Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Kurt Weill - Lasting Legacy

Last week, in preparation for the start of The Threepenny Opera, we here at the Signature Theatre Education blog explored the life of composer Kurt Weill. This week, just as the curtain is set to rise again at Signature, we want to share a little bit of the influence, writings, and legacy that Weill has had on the world of music and theatre. What follows are brief snippets of Weill’s writing on music and theatre as well as some side notes of our own as we explore the great composer.

During his time as a composer, Kurt Weill established himself as a new and original voice in German and American musical theater. Weill's formula for success in the theatre was a simple one. “Being a theatrical composer, I have to present my music in a manner which would be accepted by a realistic public.... I will have music for seventy-five percent of my story, but twenty-five percent will be dialogue. Sometimes this dialogue will be underscored by the orchestra as a dramatic moment is about to unfold. At other times, no music will be played at all.”

Kurt believed that in order to preserve realism he could not tell the whole story in music but must weave the spoken word into song for a blending of profound effects both musically and dramatically. Now, this may seem like a small inkling of creative constriction on the part of the composer, however, Weill puts these possible constraints in a different light. “The creative artist seeks independence, he wants to conceive his work freely, unaffected by outer compulsion. On the other hand, he needs some restraining influence to prevent his wandering in abstract spheres. He must know for whom he is creating. Only by considering his objective will he find the necessary spiritual background that prohibits an empty play with forms.”

Wiell's opinions on the creation of art are particularly relevant in today's theatrical world. As the world continues to change and become more interconnected, we see it's dependence on the arts and culture grow. The United States of America is one of the only countries in which theatre forms an active, vital part of cultural life and is fostering the development of the theatrical future. In America there there is a genuine interest in theatre not only in New York but in other cities the nation over. This American curiosity and natural attraction to theatre indicate that "the soil is favorable for development."

What has been developed since Kurt Wiell's passing has become modern musical theatre. The purest and most direct form of poetic theatre, musical theatre lifts the play immediately to a high level of feeling and makes spectators far more disposed to pursue the poetic line. Kurt Wiell wanted the people of the world to pursue the poetic lines of life and notice the beauty and weight of the world around them.

"One glance at New York at night, at an industrial photograph, at a flash of any newsreel, at a page of any newspaper, reveals to us the richness of romantic quality that life today contains...Here is where music's power could be so great." - Kurt Weill

Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information.

Clippings and quotes taken from:

Signature Summer: Stage One

“The Stage One program was an incredible transitional experience for me. Having participated in the program the summer before my senior year of high school, it fostered my growth from an excited yet inexperienced young performer to a more confident, emotionally-intelligent actor, singer and dancer.” – Edward Simon

This coming Saturday the 26th, the Signature Theatre Education Department will be holding auditions for its 2014 summer Stage One musical theatre workshops at 10:00 am.

The Stage One workshop is a two-week program that gives anyone ages 14-17 the chance to experience in-depth the world of professional musical theatre and to hone their vocal, dance and acting skills. Musical theatre professionals provide students with personalized, supportive instruction in daily dancing, singing, and acting courses. As the prequel to the successful Overtures Musical Theatre Institute, Stage One aims to create fully-developed young musical theatre performers. At the conclusion of the program, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned in a performance for friends and family members.

Education Director David Zobell (center) with the 2011 Stage One crew
In addition to daily training in acting, music and dance, this year Stage One will be a full hour longer to incorporate daily master classes from a professional from the DC theatre scene. With a different instructor everyday, this is an incredible opportunity for high schools students to work with award-winning actors, directors, choreographers, musicians and casting directors.

Check out the comments former Stage One students have had about their involvement with the program and how it has helped them as performers.

Eitan and the others warm up at the start of the day.
“I came into Stage One already knowing I wanted to pursue  musical theatre as a career, but when I left, my love for the art was even stronger because I was so heavily exposed to the varied disciplines within the art form. Stage One is the right program for anyone who loves performing musical theatre, wants to learn much more about it, and simply wants to have a fantastic time with other kids that share the same passion.” - Eitan Mazia

You’ve heard it from some of our past students so now why don’t you audition to be one of our students? Come out this coming Saturday at 10:00 am with 2 contrasting musical theatre pieces, no more than 16 bars a piece, and be prepared for a short dance call. We look forward to hopefully seeing, meeting, and working with you.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kurt Weill - Composing Threepenny

We are a week away from the start of The Threepenny Opera at Signature Theatre and could not be more excited to have Mack back in town. In previous posts we explored Berchtolt Brecht and his contributions to Threepenny. This time around we thought it would only be fair to explore the other major half of the Threepenny team, composer and longtime collaborator, Kurt Weill.

Kurt Weill
Kurt Weill was a German composer active in the early 20th century. A leading composer of the stage, he was known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. With Brecht as a partner, Weill helped create pieces and productions such as, The Threepenny Opera, his most well-known work, which includes the popular ballad “Mack the Knife”. Weill held the ideal of writing music that served a socially useful and direct purpose. 

"I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music."
– Kurt Weill

Kurt Julian Weill was born on the 2nd of March, 1900. The son of a cantor and the third of four children, Kurt grew up in the Jewish quarter in Dessau, Germany. Displaying musical talent at the age of 12, he began taking piano lessons and writing music. His earliest composition was written in 1913 and titled “Mi Addir” (Jewish Wedding Song) In 1915, Kurt started taking private lessons with well known Albert Bing, who taught him piano, composition, music theory, and conducting. (The Bing family would eventually become like a second family to Kurt.)

Kurt graduated from secondary school  in 1918 and promptly enrolled at the “Berliner Hochschule fur Musik” at age 18. At school he studied composition with Engelbert Humperfinck, conducting with Rudolf Krasselt, and counterpoint with Friedrich E. Koch. Unfortunately, family hardships due the aftermath of World War I forced him to abandon his studies in 1919 and return home to Dessau to teach at the Friedrich-Theatre.

A dashingyoung Kurt.
During his time at the theatre Kurt found time to compos an orchestral suite, a symphonic poem of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke as well as Schilflieder, a cycle of five settings of poems by Nikolaus Lenau. In December of 1919, through the help of Humperdinck, Weill was appointed as Kapellmeister at the newly founded Stadttheater in Lüdenscheid, where he directed opera, operetta, and singspiel for five months, and also composed a cello sonata and Ninon de Lenclos, a now lost one-act operatic adaptation of a play by Ernst Hardt.

Upon his return to Berlin, Weill had an interview with Ferruccio Busoni in December of 1920. After examining some of Weill's compositions, Busoni accepted him as one of five master students in composition at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin. From January 1921 to December 1923, Weill studied music composition with him and also counterpoint with Philipp Jarnach in Berlin.  During his first year he composed his first symphony, Sinfonie in einem Satz, as well as the lieder Die Bekehrte (Goethe) and two Rilkelieder for voice and piano. In order to support his family in Leipzig while he was at school Kurt also worked as a pianist in a Bierkeller tavern.  

It was during his second year of schooling that Weill came more into the public limelight. Kurt joined the November Group's music faction of Berlin, a group of leftist artists. In addition to joining The November Group, in November 18, 1922, his children's pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night) premiered at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm. This would be the first public performance of any of Weill's works in the field of musical theatre. In December 1923, Weill finished his studies with Busoni.

The following year, the conductor Fritz Busch introduced him to the dramatist Georg Kaiser, with whom Weill would have a long-lasting creative partnership resulting in several one-act operas. At Kaiser's house in Grünheide, Weill also first met the actress and his future wife Lotte Lenya in the summer of 1924. Lenya and Weill were married twice; in 1926 and again in 1937 (following their divorce in 1933). Lenya took great care to support Weill's work, and after his death she took it upon herself to increase awareness of his music, forming the Kurt Weill Foundation.
Brecht and Weill were frequent collaborators on
a number of different projects.
Weill’s best-known work was The Threepenny Opera (1928), a reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. Weill's working association with Brecht, although successful, came to an end over politics in 1930. Although Weill associated with socialism, after Brecht tried to push the play even further into a left wing direction, Weill commented, according to his wife Lotte Lenya, that he was unable to "set the communist party manifesto to music."

In March of 1933, Weill fled Nazi Germany for the United States of America. A prominent Jewish composer, Weill became a target of the Nazi authorities, who criticized and interfered with performances of his stage works.  Rather than continue to write in the same style that had characterized his European compositions, Weill made a study of American music, and his American output, though held by some to be inferior, nonetheless contains individual songs and entire shows that not only became highly respected and admired, but have been seen as seminal works in the development of the American musical.
Eastman Opera Theatre production of Street Scene 2013
Weill himself strove to find a new way of creating an American opera that would be both commercially and artistically successful. The most interesting attempt in this direction is Street Scene, based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. For his work on Street Scene Weill was awarded the inaugural Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Apart from "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera, his most famous songs include "Alabama Song" (from Mahagonny), "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End), "Speak Low" (from One Touch of Venus), "Lost in the Stars" (from the musical of the same name), "My Ship" (from Lady in the Dark), and "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday).

On the 3rd of April, 1950, shortly after his 50th birthday Weill suffered a heart attack and died in New York City. He was buried in Haverstraw, New York. The text and music on his gravestone come from the song "A Bird of Passage" from Lost in the Stars, itself adapted from a quotation from the Venerable Bede.
This is the life of men on earth
Out of darkness we come at birth
Into a lamplit room, and then –
Go forward into dark again.

Although Weill claimed that he "didn't give a damn about writing for posterity," Maxwell Anderson prophesied in his eulogy to Weill that "it takes decades and scores of years and centuries to sift things out, but it's done in time -- and Kurt will emerge as one of the very few who wrote great music."

"The most original single workman in the whole musical theater, internationally considered, during the last quarter century... Every work was a new model, a new shape, a new solution to dramatic problems." – Virgil Thomson on Weill

Tune in next week as we explore Weill's influence on the world of music both on and off the stage and how his diverse and extensive career shaped the world of musical theatre and performance. 
 Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Influences and Characteristics of Brechtian Theatre

With Signature Theatre's fast approaching production of The Threepenny Opera, we thought it would be useful to explore some influences on the man himself and just what Brechtian Theatre is and how it will no doubt influence the upcoming production. 

From a young age, Brecht had strong opinions about the ideas, art, events and politics that significantly affected Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Brecht was constantly questioning authority in his plays and forcing his audiences to critique the established order too.


Karl Marx
While researching economics for a play in the 1920s, Brecht began studying Marxism. He started developing his “alienation” theory for theatre based on Marx’s ideas about production. Under capitalism, Marx contended that since everything is a product for sale, all human lives, relationships and values become products. The workers become de-humanized and are incorporated into the machinery of production. Brecht applied this idea to theatre, both in content and style. Many of his plays deal with socio-economic problems of capitalism and power, but Brecht also applied Marx’s ideas about production to how his plays were performed. He wanted audiences to see the literal production process of the play, such as the lighting grid or the action backstage, so that they would have to think about the process, not just the final product.


To appreciate Brechtian theatre, it is necessary to understand two of Brecht’s key theoretical terms:

1.      Epic Theatre - Form of didactic drama presenting a series of loosely connected scenes that avoid illusion and often interrupt the story line to address the audience directly with analysis, argument, or documentation; associated particularly with the German theatre movement led by Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s

2.      The Alienation Effect - Technique designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance.

In his book Das Kapital, Marx argued that, in modern industry, commodities seemed alien because capitalistic production did not reveal the signs of its production. We see the final product without knowing where it came from. The pervading world view of capitalism, where products confront workers as something entirely separate from their makers, was to Marx a false one, perpetuated to the political advantage of the wealthy ruling classes.

This production of The Threepenny Opera uses Brechtian 
techniques such as exposing the sides of the stage 
in addition to commenting about capitalism with the Coca-Cola design. 
Brecht reinterpreted Marx's concept of alienation as a theatrical ideology, in order to displace realism and to show up the hidden agenda of the theatre of the time. Brecht's theatre aimed to provide its audience with ways of looking at bourgeois reality as an unnatural political ideology produced in the interests of profiteering. He wanted to alienate or estrange the audience from everyday reality so that it could be reinterpreted in a new light.

In his essay The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre, Brecht stated that his theatre work is based on a "radical separation of the elements of production,” rather than the unity of action seen in Realism. Brecht found this supposedly realistic illusion to be dishonest, in that it seduced the audience to accept subliminally its representation of reality as an unchangeable and apolitical view of the world.
By distancing his audience from the world within the play, Brecht wanted to make audiences aware that stage realism, like life outside the theatre, is made, not given.

Brechtian techniques in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The stage is mostly bare; the child is clearly a toy
The German description of Brecht’s alienation effect literally translated means “to make strange.” This concept requires the audience and actors to retain a degree of critical detachment from a play and its performance, to be objective and not empathize or identify with the characters or the events that take place in the play. Some of the techniques Brecht used to create alienation included changing the scenery in front of the audience, projections, treadmills, hoists and musicians on the stage.

Through using these techniques, Brecht aimed to involve the audience in the process of the play's production and what it was communicating. The audience of Epic Theatre is invited to consider and enjoy how the theatre fabricates its fiction, rather than passively accepting an illusion of reality onstage.

Although Brecht criticized capitalism, he was also criticized by the Communist Party for not enforcing social realism and providing solutions in his plays. But Brecht, of course, didn't want to immerse his audiences in “reality” and then tell them what to do. Instead he wanted them to "cry tears from the brain," to absorb messages that they could interpret on their own and then make their choices to act.

Characteristics of Brechtian Theatre
Example of Brechtian Technique: Recent London West End performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus had the actors sit in chairs onstage and watch each other perform instead of disappearing offstage when they have said their lines.
Structure: Audience should construct their own interpretation of events.
·        Episodic, disconnected montage of scenes.
·        Often not in chronological order.
·        Purposefully open ended so that the audience needs to arrive at its own conclusion of how the events are linked together.
·        Events are narrated on a grand scale, unrestricted to time and place.

Staging: Audiences should see what’s happening “behind-the-scenes.”
·        Often a bare stage to prevent the audience from being absorbed in the fictional reality of the play’s setting.
·        Exposed stage “machinery” such as the lighting grid and exposed wires.
·        Back wall and wings of stage exposed.

Design: Intentionally shatter the feeling of “realism.”
·        Use of technology to project words and film onto the stage that comments on the performance.
·        Historification – projecting news clips to make the audience put the play into a historical context.
·        Placards that announce when the scene will begin.
·        Design looks mechanical or industrial (i.e. conveyor belts, pipes, wheels)

Music: Meant to comment on the action, not add to the mood of the scene.
  • Discordant with the action onstage.
  • Musicians are onstage with the actors, not “hidden” under the stage.
  • Incorporating popular culture in an ironic way.
Acting & Characters: Keep the audience critical of the play’s heroes.
  • Actors should not be 100% connected to their character.
  • Actors should present their character instead of be their character.
  • Even the “hero” of the story has flaws.
Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information. 


Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More