Show us the way to the next pretty boy
Don’t know much about history? Well, don’t sweat it, because Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht didn’t either when they decided to set their Weimar-flavored opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ((What does “Mahagonny” mean? Damn if I know.)) in the good old U.S.A. They knew about the Alaskan gold rush (courtesy of the Chaplin film), the 1925 Florida hurricane that leveled Pensacola (you remember that one, don’t you?), the electric chair, G-men, and prize fights, and that was about it. But when genius sets to work, ignorance is no obstacle. Nine times out of ten, facts just get in the way.
Kultur Video has now released the 1998 Salzburg Festival production of Mahagonny on DVD. Like the opera itself, the production starts a little ragged but gathers strength and confidence after the first act.
Weill’s brief overture is wonderfully astringent and dissonant, the precise opposite of the florid, creamy style of the composer often regarded as his chief competitor, George Gershwin.1 Mahagonny opens with an unlikely trio, Leokadja Begbick, Trinity Moses, and Fatty, three hustlers on the lam from white slavery charges in Pensacola. They’ve run out of gas and cash on the way to Alaska, so it’s time for a new scam, “Mahagonny,” the city of nets, designed to catch the unwary.
First to arrive are a group of whores singing (in English) “Show Us the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar,” popularized in the U.S. by The Doors back in the sixties. They’re followed by a group of lumberjacks out to have a good time, including Jimmy Mahoney, Jacob Schmidt, Pennybank Bill, and Alaska Wolf Joe. The action here stumbles back and forth, with Jimmy singing at length but for no discernible reason about his dissatisfaction with life in general and Mahagonny in particular. Then the city is threatened by a hurricane, which crushes Pensacola (and the G-men) but miraculously swerves away from Mahagonny at the last minute.
Much of the first act is simply confusing. Parts of it are funny, if properly staged, but this production doesn’t do much with the material. Most of the time we simply see a bare stage. Sets, when they do appear, are scarcely more than functional. However, the orchestra and singers are all first-rate.
In act two, things come together. Begbick, Trinity, and Fatty improve Mahagonny’s product by concentrating on three classic male pleasures – gluttonous overeating, commodified sex, and prize fights. Jacob Schmidt kicks things off by eating himself to death, consuming two whole calves but gagging on the third. “Give praise to a man who was not afraid to take things to the limit,” sings a bare-chested male chorus, who will never be mistaken for the Chippendales.2 The proceedings are staged with the traditional Teutonic flair for the literal, so if sagging bellies, body hair, etc., are not your cup of tea, you might be better off with My Fair Lady.
It’s only fair to point out that during the brothel sequence Weill and Brecht show a rare glimmer of honest emotion. Despite all the grim couplings around them, Jimmy and Jenny, one of the whores, sing an ode to a pair of cranes, dumb birds mating for a brief time without purpose but achieving a simplicity and grace that poor humans can only hope to equal. Shedding a tear in a Weill/Brecht production! Now that’s radical!3
After that outburst of sentiment, we’re on to the prize fight, where Alaska Wolf Joe, overestimating his strength, is beaten to death by Trinity Moses. Poor Jimmy Mahoney is left all alone,4 and, worst of all, he’s run out of money, violating Mahagonny’s one law. Jimmy’s trial takes up most of the third act. Although fun in spots – “Pay five bucks and see the wheels of justice in motion” – the trial tends to drag and Jimmy’s electrocution isn’t a lot of laughs either.5 Brecht wants to make us feel the weight of a human death, but he’s just not up to it.6 Irresponsibility was his métier, and when he tries to get serious he gets boring instead.
Let’s see – a confused first act, a slow third, staging that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – I guess this isn’t turning into a rave review. But Weill’s music is consistently strong and exciting, and both singers and orchestra do a first-rate job with a fascinating opera. And, despite my complaints about the staging, the video work here is quite effective, despite the fact that it was done in a live performance. So give Mahagonny a try. We all need a little Weimar in our lives now and again.
A great many films, many of them made-for-TV movies,7 have been based on works by Brecht and Weill, but not much has made it onto video. Most important, but most frustrating, is G.W. Pabst’s 1931 version of their most famous work, Die 3groschenoper (yeah, The Three Penny Opera), available on VHS only.8 Like many early talkies, this film alternates between stretches of awkward pantomime and stretches of clumsy dialogue. Although there isn’t much music, what there is is quite good. The film remains a must-see, for Weill fans at least, thanks to Lotte Lenya’s rendition of “Pirate Jenny” (or, as she sings it, “Seeräuber-Jenny”). Lenya, Weill’s sometime wife, remains the outstanding interpreter of his cabaret songs, although she’s best known today, in the U.S. at least, for her bravura performance as the reptilian Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love (1964). A 1990 version of The Three Penny Opera, called Mack the Knife, starring Raul Julia, which has gotten mixed reviews, is available on DVD.
Brecht and Weill naturally left Germany as the Nazis came to power and ultimately made their way to Hollywood, although they were no longer working as collaborators. Weill contributed three songs to Fritz Lang’s 1938 semi-musical You and Me (ex-cons George Raft and Sylvia Sidney fall in love), available on VHS only. Brecht also worked with Lang, doing the script for Hangmen Also Die (1943), available on both DVD and VHS.
In 1946, Weill collaborated with poet Langston Hughes to create a musical version of Street Scene, a play by Elmer Rice. A 1995 performance of Street Scene is now available on DVD,9 as is Marianne Faithfull Sings Kurt Weill, ((Marianne, who spent quite a bit of time paying court to both Mick Jagger and King Heroin, is certainly qualified to interpret the master of Weimar decadence.)) a 1997 performance from the Monterey Jazz Festival.
- The son of a cantor, Weill was born in Germany in 1900 and studied with Engelbert Humperdinck (the real one). Weill and Brecht began working together in the 1920s. Their most famous collaboration, of course, is the Three Penny Opera. [↩]
- No, they’re members of the Konzertvereinigung Weiner Staatsopernchor. [↩]
- It’s also very well done. Kudos to Jerry Hadley and Catherine Malfitano, along with conductor Dennis Russell Davies. [↩]
- Pennybank Bill is still around, but he doesn’t provide much support. [↩]
- American executions are regarded in Europe as special proof of our barbarous nature as a people, which is perhaps why the death scene is underplayed. The electric chair was made particularly famous in 1928, two years before the premiere of Mahagonny, when the New York Daily News published a photograph of the electrocution of Ruth Snyder (taken by stealth, naturally). Snyder’s career inspired the novel Double Indemnity, which has been filmed several times. [↩]
- Actually, the finale might have worked better if it had been done as an outright anti-American screed. Anything for a theme! [↩]
- Both Brecht and Weill were heroic anti-fascists, and have been a staple on European state TV for decades. [↩]
- A separate French version, known as L’Opéra de quat’ sous, made at the same time, may be available in France. [↩]
- Don’t confuse the 1995 Street Scene with the 1931 Street Scene, based on Rice’s play and directed by King Vidor, also available on DVD. [↩]