Quick! What score was the first to win a Tony Award?
Given that we’re talking about the 1946-47 season, Lerner and Loewe’s BRIGADOON is a good guess. After all, it had three hit songs: “Almost Like Being in Love,” “The Heather on the Hill” and “There but for You Go I.”
But it didn’t win.
Oh, then it had to be FINIAN’S RAINBOW, with its now-classic “If This Isn’t Love,” “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”
No, great as the Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg work is, it too was denied.
The score was actually written by Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice; the former wrote the music and the latter two provided the lyrics. But in this nascent year, the Tonys didn’t have it all together and decided that Best Score simply meant Best Music.
(That wasn’t the committee and voters’ only weird decision. They gave Tonys to the treasurer of the Martin Beck for being nice to customers and another to a married couple simply because they were faithful first-nighters – while not bothering to create a category called Best Musical.)
What a slap in the face to the lyricists. The distinguished Hughes, first and foremost a poet, was a Guggenheim fellow and a National Institute of Arts and Letters recipient. He wrote the phrase “a raisin in the sun” which of course was appropriated by Lorraine Hansberry for her landmark play.
Rice, also the show’s librettist, wrote fewer lyrics than Hughes, but there would have been no STREET SCENE without him. He wrote the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which this new work would be based. It was a slice-of-life drama that showed us the outside of a few Second Avenue tenements but never took us inside. The musical did the same.
STREET SCENE does have magnificent music, as one can tell from the terrific new video of a 2018 production that Broadway HD now offers. But if you can’t get to it and have less than an hour to spare, the original cast album offers excerpts from what Weill unabashedly called “an American opera.”
(You can tell it’s an opera just from the first names of some of its singers: Polyna, Remo and Zosia.)
So STREET SCENE’S run of 148 performances was impressive given that it played the Adelphi Theatre – fifteen blocks north of the Metropolitan Opera House where it would have been equally at home. As Ethan Mordden wrote in BEAUTIFUL MORNINGS, his magnificent study of ‘40s musicals, STREET SCENE was “the first Absolute Guaranteed Flop” — caps his – “to get an album.” Later, Mordden used a nicer term for its short run: “success d’estime” – which George S. Kaufman once wittily defined as “a success that runs out of steam.”
Weill made room for Broadway music, though. After the overture starts with his distinctive dissonance, it segues into melodies that more resemble a Broadway musical’s songs. There’s even a bit of jitterbugging in “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed.”
STREET SCENE starts with a melting pot of neighbors dealing in the smallest of small talk when noting “Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?” One sings “I’ll let out my corset and let myself spread” before another says the inevitable “We’ll all be wishing for this in December.”
That Weill was interested in commoners isn’t surprising, for this German refugee was A Man of the People. Hence, after “I Got a Marble and a Star,” sung with Porgyish optimism by Henry, the African-American handyman (who was Swedish in the play), we’re back to the ladies. They laugh when Dan Buchanan, an expectant father, believes “When a Woman Has a Baby” that “it’s harder on the man.” Weill’s purposely plodding melody expresses Buchanan’s interminable wait.
The housewives are far more interested in Anna Maurrant. Despite being married to Frank and mother to young son Willie and twentyish daughter Rose, she’s having an affair. “Get a Load of That,” they sneeringly sing.
Anna gets her say in “Somehow I Never Could Believe.” She remembers what she once thought her life would be — and how differently it turned out. Considering that this aria weighs in at six minutes and twenty-five seconds – and that the recording is fifty-two minutes and twenty seconds – “Somehow I Never Could Believe” gets more than twelve percent of the album. That it made the abridged disc at all is a miracle – until you realize that Goddard Lieberson produced the recording. He knew what was important in a score.
After the aria comes the respite: “Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow,” is a genuine Broadway Show Tune. This swirling waltz has newly minted high school graduates celebrating their diplomas. They have the hope that Anna has lost.
It’s soon back to reality with “Lonely House” which starts with notes that, as author Foster Hirsch noted, would later become more famous as “The James Bond Theme.” The aria belongs to Sam Kaplan, only in his twenties, and yet he’s already feeling that for all the neighbors on the street, “this house and I are all alone.” He wouldn’t feel this way if Rose would only return his ardent love.
She’s also being pursued by her boss Harry Easter who flatters her by saying that she’s beautiful enough for the stage. In another genuine Show Tune, he asks “Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway?” Then she’d also get what most women were said to pine for in those days: “And seventeen dozen nylon hose.”
Rose probably would, but we admire her for not being taken in by this sharpie. “What Good Would the Moon Be?” she asks “unless the right one shared its beams”?
No, Rose won’t settle – even when Sam makes his move in “Remember That I Care.” Oh, she’ll remember – but she won’t necessarily come to love him.
After the Entr’acte, it’s the next summer morning and children are out playing. One pretends “My father’s name is Rockefeller; he shovels diamonds in our cellar.” It’s wishful thinking that will undoubtedly turn out to be as real as Anna’s youthful dreams.
Anna is admittedly committing adultery but that doesn’t automatically make her a bad mother. How wise of the authors to show her tender side when telling her son that “A Boy Like You” is a wonderful kid.
As nothing improves in Rose’s life, Sam makes an offer: “We’ll Go Away Together.” In a moment of weakness, she feels beaten down enough by life to agree.
That won’t happen. First, after Frank discovers Anna dallying with her lover, he shoots and kills her. The neighbors are suddenly singing about “The Woman Who Lived up There.” (Interesting, isn’t it, that when people refer to a person who died mere minutes ago they instinctively change from present to past tense?)
Rose arrives home and learns what happened. She gets to speak to her father before he’s taken away. “I Loved Her, Too” Frank sings, allowing us to see another side of him. It doesn’t come across as rationalization. We may even come to think that the poverty is more than somewhat responsible for what happened.
This tragedy motivates Rose to leave the street and Sam as well. She needs a fresh start.
We understand. And after listening to STREET SCENE, you may understand why the 1946-47 Tony voters made their decision.