his music's innovative character, and thus breaks the illusion of reality that he has just constructed. Even on a diegetic level, the song as operatic aria seems somewhat out of place: while Sam might very well break into the mournful blues in such a situation, it is thoroughly out of the question that he, an uneducated child of the streets, would launch into European opera merely because he is sad and alone. But this insecurity, this merging and blending of elements, is in fact exactly the borderline area that Weill intended for his "Broadway opera."
There is also an interesting parallel to be drawn between the 'realism' of Hughes' text and the corresponding musical 'realism.' Everyday objects such as telephones, snoring neighbors, and creaking staircases are given plain, unadorned treatment in the song; they are also all sung on the same pitch, almost in a recitative style, or as if they were being spoken quietly for reassurance. But when Sam waxes more poetic and begins to lament about the emotions evoked by the empty house, the music undergoes a similar transition, becoming more challenging, slightly more European-sounding, and very much Weillian. The phrases beginning with "funny," in which Sam alternates between bemused contemplation of his situation and sorry lament, show a correspondingly greater and alternating variety and complexity. Finally, a return to the more simplistic and realistic mentions of sparrows and stray dogs ushers in the simpler accompaniment from the opening section. In short, then, Weill has very carefully matched the different moods of Hughes' text to the musical setting -- without ever overdoing the sentimentality or breaking the realistic illusion.
The relevance of Sam's aria inside of the structure of the drama is also of importance in determining the success of Weill's endeavors. This song brings no dramatic advancement to the action in the play, since nothing actually happens while Sam sings. There is also no real equivalent in Rice's original play for the "Lonely House" scene. Indeed, the idea of Sam holding a soliloquy in the original play would be totally absurd; and yet, Weill has successfully built in this aria -- the soliloquy's musical equivalent -- without breaking the realism of the drama at all. Admittedly, it is not 'naturalistic' for Sam to sing his lament; a naturalistic dramatic scene would focus more on the basic portrayal of human life through dialogue and action, not poetic musings and inner thoughts of the characters. It is, however, completely 'realistic' and strategically significant for Sam to sing "Lonely House" at this point, because in doing so, he gives depth to his character and awakens our sympathy.
The arioso lament, then, is an advancement of dramatic depth , if not action, and in a manner that could not be accomplished by the spoken dialogic drama. In essence, although I remain unconvinced that Weill has truly accomplished the production of a new "Broadway opera" in Street Scene -- for that is a very great claim, indeed -- I do believe, using "Lonely House" as the prime example, that he has realized the very specific goals he set out when defining the relationship between words and music in a 'realistic' musical.
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for Music 928 at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Realism in Language and Music: Kurt Weill's Street Scene." Website Article. 9 May 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/Mus928weill.html>.