Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the penultimate entry in our last original weekly series, in which I’m highlighting some of the final scores that I feel must be featured here before the year concludes. Today…
V. Street Scene (01/09/47 – 05/17/47)
This faithful adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning play boasts a legitimate claim to the title of being an American Opera (a rare designation belonging only to a special few, like Porgy And Bess). With a book by Rice himself, music by German composer Kurt Weill, one of the most musically exciting individuals of this era, and lyrics by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, Street Scene effectively merged the grandness of European operatics with the bluesy and straightforward tenor of the American musical. Over the past few years, we’ve looked at a few landmark works that explored the murky relationship between various forms of music-based theatre, but never before have we focused on a piece that fully intends to be an opera — in scope, in sound, in style. The reason is simple: we don’t see this kind of musicianship in the Broadway works of this time. Operetta, yes. European-infused musical drama, yes. Actual opera? That’s a rarity. But simply being an opera isn’t why Street Scene deserves to be singled out as one of the crowning triumphs of American musical theatre — it’s the fact that this is an American opera. With its utterly New York premise — set in a Manhattan tenement — Street Scene‘s characters, their words, and even Weill’s tones all strikingly reinforce the aesthetics of the country, the time, and Broadway. It’s a groundbreaking work.
The play takes place over two days on the doorstep of a cultural melting pot: an East Side tenement. The narrative concerns the dramas of the Murrant family, specifically the affair that Mrs. Anna Murrant (Polyna Stoska) is having with the milk man and the devastating consequences of Mr. Frank Murrant’s (Norman Cordon) discovery, along with the blossoming relationship between their daughter Rose (Anne Jeffreys) and idealistic neighbor Sam Kaplan (Brian Sullivan, replacing Richard Manning during tryouts). There were many other small subplots, including a romance between neighborhood teen Mae Jones (Shiela Bond) and her love interest Dick McGann (Danny Daniels), while other characters included Sam’s outspoken Jewish father (Irving Kaufman), gossipy neighbors (including Hope Emerson), and a wise janitor (Creighton Thompson). Melanie Griffith’s father Peter played the teenage Murrant boy, Willie. Critics generally praised the show’s ability to bring these characters to life with heretofore unseen naturalism, although the show’s genre was still perplexing — Musical? Folk opera? What? The production closed after only four months, but became a staple at the New York City Opera, and has been mounted with regularity (all over the world) in the past several decades.
Needless to say: the score is breathtaking, with some of my favorite pieces ever written for the stage, including Sam’s “Lonely House” (above the previous paragraph) and the young lovers’ “Remember That I Care” (above). Both come from the 1947 Original Broadway Cast recording, and the latter also features a lyrical assist by Walt Whitman.
My favorite recording of the score remains the abbreviated Original Broadway Cast, although two near-complete recordings, one based on the 1989 English National Opera production and the other a 1990 studio album conducted by John Mauceri, offer chances to hear the full score in all its magnificent glory. Additionally, selections from a 1949 Hollywood Bowl performance have been released. The score has also been performed twice on BBC Radio in 1989 and 2011 (subscribers who are interested in obtaining copies of these two audios should kindly comment below), and videotaped and telecast at least three times — at the NYCO in 1979, the ENO in 1992, and the Houston Grand Opera in 1995. (Subscribers: for access to any or all of these three videos, please also comment below!) From the 1989 BBC broadcast of the 1989 Scottish Glasgow production, above is the soaring “Wrapped In A Ribbon And Tied In A Bow,” introduced in the original production by Beverly Janis.
One thing you’ll notice in the score is its miraculous range — one moment an exquisite tragedy, the next an evocative slice-of-life. Hewing to the former, above is Anna’s outstanding “Somehow I Never Could Belive,” and below is the crowd-pleasing and utterly musically comedic “Moon-Faced, Starry Eyed,” performed by Mae and Dick. Both come from the 1989 ENO cast recording (on which Catherine Zeta-Jones sings Mae).
My recommendation to those who’ve never heard the score before is to seek out the seminal recording (the OBC), and then get the ENO recording for completion, which I think benefits from an increased vitality than the ’90 studio album. From the ENO, here’s Rose’s “What Good Would The Moon Be?” So Weill, so Hughes, so Rice.
And although there’s so much more of this score I’d like to share, we’ll close today’s entry with a gloriously American number, “Ice Cream Sextet,” taken from the ’49 Hollywood Bowl concert.
*All of the shows in this series are Musical Theatre Monday Essentials. Here’s the updated list!
Come back next week for the final weekly Musical Theatre Monday post! And tune in tomorrow for my picks of the best episodes from the fourth season of Married… With Children!