By Sigurd Neubauer
On January 22, the Annapolis Opera Company held a concert at Temple B’Nai Israel in Easton, Maryland, where tribute was given to legendary American Jewish Broadway composers such as Irving Berlin, Steven Sondheim and Richard Rogers, among others. The concert featured Rachel Franklin who provided a musical lecture centering on the American Jewish immigrant experience followed by the opera company’s Colleen Daly and Dirk Holzman performing “I can do anything better than you,” from Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, among many other delightful duets from the classic Broadway repertoire.
“The synagogue programming came about after we performed Kurt Weill’s (1900-1950) Lost in the Stars opera in October of last year when several board members suggested that we could expand our audience by performing in synagogues,” says Maestro Craig Kier, the music and artistic director of the Annapolis Opera.
“Not many people know who Weill was,” Kier explains, which is why he wanted to broaden the scope by creating programming that focuses on how Broadway theater has been shaped by American Jewish composers.
Maestro Craig Kier of the Annapolis Opera is passionate about Kurt Weill’s music
Over the past 10 years, the maestro has developed a particular passion for Weill’s music after he first discovered Lost in the Star at the GlimmerGlass festival in 2012. “I was completely hooked, it has a very compelling story,” he adds.
Kier is referring to Weill’s last opera, which premiered on Broadway in 1949. It is based on Alan Paton’s (1903-1988)’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948).
Panton was a South African anti-Apartheid activist. Weill’s librettist for the opera was Maxwell Anderson’s (1888-1959).
“Set in South Africa, it tells the story of Absalom, the son of a [Black] teacher, who is driven to the murder of a white man in a desperate bid to provide for his wife and child. Arrested and condemned to hang he is visited by his father, who departs in despair. Before his son is executed, the murdered man’s father comes to the preacher to offer compassion and understanding instead of hatred and retaliation,” according to The Guide to Musical Theater.
In popular culture, Mack the Knife remains Weill's most beloved hit
Weill, a Jewish composer, fled Nazi-Germany in 1933 for the United States.
Kier, who headed the Opera Program at the University of Maryland before his current appointment with the Annapolis Opera, began his artistic collaboration with the Kurt Weill Foundation after meeting its representatives at the GlimmerGlass festival.
On what role the Mack the Knife hit-song plays in American culture, Kier points out that Weill was able to compose both Jazz and opera. “Lost in the Stars is a musical tragedy. Weill wasn’t afraid of labeling it to find the best way to tell a story. At the time, Broadway was telling the story that mattered, including depicting America the way it was.”
Weill, along with his long-term librettist, Bertolt Brecht (1886-1956), “changed the nature of theater in Germany. Many composers and librettists have tensions in their relationship, which they did not have. Together, their collaboration changed the trajectory of what the theater could be, which had a long-term impact on the art form.”
“The stories they were telling were deeply resented by the Nazi-regime,” Kier explains, before quipping: “Weill wanted to be an American,” where he ultimately found refuge.
At the concert at the Easton synagogue, Edelweis from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The Sound of Music, was also performed, including for a sing-along which became an instant favorite with the audience.
Edelweiss “withstands the test of time. So many generations know it,” Kier explains, while adding:
“For me as a performer and artistic director it is my mission to connect the audience with what’s happening on stage. So many of these melodies bring memories together. The concert was about people coming together in a house of worship.”
“I was eager to have members of the audience connect with the performance and with each other. Edelweiss was the perfect way to do it.”
Edelweiss is also a tribute to America as it concludes by stating: “Bless my homeland forever.”
“Oscar Hammerstein and Jewish-American composers and lyricists helped develop Broadway into what it has become,” Kier says.
Many of the Jewish composers fleeing Nazi-Germany and Austria during the 1930s initially settled in Los Angeles before moving on to New York and Broadway.
“Broadway was where the most diverse stories premiered, and not at the opera house. It was at Broadway where the diverse stories, including about daily life, were told.”
Among the American Jewish composers celebrated at the synagogue concert was Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021).
“Sondheim had a connection to Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) as he wrote the lyrics for his West Side Story musical, which premiered in 1957.
Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960), the lyricist for The Sound of Music was “a father figure for Sondheim,” Kier adds.
Also commenting on the concert, which was hosted by Rabbi Peter Hyman of Temple B’Nai Israel said:
“Rachel Franklin has been a friend for a long time. She’s always insightful, talented and a gifted musicologist and pianist. The Annapolis opera performance was stunning and inspiring,”
“At that time, Broadway evolved into remarkable story telling. On Broadway,” Kier explains, “what is being said is the most important. In opera, the music is the most important, which is the key difference between opera and Broadway.”
On a separate note, Hungarian-Jewish composer Emmerich Kálmán’s (1882-1953) operettas have enjoyed more performances on Broadway than those of any other 20th-century operetta composer, including Franz Lehár (1870-1948). His most popular operetta, Die Csárdásfürstin (1915), premiered on Broadway as The Riviera Girl in 1917. By the time World War II broke out in 1939, Die Csárdásfürstin, also known as The Gipsy Princess, had reputedly been performed over 100,000 times around the world.
Oscar Hammerstein and Jewish-American composers and lyricists helped develop Broadway into what it has become: Kier