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Once in a Long Weill by Matthew Murray

  • FlorenceConcert.jpgOne sure sign of a great artist: His failures are more noteworthy than most others' successes. Kurt Weill, for example, earned his station in musical theatre posterity because of hits, but his one big Broadway bomb, The Firebrand of Florence, contains his most richly romantic and instantly accessible music. Last night at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, The Collegiate Chorale gave that show its first public hearing in New York in nearly 64 years, under the direction of Roger Rees and the conducting baton of Ted Sperling. And they made a triumph of something that's long been considered a tragedy.

    Operetta had all but dissolved into the mists of Ruritania when The Firebrand of Florence opened (and closed) in the spring of 1945. There had been and would continue to be a few outliers (including the Sidney Romberg–Dorothy Fields–Herbert Fields Up in Central Park, which opened earlier that year and would run into 1946), but for most part the genre that had owned the 1920s was functionally moribund. Still, it remained potent in the memories of audiences and composers, so it makes sense that Weill, teaming up again with lyricist Ira Gershwin (their first show had been the smash Gertrude Lawrence vehicle Lady in the Dark), would want to try his hand. Edwin Justus Mayer's 1924 play The Firebrand, loosely based on the life of Renaissance Renaissance man Benvenuto Cellini, would seem to provide the requisite Italian color and swashbuckling sweep.

    Things didn't quite work out. Despite an energetic story, in which Cellini wove in and out of Florence's public squares and bedchambers, dodged the spoonerism-spouting Duke and Duchess of Florence, and repeatedly getting arrested for this or that transgression, the operetta-ization quickly closed. Several reasons have been given for this over the years, and one suspects Rees and company agree most with the one that cites the lack of zest in Mayer's own adaptation of his play—Rees and company ignored the book as much as they could. But his light-handed semi-staging, blended with Sperling's decisive conducting of the forcefully beautiful score, made The Firebrand of Florence seem like it should have always been a hit.

    At least in terms of its music. Combining a trio of elaborately structured musical scenes (Cellini's trial in the court of public opinion, a farcical Act I finale, and a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style courtroom spectacle in Act II) with soaring songs of every sort, this is a show that is borne aloft time and time again by tidal waves of incomparable compositions. The "Come to Flornece" chorus and Cellini's establishing "Life, Love, and Laughter" are as musically addicting and adventurous as any better-known songs from Broadway's more successful shows of the period, and so emotionally vibrant that they practically defy comparison with most Broadway songs written in the last 30 years or so. Gershwin's lyrics don't shy away from filigree, but don't devote themselves to it either—the effect of his words against Weill's tunes is of hearing a thoroughly modern (for the day) operetta that just happens to be set in 17th-century Italy.

    This is hardly accidental: Weill was the ultimate musical chameleon, capable of writing any type of show in any form without traversing the same road twice, and he elicited vivacious versatility from all of his collaborators as well. You get a sense in this show of Lady in the Dark's urgent fluidity or One Touch of Venus's carefree bounce, but this score sounds and behaves nothing like those— or any other title in its ostensible genre. Here, Weill and Gershwin were blending operetta with popular Broadway, so their score reflects as much the sensibilities of the soon-to-appear Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow as it does the established and geriatric ones of Kern and Romberg. (Carousel, however, also from 1945, remains in a class of its own.)

    So convincing did The Collegiate Chorale make the show as a composition, it's hard to believe the original production could have flopped after only 43 performances. Perhaps the deciding factor really was Mayer's libretto, or even the cast led by the estimable Lotte Lenya (who, it's true, is hard to imagine as the come-hither Duchess). But with opera star Nathan Gunn an effortlessly magnetic (and flawlessly sung) Cellini, Anna Christy as his golden-voiced model-muse Angela, Broadway stalwarts Terrence Mann and Victoria Clark as the Duke and Duchess, and key supporting roles filled by the full-bodied ham David Pittu and the lusty mezzo Krysty Swann, such problems were not replicated last night. Nothing stood in the way of music, which made it seem that nothing could.

    Florence1945.jpgOnly Rees failed to satisfy, the often-rhyming narration he read to smooth over the excision of dozens of dialogue pages hurting the flow of the entertainment more than helping it. But his direction was sure and usually very funny, and he made the most of what could have been two-dimensional staging and one-dimensional drama thanks to all the missing (or frayed) narrative threads. Simply given the nature of the evening, the unquestionable king of the concert was Sperling, whose mastery of the New York City Opera Orchestra was top-notch and who didn't miss a nuance of the score's up-to-the-minute old-fashionedness. But Rees's theatrical common sense was a crucial glue.

    At least for a single concert. The Firebrand of Florence being revived today on any scale is unthinkable; if another chance comes around even within the next 64 years, it will be one of those miracles that only the theatre seems able to produce. But for those smart enough to trudge up to Lincoln Center last night, this one-night-only event was more than enough to sate the appetite. There are always other things to gorge on, true, but certain recipes are necessarily of the moment; The Collegiate Chorale knew just what it was doing. If the group is already planning its next feast, and it's still interested in underappreciated Weill, may I recommend serving a few courses of Love Life?

    Photos (top to bottom): Nathan Gunn, Anna Christy, Victoria Clark, and Terrence Mann; the original cast of The Firebird of Florence (photo courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts)

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