Kurt Weill’s doomed romance set in the cultural melting pot of New York City with its blend of opera, jazz, show tunes, blues and spirituals has become a staple of American touring musical theatre. But this American Opera, as Weill preferred to call it, remains relatively unknown to British audiences.
Perhaps it’s because Weill himself is so closely associated with one of the heavy hitters of twentieth century theatre – Bertolt Brecht. That makes people cautious about seeing this show lest it drips with radical politics, and whilst nothing Weill did was ever entirely free from his particular weltanschauung, this is a show which doesn’t tub thump; but like the oppressive heat of the summer which the show is set in, lets the all pervading atmosphere seep into your bones.
Based on Elmer Rice’s pulitzer prize-winning play of the same name, and set on two soul-rottingly hot nights in a post war New York tenement full of the immigrant voices of the Big Apple (with lyrics provided by the poet laureate of Harlem Langston Hughes), the show lifts the lid off working class society in the lower East Side with all its brutality and vibrancy.
This isn’t West Side Story: it’s a more claustrophobic piece, darker and without easy resolution – perhaps another reason why it has failed to catch with UK musical fans. But like a Dostoyevsky novel or a Goya painting there’s much to be gained by looking into the dark.
This production by The Opera Group in conjunction with the Young Vic at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 7th & 8th of October should provide a fresh perspective on a work which is both a reflection of its time and as unfortunately relevant as ever.