Tracing Kurt Weill’s Influence on American Music Theater 

Kurt Weill is well established as one of the 20th century’s most significant workmen in music theater. And yet his far-reaching legacy – the result of a career that stretched from theaters in Weimar Germany to Broadway with remarkable continuity – has left scholars divided, if not dumbfounded. It is little wonder that his direct impact on Marc Blitzstein and, subsequently, Leonard Blitzstein had been mentioned only in passing when I sat down to write my study exploring Weill’s aesthetic influence. 

While I grew up with a recording of Die Dreigroschenoper featuring Lotte Lenya, it was a semi-staging of Die Sieben Todsünden at the Komische Oper Berlin that left me transfixed with Weill’s singular approach to composition: How did his harmonies sound so tonal despite their atonal underpinnings? What created the biting irony in his realization of Bertolt Brecht’s text? Similar roads of inquiry had opened when I experienced Bernstein’s Candide in my undergraduate years: the score was at once an opera but a musical, European but American.  

As I began unraveling the elements that connected Bernstein to Weill, I visited the Weill-Lenya Research Center in New York and was introduced to Blitzstein – a key link between the composers but also a major figure in American history who is often overlooked. Alongside letters and lectures, oral histories captured by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music proved invaluable to Weill, Blitzstein and Bernstein: A Study of Influence. Most importantly, Lenya in 1962 confirmed the kinship of Bernstein to Weill in no uncertain terms when she identified West Side Story and Candide as works that her late husband might have created had he lived longer.  

Of course, even great minds labor in the shadow of their contemporaries and predecessors. Beethoven could not avoid absorbing melodies and harmonies from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte as he paved the way forward for German Romantic opera with Fidelio. Wagner disdained Meyerbeer as he transfigured the principles of Grand Opéra. But what forces are at play in this creative process?  

Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence had fallen out of fashion but provided a fitting lens to examine Blitzstein’s relationship with Weill. His “play in music” The Cradle Will Rock translates the principles of the Weill-Brecht collaborations into an American context and would leave an indelible mark on the young Bernstein. It was above all the holograph score of Die Dreigroschenoper, however, that emerged as testimony to what might call a textbook case for Bloom’s theories. Upon the 1952 premiere of Blitzstein’s English adaptation of the play with music, The Threepenny Opera, he and Bernstein marked up the manuscript with colored pencil, replacing titles with English translations and entering conductor’s markings. With Weill having passed away two years earlier, Blitzstein could present himself as a natural heir to the play with music, and Bernstein’s career writing for the stage took off with the premiere of his Trouble in Tahiti shortly thereafter. 

Alongside Bloom, I integrated the work of the musicologist Christopher Reynolds, who understands intertextuality less as an inescapable struggle with the geniuses of the past than a more peaceful process in which creators pay homage to their colleagues. This framework allowed me to trace West Side Story’s melodic, harmonic and structural allusions to Weill’s Street Scene. In the process of comparing these scores, I also dug into the meaning of cross-references to Mozart and Wagner. 

The sixth chapter of Weill, Blitzstein and Bernstein explores an unfinished work that emerged on the heels of West Side Story. The Exception and the Rule – an adaptation of the eponymous Brecht play, to which Bernstein assigned the title A Pray by Blecht – reveals the composer’s mission to satisfy the demands of the American entertainment industry while building upon artistic values that flourished in the Weimar Republic. After studying manuscripts and recordings at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., I discovered evocations of Weill’s German-period works Der Lindberghflug and Der Jasager while also revealing Exception as a steppingstone to one of Bernstein’s most personal works, The Mass

As such, this study sheds light on Weill’s central role in shaping the course of American musical history as it delves into the contradictory forces behind the stage works of Bernstein. The precedent of Blitzstein and his orientation toward Weill’s aesthetic also emerges as a critical factor in a short-lived movement of music theater that set out to gain popular appeal as it addressed socio-political issues. West Side Story – more often considered a musical – was in fact a crowning achievement in the tradition of Broadway Opera that secured a place not only in the American canon but mainstream culture. Weill, in his lifetime, could only have dreamed of such a success. 

REBECCA SCHMID holds a PhD in musicology and media studies from Humboldt University, Berlin, and is an independent scholar with a focus on 20th- and 21st-century music.  Her new book Weill, Blitzstein, and Bernstein: A Study of Influence is out now in Hardback and ebook. Blog readers save 35% – quote code BB897 

Hardcover: £90/$105 - Blog Price*: £58.50/$68.25  
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