Street Scene: Langston Hughes, Kurt Weill, Elmer Rice

July 11, 2012

It started out as a play by Elmer Rice: a Broadway run of 601 shows, the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, the  movie in 1931.

Kurt Weill saw it in Berlin, both the play and the film, and offered to write the musical score.  He was initially turned down, but Rice then reconsidered, and the project was on.  Apparently Weill was prouder of this than anything else he had done: “Not until Street Scene did I achieve a real blending of drama and music, in which the singing continues naturally where the speaking stops and the spoken word as well as the dramatic action are embedded in overall musical structure.”

They made the unusual choice of picking Langston Hughes as the lyricist.  Hughes took Weill on field trips to Harlem to watch real-life street scenes; he also took him to nightclubs to hear blues and jazz.  And that turned out to be the most nontrivial input into the opera, giving it not only its street vernacular but also creating in its musical rhythm the contradictory changes, the languor and the impudence of jazz.   (Sung by Abbey Lincoln, “Lonely House” sounds exactly like a jazz number.)

Rice turned out to be the force of obstruction here – he took out the word “cockroach” from “Lonely House,” much to Weill’s chagrin.  But it all worked out in the end.   The show was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in 1947.  Anna Sokolow’s choreography for “Moon-faced, Starry-Eyed” made Life magazine.   And Langston Hughes’ income for 1947 was over $10,000, more than any other year in his life.

“American opera has at last been realized,” the critic for the Musical Digest said. “Weill’s music is dissonant, melodic, cacophonous, brutal, powerful, and emotional, with incredible climax building upon incredible climax….   It is the finest American work in the operatic idiom that I have ever heard.”

If that’s what “American” means, that’s fine with me.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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