Happy End – Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Happy End CD

Kurt Weill: Kurt Weill Songs – A Centennial Anthology, Volume 1 Collection for voice and piano. Includes Bilbao Song and The Sailors’ Tango. Text language German/English/French. 256 pages.

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Kurt Weill Centennial Anthology, A Volume 2 Songbook (Piano/Vocal/Chords. Includes Surabaya Johnny. Arrangements for piano and voice with guitar chords). 284 pages. See more info…

Brecht and Weill’s Happy End was a critical and commercial flop when it first opened in Berlin in 1929, the producer’s attempt to capitalize on the unparalleled success of the team’s brilliant The Threepenny Opera a year before. The show’s sole element of lasting value is a handful of songs, particularly the haunting "Surabaya Johnny" and "The Bilbao Song," both of which were recycled by Weill in later years into musical theater works of more substance than Happy End. Aside from an irrational enshrining of the works of Brecht and Weill in their entirety, it is difficult to understand the motivation of producers in bringing back a genuinely inferior work such as Happy End.

The plot involves a band of Chicago gangsters led by "The Fly" (Linda Mugleston), a schemer who manipulates her male minions like so many mice. She also gets to wear badly designed costumes (Candice Donnelly) which look like they may have been lifted from a third rate thrift shop. Mugleston manages to transcend her wardrobe with a strong performance.

Members of the gang include Dr. Nakamura (Sab Shimono overacting in borderline offensive stereotyping) and Bill Cracker (Peter Macon, dignified and persuasive as the proprietor of the saloon where the gang hangs out). Cracker gets one solo number, a reprise of "Song of the Big Shot," which he performs with conviction.

Counter to the crooked are the sanctimonious do-gooders of the Salvation Army. (If you want gangsters and the Salvation Army without nonsense, go see Guys and Dolls.) Lieutenant Lillian Holiday (Charlotte Cohn, who has a fine operatic voice and whose innate classiness is in marked contrast with her evangelical colleagues) and Bill Cracker provide the love interest, such as it is.

The fundamental problem with the play is the utter lack of depth in the characterizations; not one of these characters is more than a cartoonish sketch and it is impossible to care about or identify with any of them. Add on top of that a genuinely silly plot. There’s not a whole lot to work with here. Billed as "a melodrama with songs,""melodrama" is presumably meant to be ironic. Carey Perloff has directed the piece essentially as farce.

Brecht and Weill, of course, were highly political, well to the left anti-capitalists, but where Threepenny skillfully integrates their viewpoint into the substance of the show, Happy End merely seems to tack the politics on incidentally. The classic quote, "Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one," is integrated into the finale, but even that line doesn’t seem particularly radical in our age of pervasive corporate corruption.

The set (by Walt Spangler) makes good use of a large stairway that revolves for different scenes and leads up to a second story scaffolding which houses the band and where some of the action takes place. It is then overdressed in scrim-formed towers and an overkill of lighting.

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