When he fled to the US to escape the Nazis, he continued to write musical shows but more in the vein of Broadway than of Berlin. These included "Knickerbocker Holiday", "One Touch of Venus", "Street Scene", "Love Life" and "Lost in the Stars". Many others have never been revived or, as in the cases of "Ulysses Africanus", "Davy Crockett" and "Huckleberry Finn", were never even completed. This is sad because Weill adapted the style of his German compositions to suit his American period and produced some of the most interesting American musicals in the canon.
"Johnny Johnson" (1936) was his first show for the USA. It was performed by the left-wing Group Theater Company but ran for only 68 performances on Broadway, even though there were some illustrious names on board – including Luther Adler, Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield and Elia Kazan. The 1971 revival did even worse and played just a single performance. A studio recording was made in 1956 with the composer's widow Lotte Lenya, Burgess Meredith and Evelyn Lear. The UK premiere took place in 1998 at the Guildhall Theatre, Derby, by the Operating Theatre Company, courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation.
The Lost Musicals staging is the London premiere of the full version; previous performances in the UK were abridged.
Kurt Weill's collaborator on "Johnny Johnson" was Paul Green (1894-1981), an American playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play "Abraham's Bosom" in 1927. Born in North Carolina, he often featured US regional hometowns and, with a social conscience, he also wrote about African-Americans in the Southern states. His play "The House of Connelly" was chosen as the opening production by Group Theater. It has been compared to the work of Chekhov and "The Cherry Orchard" in particular. However, Green eventually moved away from realism into expressionism. Later he devised what he called "symphonic drama" using historical events, music and pageantry often in outdoor performances. His play "The Lost Colony" is still played every year outdoors in North Carolina and his "Stephen Foster Story" continues to be staged every summer in Kentucky. Green was also responsible for the screenplay adaptations of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "State Fair", another show about hometown America.
"Johnny Johnson" is the result of two great artists coming together. It is more a play with music rather than musical per se, because the songs are integrated into the action of the play. Ian Marshall Fisher, who directs this concert semi-staging, likens it to a cross between "The Wizard of Oz" and "Oh! What a Lovely War" because there are elements of fantasy, a lot of comedy, however black or ironic it might be, plus a certain amount of realism in dealing with the World Wars. Green wrote the piece as a comedy in the first act, a tragedy in the second and a satire in the third. It is a fascinating combination and, although it has obviously always been difficult to sustain differing moods, a large-scale production is probably what the show needs although not necessarily by an opera company because its success depends more on acting than musical ability.
Based loosely on Jaroslav Hasek's novel "The Good Soldier Schweik", "Johnny Johnson" is about a lowly stonecutter and pacifist who is called up to fight in the First World War, leaving behind his beloved fiancée Minnie Belle. With his ideals he not only manages to halt the action by giving the generals laughing gas, but also spares a German soldier his life in order to persuade him to convince his fellow recruits that they should lay down their arms. But such ideals do not last long when the British, German and US generals want to carry on with the war. Johnny is admitted to an asylum where he continues his anti-war propaganda with the inmates. On being released he tries to get back to Minnie only to find she has married a big-shot businessman. Johnny becomes a toymaker but, with his pacifist ideals still intact, he will not make toy soldiers.
It is at times both moving and hilarious and still carries an enormous punch. The music covers many different genres and styles including the rabble-rousing numbers such as 'Democracy's Call' or 'Song of the Guns'; there's a 'Cowboy Song', a 'Song of the Wounded French Soldiers', the 'Song of the Goddess' (Statue of Liberty), a cabaret-type love-song 'Mon Ami, My Friend', sung by a French Nurse, a song that sends up psychiatry, and an 'Asylum Chorus'. The music mixes the incisive, edgy style of Weill's German period with the more lyrical aspects of his later American musical shows.
There are nearly fifty characters in the show played by just fourteen actors and even in evening-dress they equip themselves very well and make the piece really come alive. Max Gold in the title role is outstanding, making us believe in his rhetoric, a character who is the only real person in the piece. The rest are more-or-less caricatures but they work as stereotypes in a work that takes satirical pot-shots at warmongers, psychiatrists, politicians and capitalists.
Lauren Ward as Minnie Belle is a weak-willed girl with a pushy mother (Gay Soper). Myra Sands does sterling work in varying roles as do most of the cast. James Vaughan has multiple roles but none is better than his totally-bonkers psychiatrist Dr Mohodan whose nurse is Miss Newro played by Valerie Cutko. She also provides a plangent moment as the French Nurse when she sings 'Mon Ami, My Friend' to the wounded Johnny. Music Director Chris Walker provides the piano accompaniment with particular finesse in his playing of an extensive and intricate score.
It's not often that the Lost Musicals in this series leave one hoping for a full staging. Mostly the US musical comedies of the 1930s have at best dated badly or are at worst no longer funny. "Johnny Johnson" cries out to be given a complete staging. The National Theatre could probably do the piece the full justice it deserves.
- Johnny Johnson is at Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1 on Sunday 5 July at 4 p.m. and Sunday 12 July at 2 & 6.15 p.m.
- Tickets: 0844 412 4300
- Lost Musicals