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The Melting Pot that Melded: “Street Scene’s” Creative Collaborators

Contributor Kenneth Stern discusses the history and contributors to Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, to be performed by Miami University’s theatre and voice department April 7th-9th. For more on the production itself and an interview with producer Benjamin Smolder, see the following post. 

First, Street Scene was an original and a success in its 1929 Broadway birth, running for 601 performances and winning its author, Elmer Rice, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Street Scene was Rice’s second innovative play. Unwieldy, with 50 characters engaged in what seemed an improvisation, it brought to life a day in the life of the slums. Rice took over the direction after the second day of rehearsals, when director George Cukor abandoned it as un-stageable. Its unconventional narrative style and naturalism drew audiences to it, making it a long running hit.

Rice was a master of the disorienting. His The Adding Machine (1923) was perhaps the most original, and controversial, work to play Broadway. It ushered in twentieth century modernism, as the first American Expressionist stage drama, shocking in its portrayal of a nobody bookkeeper, Mr. Zero, who when replaced by a machine at work, breaks, and murders his boss. Noted critic Brooks Atkinson found it “the most original and brilliant play any American had written up to that time…the harshest and most illuminating play about modern society.”

A social critic, Rice was philosophically in step with Kurt Weill. Weill saw Street Scene produced in Berlin in 1930 and then saw the movie (1931). Best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera), Weill’s career and life was threatened by the rise of Nazism. Weill left Germany in 1933 and came to the United States in 1935. He suggested musicalizing Street Scene to Rice in 1936, but Rice declined. In 1945 Rice agreed.

Langston Hughes was the inspired choice of Rice and Weill to write the opera’s lyrics. A playwright as well as a poet, his 1935 play Mulatto had the longest run on Broadway of any play written by an African-American until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Hughes poetry reflected his political activism and his emphasis on race and class issues, celebrating working and lower class peoples.

Hughes had grown up in poverty. Rice and Weill were immigrant Jews (Rice shortened his name from Reizenstein; his grandparents were also German). The three’s lived experience as outsiders to mainstream society made them soul, as well as artistic, brothers. Street Scene is set in the New York slums of 1929. Jason Victor Serinus calls Hughes and Weill “twin souls who came together for the purpose of elevating the lives and struggles of everyday men and women of all races.” Rice had been influenced by his grandfather, a German political activist, and by his self-education, having read widely, including Shaw, H.G. Wells, Galsworthy, Gorky, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair. These were his soul brothers.

Hughes brought Weill into Harlem, immersing him into all aspects of African American culture, but particularly in Harlem’s nightclubs, with their blues and jazz rhythms. Yale professor “wcd2” wrote “that turned out to be the most nontrivial input into the opera, giving it not only its street vernacular but also creating in its musical rhythm the contradictory changes, the languor and the impudence of jazz.”

Street Scene‘s opened on Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre on January 9, 1947. The critics loved it and it had a great two month run. Audience enthusiasm dimmed, however, and in May it closed, after 148 performances. Called the first American opera, it still holds the record as one of the three longest first runs ever of an opera composed for Broadway. Weill wrote a friend “for six weeks an opera has been running in a Broadway theater without subsidies.”

Author and composer Mark Grant observed: “The musical demands of Street Scene went well beyond Broadway norms of the day. Like the score of The Firebrand of Florence, Street Scene employs every major orchestral instrument.” Sums up Jillian Mauro, of Muhlenberg College:

Combining operatic arias, influences of jazz and blues, and musical theatre style song-and-dance numbers, Street Scene stands at a crossroads between classical and more contemporary theatre and serves as a melting pot for all of the musical traditions present in America at the time. It is one of the only musicals whose songs are consistently found in the canons of both opera and musical theatre.

Weill’s music for Street Scene won the first Tony Award for Best Original Score.