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Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill
Happy End opened
originally in 1929 to thunderous applause. No, strike that; Happy End opened on
September 2, 1929 and closed after only seven performances. Hardly the fault of Bertolt
Brecht and Kurt Weill, triumphant creators of The Threepenny Opera just one year before.
Rather, it was the victim of its stars breaking away from her role and
launching a socio-economic attack upon the presumably affluent first night audience. Happy
End is still more likely to play better in the urban areas of blue states than it
will in red states. It opens with strikers carrying picket signs emblazoned with names of
capitalistic titans such as Rockefeller and ends with the little guys (a gang of common
thugs plus a battalion of Salvation Army soldiers) united against the evils of capitalism.
"Robbing a bank is no crime compared to owning one," summed it up, just in case
anyone missed the point.
With echoes of Shaws Major
Barbara and other early twentieth century socially conscious drama, the melodrama
of Happy End is dated and the story is trite, but the music is timeless. It is
also familiar. The Threepenny Opera had been such a major success that Brecht and
Weill were commissioned to collaborate again to create something that would build on their
triumph of the previous year. Three of Happy Ends songs have become staples
of the Weill legend: "Bilbao Song,"
and "Sailor's Song."
Given how often these pieces are heard, how familiar audiences are with The ThreePenny
Opera, how unfamiliar they are with Happy End, and how the music in
the two productions is so similarly based, audiences can be forgiven for thinking the
composer was simply repeating himself. Maybe it would be better to say Weill was polishing
his already distinctive and seductive style.
If only Dean Mora, the pianist/narrator of this production, had
polished his style more. Unfortunately the generally wonderful voices of the cast were not
complimented by his keyboard pounding technique. Set, as it was, in either a beer hall or
a Salvation Army meeting, classical subtlety would not be appropriate, but some dynamics
are called for. Despite his pounding, the cast manages to rise above the piano. Lesley
Fera (Sister Lillian Holiday) in particular, the beautiful and silver tongued Salvation
Army soldier who falls for the slimy criminal, Bill Cracker (Timothy V. Murphy) delivers a
polished, well choreographed performance. Martha Hackett is The Fly, the consummate
slinky, burnt out, mastermind and head of the Gang who controls her minions with the
signal, "have a light?" Which, as everyone in her world knows, translates to:
you will die.
It is all pretty silly, but amusing. The music and a competent
production allow for a good time for anyone willing to accept the concept that the little
people, regardless of their piety or outcast status, should unite since they are all
victims of a ravenous, corrupt, capitalistic system. Happy End will not sway the
minds of those whose rallying cry has become "free markets for all." It will not
please devotees of Andrew Lloyd Webber stage and musical glitz. The premise was radical in
1929, but in some ways it is more radical now. Yes, the political/economic formulation is
simplistic, but as Tom Lehrer once said of the Lincoln Brigade, we lost, but "we had
all the good songs."
February 16, 2005
- Karen Weinstein