No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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Kurt Weill and Marc Blitzstein may not have been bosom buddies, yet their art was so intertwined as to make them indispensable to one another. Weill’s musical tropes are at the heart of Blitzstein’s “The Nickel Under the Foot,” the song that launched his breakout musical The Cradle Will Rock. And when Cradle opened in 1937, Weill famously asked a musical colleague, “Have you seen my latest opera?” 

Their relationship could be briefly harmonious. In Europe, Blitzstein talked to Weill about working as a translator for the show that eventually became The Eternal Road, Weill’s first piece in America. Though the partnership never happened, the exchange was cordial. But Blitzstein could be scathing about his German colleague—in spite of, and, of course, because of—his music’s obvious indebtedness to Weill. He saw Weill’s commercial success on Broadway with Lady in the Dark [1941] and One Touch of Venus [1948] as a sellout. Weill, in return, resented that Maurice Abravanel chose to conduct the premiere of Blitzstein’s Regina and not Weill’s Lost in the Stars in 1949.

Kurt Weill would bring Blitzstein his most enduring fame, as the translator of The Threepenny Opera in 1954. Blitzstein had proposed the idea to Weill in 1950 and received his blessings (the latter had always thought his American colleague more gifted with words than with music). Alas, Weill died before he was able to see the meteoric success of his Dreigroschenoper off-Broadway, where it played for 2,707 performances. The royalties from “Mack the Knife” alone were probably greater than anything Blitzstein was able to earn from his own musicals that entire decade. Adapting Weill’s masterwork for American audiences in the 1950s was a triumph for Blitzstein, but he must have had a twinge of resentment that his longtime rival’s music was paying his rent and keeping him fed.

In addition to their shared coronation as the twin kings of left-wing, progressive music theater, the two composers had another thing in common. Both had created theater pieces that ran into political censure after only a handful of performances: Weill’s Silverlake in 1933, and Blitzstein’s No For an Answer in 1941. The circumstances were quite different—Nazi Germany cracked down on Weill, while New York City’s municipal government attempted to silence Blitzstein. But the result was ultimately the same: the works disappeared from view. And both men left their countries in the aftermath, Weill fleeing to Paris for temporary haven, Blitzstein eventually shipping of to London with the Army.

Blitzstein resolved to follow the success of The Cradle Will Rock with another work about the dead-end plight of the American worker. This time he wanted to write something akin to an opera with a cinematic approach to musical structure. Cradle, he said, was “a stage cartoon, a two-dimension allegory, involving categorical types of people.” One look at the list of Cradle’s characters—Harry Druggist, Yasha the Violinist, Dauber the painter, Editor Daily, and Reverend Salvation—and you know you are firmly in the world of agitprop. In his new piece, Blitzstein aimed to “develop characters with rich humanity, relationships, which might even change through the course of the action.”

Blitzstein always shunned collaboration, preferring to create his works alone. This gave him a great deal of artistic freedom, but it could also lead him down blind alleys with no one to guide him back. He began work on No For an Answer in July of 1937. It finally received its premiere, three Sunday performances with piano accompaniment, in January of 1941. The process had been arduous. Searching for his characters, Blitzstein wrote a first draft with a running time of six hours. Two-thirds of it had to be left on the cutting-room floor, and in the process some of the dramatic cohesion suffered.

The premiere at the Mecca Temple—now known as City Center—drew a huge audience and garnered critical praise from both Brooks Atkinson at The Times and Virgil Thomson at The Herald Tribune. The limited run of three Sunday shows was planned as a way to raise money for a continuous run in a Broadway house. But then history repeated itself. Four years earlier, the WPA  had shut down opening night of Cradle, ostensibly for lack of funding but more likely because of its left-wing, pro-union politics. Finding their theater locked down, the audience and the cast famously marched up Broadway to a vacant space in the 50s and gave an ad hoc reading of the work, assuring Cradle’s place in theater history. No For an Answer suffered a similar embargo. After attending the premiere, the New York License Commissioner Paul Moss found the Mecca Temple unsuitable as a theatrical venue. His principal objection was that the seats were not screwed into the floor. He demanded three separate certificates from a variety of city agencies, and the process would take three months to complete. No doubt Blitzstein’s politics had raised a red flag—the work had been described in the Times as “leaning so far to the left that it is practically horizontal.” Of course other troupes, including the Salmaggi Opera Company, had been able to use the space without raising objections from Commissioner Moss.

But this time Blitzstein, with strong support from the arts community, prevailed. The Temple did its best to secure the seats, and defying city officials, the opera managed to complete its short run. Next, Blitzstein hoped, would be a Broadway production.

Alas, the world had changed in the intervening years since Blitzstein’s last musical, and his new “labor opera” lacked the red-hot relevance Cradle had possessed. The workers in No For an Answer are advocates for non-violent resistance to their oppressors, seeking a kind of communal—some called it “Communist”—harmony. In 1937, one could still paint the war effort as a cynical ploy for enriching industry, one of the ideological pillars in Cradle. But by 1941, even Blitzstein realized that “the red-hot urgency of today’s war news has relegated all other social themes to a comparatively secondary role.” He went on to argue that his new opera was “presumably a work of art, not a pamphlet; and the validity of its content holds, if not its immediacy.”

But it was clear that the world had moved on while Blitzstein was laboring over rewrites and searching for a producer. Blitzstein flew to Los Angeles to give Hollywood a taste of No For an Answer. The evening went well, but nothing came of it. He neither orchestrated nor published it, and the script—a blurry Xerox of a blurry mimeograph—remains in the archives, available for perusal and rental but still not offered to the public at large. There have been a handful of revivals over the years following the first re-mount in 1960, but No For an Answer has remained a shadowy presence in American theater history.

In tonight’s excerpts we’ll give you a sense of its beauty and depth. As always, Blitzstein’s occasional awkwardness is the grit that creates the pearl, and there are gems hidden in this score.

The setting is an east coast resort town called Crest Lake. In the summer it is a bustling vacation spot for the well-off, providing employment for the workers in town. In the winter, though, they have little to do. They convene in the cafeteria run by one of their number, a Greek fellow named Nick. In their meeting room they find solidarity by forming a club—the Diogenes Club, a place for them to share gossip and offer support during the long, lean times. They also sing together, for they have formed a real-life, if amateur, Greek chorus.

There are several protagonists: Nick, who presides over the unemployed hotel workers; Nick’s son Joe, an activist who has just been released from prison; and a young, wealthy, married couple, Paul and his wife Clara, who take an active interest in the issues of Crest Lake. Paul became somewhat radicalized during his undergraduate years at Princeton, and remains passionate about being an instrument of change. He is also a loose cannon, unstable, undependable and alcoholic. Clara is initially skeptical about Paul’s involvement with the Diogenes Club, but as the play progresses she comes to a deep understanding of their plight. Her final alliance with the workers is the psychological heart of No For an Answer.

The action of the show involves a sinister plan to take jobs away from the workers, as new developers turn the resort into another Sun Valley (already a popular resort in the late 30s). Clara is shocked to learn that her brother, a U. S. senator, has arranged a nefarious plan to destroy the Diogenes Club, seen as the lever of the workers’ power. She’s powerless to stop the plot: the cops frame Nick on trumped-up charges, everyone is arrested, Joe is killed, and the cafeteria building is set on fire. Out of the ashes, the workers reassemble. Paul has disappeared, off on a bender. But Clara allies herself with Nick and the Diogenes Club. They are determined to rebuild justice in America, and they refuse to “take no for an answer.”

Blitzstein thought of No For an Answer as an opera. The light musical underscoring for portions of the script sometimes breaks into sung dialogue before fading out. There are a few set pieces with obvious applause-inducing endings, but many of the big numbers taper off to quiet conclusions. Some simply crash into a wall—the arching line of Paul’s aria “Weep For Me” ends with a violent spoken outburst, just as we are hoping for the musical catharsis Blitzstein seems to have promised. There are choral sections, since we are in the presence of a real-life Greek chorus. But their music tends to be simple and didactic. They remind the listener that Blitzstein favored the drier music of Hanns Eisler to the richness of Kurt Weill’s Brecht settings.

It’s clear that Blitzstein was still experimenting with dramatic forms in No For an Answer. It would be very hard to put it onstage in a full production today. Some of it ventures into uncomfortable territory for a contemporary audience, particularly the dialect numbers for Nick. Blitzstein’s dialogue sometimes ventures into stage-immigrant English. He likely saw this as a way of giving voice to oppressed minority groups; in our times it could easily be mislabeled as cultural appropriation. But the work’s true stumbling block is that Blitzstein had not fully worked out a sophisticated way to tell a story through continuous music. No For an Answer blazes up, and then sputters, only to blaze again. When it does, it blazes high.

Kurt Weill was exactly five years older than Blitzstein—they shared a birthday—and he had become a surefooted composer at an earlier age than his American colleague. Blitzstein was 32 when he began his labors on No For an Answer, his third musical. He was 37 when it finally saw the light of day. Weill was 32 when Der Silbersee (“Silverlake”) premiered, and by then he had already created ten operas and musicals. Among them were runaway hits like Threepenny Opera, The Czar Has His Picture Taken, and Der Jasager, as well as succès d’estime like Mahagonny and Die Bürgschaft.

It is tempting, but unfair, to compare the two composers. Certainly Weill was the more fluent and assured artist. But he had certain advantages. Weill’s genius had a pre-existing arena in which to flourish—German audiences were more open to political theater than the American public. And Berlin’s theater scene, including its flamboyant Kabaretts, included plenty of strong social commentary and played to enthusiastic houses. Blitzstein, on the other hand, was practically inventing activist music-theater in an environment that rewarded escapist comedies and family dramas more than the theater of ideas.

Weill also had a talent for collaboration, and created his stage works with a dazzling array of writers. He worked alongside German legends—Bertolt Brecht, Caspar Neher, Franz Werfel, and Silbersee’s Georg Kaiser. In America, he partnered with Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, and Ogden Nash. Blitzstein worked alone, claiming that no one would have the patience to put up with his many quirks. Blitzstein might have had a more successful career had he invited other artists onto his team. But then, he wouldn’t have been Blitzstein.

Weill’s partner on Silverlake, George Kaiser, was an old friend with a special place in his life. In 1924, Kaiser introduced Weill to the woman who would become his wife and his muse: Lotte Lenya. Kaiser had written the libretto for Weill’s first opera, Der Protagonist, and also for The Czar Gets His Picture Taken. Weill went on to his greatest successes, of course, with Bertolt Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera which took Europe by storm in 1928. The sweet-and-sour tang of Weill’s music, and his uniquely seductive melodies supported by woozy, shifting harmonies, were like a drug for his listeners. (They still are.)

But by 1932, Weill had tired of Brecht’s obstinacy and willfulness. He also found that his philosophy of life was diverging from Brecht’s in a serious way. For Brecht, Mahagonny was an opera about capitalism; for Weill, it was a morality play about human greed. Brecht’s dark vision of the world was apocalyptic, and Marxism provided the only salvation from the abyss. As the political situation in Germany grew ever darker, Weill longed to write something less doctrinaire and more in line with his view of the human condition.

It was Kaiser who proposed Der Silbersee: ein Wintermärchen (“Silverlake: a Winter’s Tale”). The subtitle is significant. Educated Germans would have been familiar with Heine’s satirical poem “Deutschland: ein Wintermärchen,” and they would instantly understand that the story they were seeing was meant to be a tale about Germany. Not that they needed the allusion. Six million people were out of work in Germany, and the desperate, starving men we meet in the first scene were clearly a stand-in for the indigent masses outside the theater. Nor was the self-congratulatory greed of Frau Luber and Baron Laur unknown as the Weimar Republic flamed out.

The ravages of greed and poverty might sound like Brecht territory, but Kaiser’s play dramatizes them with a sense of fantasy, a sort of Teutonic magical realism. The story unfolds like a dream. A starving man (Severin) goes to rob a food market where he becomes mesmerized by the sight of a pineapple. Casting aside more useful items, he makes off with the exotic fruit. But when he is escaping he is shot by a policeman (Olim). As Severin lies wounded in the hospital, Olim writes his police report. The theft of a pineapple—a bulky, luxury item—has made an impression on him, and he has a change of conscience. He wants to help the man he shot. A lottery agent appears and tells Olim that he has won the jackpot. With his new riches Olim buys a castle and takes Severin there, where he resolves to nurse him back to health.

At the castle we meet its caretaker, the mean-spirited Frau Luber, a woman from a noble family who has fallen on hard times. We also meet her impoverished niece Fennimore, who spends her young life billeted with a series of relatives. Frau Luber treats Fennimore like a servant, but she is a young woman of spirit and visionary powers. She forms a gentle bond with Severin, who remains bitter even as he is being pampered by Olim. Fennimore arranges to bring Severin’s band of beggars to the castle in an attempt to cheer him. When they arrive, they recognize Olim as the man who shot Severin.

At this point Severin’s rage spikes to the point where he locks himself in the basement, terrified of the revenge he might wreak. Olim, in turn, locks himself in the tower, fearing for his life. Taking advantage of their highly emotional state, Frau Luber gets Olim to sign the castle over to her. Having done so, she boots both Severin and Olim out into the freezing winter night. The two men are now able to transcend their fear and fury, establishing a mystical brotherhood as they trudge towards the Silverlake. There they expect to drown together in the icy weeds. But there is a miracle: the lake freezes over, permitting them a passage to safety. Led by the sound of Fennimore’s voice, springtime begins to blossom around them. “The Silverlake will come to the aid of anyone who decides he must go farther,” she sings as the curtain falls.

Silverlake weaves many theatrical strands together to form its unique tapestry. The story of the starving underclass and the policeman with a guilty conscience feels like political drama; Frau Luber’s evil dominance over her niece and her boss is the stuff of Gothic novels; Olim and Severin’s magical triumph over mortal danger belongs to the German opera tradition of transcendence and magical rescue—think of Fidelio, Der Freischütz, or The Magic Flute. It is an oddly proportioned work whose full-length score is propelled by far more dialogue than the typical Singspiel.  Beginning with the gritty verismo of starvation, theft, and law enforcement, it soon moves into the Cubist logic of a dream play.

The relationship of Olim and Severin is the key to Silverlake. The two men are locked in an adversarial relationship born of poverty and social conditioning. A windfall of cash (Olim’s lottery money) only seems to deepen the gulf between them. But through Severin’s act of forgiveness and their shared transcendence they find an intrinsic human bond. Then the path to safety opens before them. Weill found a rich, multifaceted musical language for Kaiser’s lyrics: broad melodies, turbulent orchestral patterns, evocative rhythms. The hangdog 6/8 time of Fennimore’s first song (“The Poor Relation”) conjures up her wan existence as surely as the Lottery Agent’s oily tango shows us his dark nature. Almost all the songs relate to social issues—poverty, the machinations of the rich, the threat of Fascism. Yet Silverlake’s dreamlike tone, replete with symbols, is more Jungian than Brechtian. The emphasis is on personal salvation, the potential of individuals to take extraordinary actions to save themselves and their loved ones.

When Weill and Kaiser began writing Silverlake, Hitler’s hold on Germany appeared to be weakening. It briefly seemed that the menace might be retreating and life could go back to normal. Alas, the thaw was short-lived. Three weeks before the play’s opening night in Magdeburg, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the German Republic. The Brown Shirts had taken over Germany just as inexorably as Frau Luber takes over Olim’s castle in Act III. At the first performance on February 18, 1933, practically all of Germany’s greatest artists and intellectuals, many of them Jewish, turned out for it. In the theater that night, they saw onstage a fantasy of salvation, a much longed-for myth. All the while they knew the evening would probably be the last time they would be under one roof, perhaps the last time they would ever see one another.

What they feared was all too true.

The second performance in Magdeburg, Kaiser’s hometown, was interrupted by the Brown Shirts. They staged a riot during the show’s most outspoken song, “Caesar’s Death”—a blatantly anti-Fascist ballad—and brought the show to an end. Though Silverlake had enjoyed a triple premiere in Leipzig, Erfurt, and Magdeburg, all three runs were cut short. It managed to eke out a total of sixteen performances. On February 27, the Reichstag burned. Brecht fled to Prague. And on March 21, a friend warned Weill that he was about to be arrested by the Gestapo. He packed a bag and made his surreptitious way to Paris, where he started a second career.

NYFOS has presented songs from No For an Answer and Silverlake over the years. Tonight we offer you a chance to enter deeper into both these deeply complicated works. As expected, they provide a window into the era in which they were written, but they also shine a light on today’s turbulence. They grapple with the same issues that are on the front page of our newspapers: the rights of immigrants, the possibilities and limitations of altruism; police brutality; hunger; protest; greed. One ends with a murder, the other with an epiphany. And both pieces, eerily prescient, touch our hearts with the depth of their compassion.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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