26 April 2015

Preview: Collegiate Chorale Performs Weill’s ‘Road of Promise’

There may never have been a show as big as The Eternal Road, a retelling of ancient Jewish history conceived by Meyer Weisgal, composed by a cantor’s son named Kurt Weill, with a book by Franz Werfel. For the premiere production, in New York’s Manhattan Opera House in 1937, director Max Reinhardt tore out most of the theater’s interior to accommodate Normal Bel Geddes’ set design, which included an entire mountain dotted with multiple playing areas. This left no room for the musicians, so the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the score, accompanied in performance by a live 16-member ensemble — who were in another building and piped in by radio. The cast numbered some 245 performers, including Lotte Lenya, Kurt Kasznar, Sidney Lumet, and the very young Dick Van Patten. When performed complete the piece would run longer than any Wagner opera — though even in the original production, cuts were made and Weill never completed the orchestration for several portions of the score.

The sheer scale of the spectacle as originally conceived would be enough to discourage producers from reviving The Eternal Road, but history plays a part, too. Though Weisgal intended the show to call attention to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and to illustrate the resilience of the people in times of crisis, the creators couldn’t have anticipated the enormity of the Shoah. For a long time The Eternal Road seemed to some almost naïvely optimistic or somehow incomplete, rather than timeless. Yet the piece continued to exert a considerable fascination, not least because it brought Weill to America.

For Weill’s centennial, 63 years after the premiere, The Eternal Road was revived, in a restored edition under its original German title, Der Weg der Verheißung (The Road of Promise), seeing performances in Chemnitz, Tel Aviv, and Brooklyn. That edition’s mastermind, musicologist Ed Harsh, has adapted the piece as an oratorio: reducing the number of speaking roles, trimming the score, and eliminating the need for scenery and costumes, thus putting the work within the grasp of producers who may not be as wealthy as Pharaoh. And now the Collegiate Chorale will present the U.S. premiere of the oratorio, The Road of Promise, at Carnegie Hall May 6 and 7. With a cast that includes Anthony Dean Griffey, Mark Delavan, Philip Cutlip, and Ron Rifkin, this is an event of — well, there’s no better way to say this — monumental proportions.

Conductor and artistic director Sperling.

Indeed, says Ted Sperling, Road of Promise’s conductor and the artistic director of the Collegiate Chorale, “We’ll have 150 choristers, 8 soloists, and a fairly large orchestra, which includes organ and a rather large percussion battery. [The Eternal Road] was a pageant originally, a spectacle, and there will be an aspect of that, that will be respected.” Toward that end, artist Wendall Harrington has been engaged to create projected images “to bring the Bible stories to life visually as well as orally. It will be a little bit more than just a straight-ahead concert in that regard,” Sperling says.

Falling as it does between Weill’s European and American careers, “the musical language does feel to me like a transitional language, even though Kurt Weill probably had no idea what lay ahead,” Sperling says. The composer’s turn from “ernste Musik” toward popular theater music had begun only around 1927, and for all we know he might have drifted back toward the opera house and the concert hall to stay, if Hitler hadn’t come along: Weill had just written the operas Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Die Bürgschaft, as well as his Second Symphony shortly before he started Eternal Road.

“You can hear the promise of his Broadway material in this piece,” Sperling says, “even though the singing will be more operatic than Broadway, as befits the concert venue and the scale of the work. We’re not going to amplify the singing, so you need singers who can project over the orchestra. But there are arias in this that, with different texts, you can imagine in a Broadway show. At the same time there are big operatic moments. There are big double-chorus moments, with counterpoint back and forth. There are orchestral interludes, to illustrate what’s happening. And then there are scenes between the principal actors, which are spoken. So there’s a lot of variety in the piece.”

Werfel, Reinhardt, and Weill in Salzburg, circa 1935.
Photographer unknown.
Historical images courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.

The Weill Foundation (my former employer) asked Ed Harsh “to prepare a version that could live in the concert repertoire, so he selected what he thought were the strongest musical excerpts, and then kept the spine of the story, while reducing the number of characters significantly,” Sperling explains, retaining just the Rabbi, the 13-year-old Boy, and the Adversary, while “let[ting] the musical moments in between sort of take over.”

Having conducted in opera and on Broadway, Sperling has developed an enviable reputation for his comfort in works that don’t fit easily into the conventional “classical” or “show tune” categories. He started early in both worlds, playing violin in an orchestra, studying at Juilliard, and playing piano to accompany singers — “And then, like many kids who play an instrument or sing a little bit, I was drafted to be in school musicals. I played Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof in summer camp when I was six, before I knew what I was talking about!” Meanwhile, his grandmother, a singer and voice teacher, took him to the Metropolitan Opera, and his parents played cast albums at home and in the car.

At Yale, he continued to play in symphonies and work on musicals, and his best friend was Victoria Clark, the classically trained singer who’s become a Broadway star. After graduation, he worked with both Roger Nierenberg at the Stamford Symphony and Paul Gemignani on Broadway. “I was singing in church choirs on Sundays and going on a bus to Stamford to play in an orchestra, and then rehearsing Sunday in the Park with George the rest of the week.”

Moses slays the Egyptian taskmaster,
from The Eternal Road, 1937.
Photo by Lucas-Pritchard.

Broadway struck him as “a world where there was a hunger for new work … where people felt they were being treated well,” Sperling says. “I liked that on Broadway there were all these elements that had to come together, whereas in the classical world at that point, people were very suspicious of new work and not so excited about enjoying it.” This was precisely the conclusion that Weill himself came to when he moved to New York after Eternal Road.

Sperling has sought out opportunities to conduct Weill’s work, and The Firebrand of Florence served as his introduction to the Collegiate Chorale, after the death of Robert Bass: the concert was already scheduled, and Sperling knew the piece, having approached the Weill Foundation about it years before. Since then, Sperling and the Chorale have also presented Knickerbocker Holiday; he’s also stage-directed Lady in the Dark in Philadelphia. He’d love to do that show again, “and I’m eager to do Street Scene at some point, and Love Life. Then there are other pieces, like Railroads on Parade and The Lindbergh Flight. There’s still a lot more to go.” (Which, of course, is music to a Weill fan’s ears.)

Ultimately, what can we expect from The Road of Promise? “I think it would be fun to have an element of surprise,” Sperling says with a laugh. “I know people are looking forward to coming to this concert because they don’t know what they’re going to hear.”

Collegiate Chorale presents
Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise
Carnegie Hall
May 6 at 8:00
May 7 at 7:00
Click HERE for information and tickets.

End of the dance around the Golden Calf,
from The Eternal Road, 1937.
Photo by Richard Tucker.
(Probably not that Richard Tucker.)

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20 April 2015

Texts from the Aisle

Miranda (far right) and company.

New York’s theater world has been in a tizzy since Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the hit musical Hamilton, revealed that he’d asked stage management not to let a celebrity come backstage after a recent performance. She’d been texting throughout the second act, he said. While many have speculated that the celebrity in question was the pop star Madonna, there’s been no official confirmation — but many of the text messages have now become public, and we present them here.

Hamilton. He’s the guy on the money, right? I heart money.

He’s Latin. Did not know that about him.

OMG this totally hot guy from Grindr is sitting in the balcony

Remember to schedule cleansing after the show

I don’t care what people say my new album is great

Sure, THESE dancers don’t make the star trip and fall. Need new dancers

Fresh blood keeps the act fresh. Also nutritious and good for complexion

Unidentified celebrities must express themselves.

They totally copied those dresses from Vogue at MTV awards. Call attorney tomorrow a.m.

Thought Andrew Jackson was in this. He has a nice butt

Call my personal asst ask her what money Jackson is on

I know she is sitting right next to me fuck U call her NOW

This explains why Jackson butt twice as good as Hamilton butt

So dark in here I can’t see Grindr guy. Frownie face. Ask them to turn up the lights.

Personally I don’t see what all the fuss is about 50 Shades.

They should have asked me to direct

Lets go to Pyramid later

Is Pyramid still open. Probably not. This city has changed so much. Fuck Giuliani

Jesus they let people bring drinks into theater now. No class

Fuck Giuliani

I heart Broadway. Why my name never comes up when people talk about Gypsy revivals?

Hot guy from Grindr def not using current pic. #chelseainches

Why is that woman staring at me she looks really mad

Dim ur own screen U slut

Fuck U, I’m a bitch & I get exactly what I want

What time is it I have places to be

Going backstage, try to steal some of these dancers

I swear, I smell hydrangeas in here. Call an usher. This must stop

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06 April 2015

I Vow Never to Make a Pizza for a Gay Wedding, If You Send Me $100,000

Behold, I stand at the door and knock;
if any heterosexual man hear My voice,
and open the door, I will come in to him,
and will sup with him, and he with Me.
(In a totally straight, bro-type way.)

In recent days, the owners of an Indiana pizza parlor announced that they would refuse to cater gay weddings, feeling that to do so would violate their faith. A horrible backlash ensued, including Internet bullying and unconscionable threats of violence; swiftly, the owners closed down their pizza parlor. But then, something wonderful occurred. People began to raise money to send to them, and the last I saw, they had raised $100,000.

That is why I want to take this opportunity to say to you that, if you will send me $100,000 — whether in a lump sum or in aggregate smaller individual donations via a crowdfunding network — I will never, ever make a pizza for a gay wedding, so help me, G*d.

It is true that never before have I made a pizza for a gay wedding. Never has anyone asked me to make a pizza for a gay wedding. In point of fact, I have never actually made a pizza, except for reheating the prefabricated, store-bought kind, whether frozen or refrigerated.

But I understand that making even a single pizza is a slippery slope. Just one pizza, and the next thing you know, I could be making pizzas for man–dog weddings, or just simply moving to Indiana. Thanks to your generosity, I will be able to resist that temptation to sin.

Making a pizza would violate many of my most deeply held personal religious beliefs. These include the commandments “Thou shalt not step within three feet of a brick oven” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s mozzarella,” and of course, the teachings of Jesus, who said, “Reserve the right to refuse to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Yea, though I was born partially Italian, and though I would probably make a truly excellent pizza chef, I will shun those who ask me to make a pizza — if you will just send me $100,000.

And hurry, please. The rent is due, and tax day is coming up. Thanks.

UPDATE: I understand that supporters of the owners of the Indiana pizzeria have now raised close to $1 million. I’m not greedy: I’ll settle for $100,000. But if you want to give me $1 million, I won’t say no.

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01 April 2015

Fort Worth Opera Scraps Festival, Announces New Premiere

Little and Vavrek.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS -- At a surprise press conference this morning, Fort Worth Opera general director Darren K. Woods unveiled a plan that would scrap this year’s festival in favor of an entirely new work by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, for three weeks of performances. The Haushofmeister’s Revenge, an opera in five acts, will premiere on April 24.

“A lot of our energy has been focused on a different project, J.F.K., commissioned by Fort Worth, which we had hoped to present next year,” Vavrek told reporters. “But as creative artists, David and I have to follow our instincts, to tell the real stories that speak most clearly to people’s lives.”

“We realized that there is no story more compelling than that of an imperious Viennese butler and his campaign to murder each of the singers and commedia artists who ruined his boss’ dinner party,” Little said. “I mean, sure, the last night on earth of a beloved U.S. President is interesting. But this story, it’s got everything!”


“Obviously the people who’ve been working on our other operas this season — La Traviata, Hamlet, and Dog Days — will be disappointed,” Woods explained. “But I’ve spoken with each of them, and they understand what an extraordinary opportunity David and Royce are offering this company. We have a commitment to operas that speak to us as a community — sometimes in a normal voice, and other times in a shrill German accent.”

Haushofmeister’s Revenge is unusual in that the central character, the Viennese butler, is a speaking role. At press time, Fort Worth Opera was unable to confirm casting. “We’ve been trying to reach James Franco for days now,” Woods said, “but he doesn’t return our calls. We may have to go with somebody else.”

Get your tickets to the REAL 2015 Fort Worth Opera Festival — Verdi’s La Traviata, Thomas’ Hamlet, and David and Royce’s Dog Days — on sale NOW! Just click here! (No foolin’.)

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