Donnerstag, 16. Juni 2022

Kurt Weill - Music For Johnny Johnson

"Music for Johnny Johnson" was Kurt Weill's first score for the american theatre, and as such, contains many reminders of his european works. The play, by Paul Green, is itself a take-off from the Czeck classic, "The good soldier Schweik", which Weill had considered for operatic treatment while still in germany.
It is funny to hear the European roots and his search for the Amerian vernaculur. But this does not make this score or show bad. It simply heightens the drama. This powerful musical theatre piece has been unfairly swept under the rug, being merely a footnote in musical theatre history. It deserves new life, rebirth. The score is a gem, from the cowboy song, "Oh, the Rio Grande" ("which is really close to the real thing for a German immigrant," I believe the liner notes say), and "Mon Ami, My Friend" ("a touch of old Paris"). Then there is the beautiful "Oh, Heart of Love" and the startlingly effective "Song of the Goddess," sung in the show by none other than the Statue of Liberty herself! All of the incedental music is great, and the Otaré Pit Band is perfect for this score.

Although it has never found a large audience, JOHNNY JOHNSON is an essential piece of American Musical Theatre. Most theatre critics were positive about its 1936 premiere, but it lasted for only 68 performances. Staged by Lee Strasberg, the cast included Group Theatre members Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan, Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, and John Garfield. In October, 1956, Stella Adler directed an off-Broadway revival, with Samuel Matlowsky as musical director, at the Carnegie Hall Playhouse. It lasted a week, arguably better than the April, 1971 Broadway revival, staged by Jose Quintero, that lasted for only one night. (Matlowsky also conducts the wonderful 1956 MGM/Polygdor studio cast.) More recent productions include a thirteen-week run at The Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles (1986), a York Theatre Company "Musicals in Mufti" staging in the fall of 2000, and two performances by the Oakland Opera Theatre in December, 2005.

This recording, inspired by the 1996 Boston Camerata's performance at the Longy School, has been called " . . . the most important new Weill recording in several years . . . " (BOSTON GLOBE, 2/19/98). Recipient of France's "Diapason d'Or," it also was included in LE MONDE's and the BOSTON GLOBE's best classical albums of the year for 1997. (Reviews of the recording, as well as Boston Camerata musical director Joel Cohen's informative "Metamorphosis and Parody in Kurt Weill's JOHNNY JOHNSON," can be accessed on the Boston Camerata web site.)

The Cohen recording follows a performance edition realized by Lys Simonette, " . . . a close friend of the Weills and co-founder with [Lotte] Lenya of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music." (from Larry L. Lash's liner notes) Compared to the 1956 recording, this one includes more incidental music and additional verses to some of the songs. It also contains music cut from the original production: Minny Belle's "Farewell, Goodbye," "The West-Pointer Song," "The Sergeant's Chant," "The Tea Song," "The Asylum Chorus," and an instrumental reprise of "Farewell, Goodbye." A 1997 stereo recording, the CD has outstanding dynamics with speaker-testing tympani passages.

Synopsis (by Mark N. Grant):

Act I
It is April 6, 1917, in a small-town square somewhere in middle America. The villagers gather to unveil a monument carved by the local stonecutter, Johnny Johnson. The Mayor reminds them that President Woodrow Wilson has declared America must stay out of foreign wars ("Over in Europe"). Minny Belle Tompkins, Johnny's sweetheart, reads an original poem in honor of peace ("Democracy's Call"), though her Grandpa Joe recalls his Civil War combat with unseemly relish ("Up Chickamauga Hill"). Then a messenger delivers President Wilson's declaration of war. The whole town, except Johnny, is instantly inflamed with a mindless martial spirit. Even weakling Anguish Howington, Johnny's rival for Minny Belle's affections, vows he will enlist. Johnny finally
unveils his monument after everyone exits; it is a dove ("Johnny's Song").
A few days later, Aggie, Minny Belle's widowed mother, discusses Johnny with Grandpa Joe as she sews ("Aggie's Song"). Johnny gives a locket with his picture to Minny Belle, who receives it rapturously ("Oh, Heart of Love"), then steels herself against his departure ("Farewell, Goodbye"). When Johnny tells her he's not sure he wants to go to war, Minny Belle breaks their engagement, and Johnny decides to join up after all ("The Sergeant's Chant"). At the recruiting station, Captain Valentine reads a movie magazine ("Captain Valentine's Song") while Anguish takes his physical. After he is rejected, Valentine and his staff examine Johnny. His unorthodox replies cause him to flunk the intelligence test, and two hulking privates throw him out. But when Johnny knocks one of them flat with a single punch, Captain Valentine inducts him after all. Not long afterwards, hundreds of new soldiers sail past the Statue of Liberty, bound for Europe. Johnny addresses the statue, hailing the ideals she represents. As he falls asleep, she replies, explaining that she is merely an inanimate symbol, misused to send young men off to die ("Song of the Goddess").
As the newly arrived American soldiers walk toward the front lines, a cortege of lame and blind French soldiers stumble away ("Song of the Wounded Frenchmen"). The new soldiers settle into the trenches, and Johnny brings tea and food ("The Tea Son"). At nightfall, one homesick soldier sings of Texas ("Oh, the Rio Grand"), and Johnny dreams of Minny Belle. Three cannon muzzles take center stage and sing to the sleeping soldiers, saying that they are only metal that might have been put to better use ("Song of the Gun").
Johnny sets out at dawn to find a pesky German sniper and captures him ("Music of the Stricken Redeemer"). Since the young man speaks English, Johnny encourages him to stoke resistance to the war among the rank and file and sends him back to enemy lines. Captain Valentine appears and tries to gun down the sniper over Johnny's objections. When the Germans return fire, Johnny is shot in the buttocks.

Act II

A flirtatious French nurse tends to Johnny in the hospital ("Mon Ami, My Friend"). A doctor enters with a canister of laughing gas, but he loses track of it when a dignitary enters. Still hoping to stop the war, Johnny waits until everyone leaves and sneaks out with the canister. Later the same night the Allied commanders convene in a splendid chateau. The generals plan strategy, casually discussing the thousands of lives that will be lost ("The Allied High Command"). Suddenly Johnny appears and announces that the German soldiers are ready to give up. As the generals try to seize him, Johnny releases the laughing gas. The commanders collapse in hilarity ("The Laughing Generals") and send Johnny back to the front lines with an order ending the war, but they revoke it the instant the gas wears off.
Johnny rushes to the battlefield and proclaims the end of hostilities. Despite the joyful reaction from both sides, two American officers accuse Johnny of spying and order the battle to be rejoined. Over renewed shellbursts, an American and a German chaplain simultaneously intone prayers ("In Times of War and Tumult"). When the smoke clears, Johnny is arrested, returned to America, and committed to a mental hospital. The chief psychiatrist, Dr. Mahodan, tells Minny Belle that Johnny must remain indefinitely. Dr. Mahodan goes on to explain (none too convincingly) that modern psychiatry is an improvement on witchcraft ("The Psychiatry Song").
Ten years pass. A group of patients has formed a debating society in which each inmate resembles a well-known American statesman ("Asylum Chorus"). They vote for a Wilsonian "League of World Republics," and Dr. Frewd--another patient--leads them in the "Hymn to Peace." The hospital directors, accompanied by Anguish (now a benefactor), enter the room on an inspection tour. The directors tell him that Johnny is soon to be released. Anguish coldly informs Johnny that he married Minny Belle years earlier.
In the final scene, a prematurely aged Johnny stands on a street corner hawking handmade toys while a war rally goes on in a nearby stadium. He continues his cries of "Toys! Toys!" as the roar from the stadium grows louder. Johnny lifts his voice in a song of hope against the cruelty and dishonesty all around him ("Johnny's Song").

Kurt Weill - Music For Johnny Johnson
(256 kbps, cover art included) 

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