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Theater 30.3 (2000) 119-123
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The Eternal Road at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Any number of heresies suggest themselves when faced with the phenomenon of the truly awful The Eternal Road [Der Weg der Verhei-ßurg], Kurt Weill's oratorio-opera revived recently after a merciful sixty-three-year silence. For one, neglect might prove to be Weill's best friend in some instances, despite the noises made by the rapidly expanding Weill industry. For another, a few exceptions not-withstanding, such as Walter Huston's "September Song," Louis Armstrong's "Mack the Knife," Gertrude Lawrence's "The Saga of Jenny," and Teresa Stratas in the Met's 1979 Mahagonny, only Lotte Lenya captured consistently the stomach-churning drama buried in Weill's abrupt rhythmic shifts and lemon-sour tunes. And finally, worthiness--in this case, a work bringing news about the Nazi catastrophe to a 1937 audience either ignorant or disengaged--is no guarantee of respectability or even goodness in art.
Something more than worthiness carried the day in 1937, but truth to tell, if Kurt Weill had even partial responsibility for it, you would scarcely have noticed from the reviewing consensus. Most agreed with one reviewer's casual aside that Weill had written "the incidental score." Only Brooks Atkinson heard it as "the principal life-giving force along 'The Eternal Road,'" and with my own experience ringing faintly in my ears sixty-three years later, I can imagine only that Atkinson was reaching more for a future pleasure in the theater than the one he was having there. Or to put it an-other way, he was indulging in that New York Times habit of anointing the latest arrival with stature if it could reasonably elicit words such as "glory" and "exultation" from his sentimentally driven vocabulary. As it turns out, the 1937 opening went on for nearly six hours, and most reviewers left at least two hours before the end, meaning that they had enough of what Atkinson termed "the heaviness that lurks in most religious spectacles."
As well they might have. The best part of the show had been happening offstage over several years, a veritable kaleidoscope of theatrical events destined never to reach a public that might have loved it: a farce without sex, a tragedy without heroes, a melodrama seething with grudges and feuds, an epic poem to the disasters available within any venture, however well meant, that dares to imagine that laws of gravity can be defied when bringing together a cast of characters no more suited to one another than Gandhi would have been to Hitler. Max Reinhardt became the project's director after resisting the entreaties of the novice producer, Meyer Weisgal, for at least nine months. His son, Gott- fried Reinhardt, eventually published a memoir [End Page 119] of his father called (ironically?) The Genius, in which he describes all the misalliances as they moved from one encounter to another.
Weisgal's "single-mindedness" carried the day, so intent was he on bringing to New York what Reinhardt kept calling "a biblical review," partly in the interest of what he had already managed earlier--fund-raising for the Zionist movement. When he read in a news-paper that Reinhardt had been forced into exile from Germany, Weisgal sent him a marvelously styled cable that could have been lifted from an Ernst Lubitsch comedy: IF HITLER DOESN'T WANT YOU I TAKE YOU. The address he used was: MAX REINHARDT, EUROPE. At first, Reinhardt didn't reply, mainly because he didn't wish to be typecast as either émigré or Jew. Wisely, too, he didn't take comfortably to what he read as a story of "Jews finding a haven in America, after taking us from the creation of the world via the dance of the golden calf to every well-known alpine peak of kitsch . . . an opportunity for De Mille which, alas, I could not seize for all De Millions in the world."
Yet in the end, that's precisely what he did...