Last year, I had the honor of being invited to translate a song that most experts had assumed didn’t exist. Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s widow, had decades ago described to the cataloguer of his works a cabaret number that Weill had written for a fundraiser revue in 1930. No trace of its music or lyrics could be found among his papers, and it was generally assumed to be a product of Lenya’s aging memory. It went into the catalogue under the heading “Doubtful or Chimerical Songs.”
Then, last year, it turned out that Lenya’s memory had not failed her, and the song was no chimera at all. Elmar Juchem, a researcher for the Weill Foundation, was examining Weill ephemera in the archives of Berlin’s Free University, and asked an archivist if the collection held any other Weill items. Miraculously, the song appeared—Weill’s own autograph manuscript—from the papers of the actress to whom Lenya had passed the song when she left the cast of the revue. It had lain there, undisturbed, for decades, with nothing but a vague recollection by the composer’s widow to call it back to life. Today, translated, published, and recorded, “Song of the Blind Girl (Song of the White Cheese)” is available worldwide, a piquant if not exactly earth-shattering addition to a great theater composer’s oeuvre.
Naturally, it started me thinking. How many more songs—or even entire scores of shows—by the great songsmiths of the 20th century lie hidden, waiting to be reawakened, in some remote archive? A few inquiries have convinced me that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. Some are complete works waiting to hop to life. Others exist only as fragments, incomplete drafts abandoned after a struggle; some consist only of synopses, or of a few jottings. And beyond all these there is a category of pure chimera, shows that exist only as what-ifs, fading memories of works that never grew beyond a momentary gleam in their would-be creators’ eyes. In some ways, this world of the lost, the unfinished, and the never-quite-born is perhaps the most magical aspect of that most magical art form, musical theater.
Weill, who worked in four major cultural capitals during his evolution from German classical music’s bad boy to one of Broadway’s beloved songsmiths, left us a catalog full of missing pieces, from the early jazz opera absent-mindedly left on a train (his publishers had turned it down) to the Huckleberry Finn left unfinished at his death. Of them all, the one that most intrigues me probably doesn’t exist in any musical form whatever. In 1938, the producer Max Gordon was apparently seeking funds for a project brought to him by playwrights Samuel and Bella Spewack, tentatively titled The Opera from Mannheim, about the backstage shenanigans of a refugee music-theater troupe, with music by Weill and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Producers back then usually had at least one or two sample songs in hand when they went hunting backers, but existing archives contain zero samples of what might have been the dazzling combination of Weill and Harburg. A cursory synopsis of the Spewacks’ proposed book may exist—I haven’t seen it—but I suspect that any surviving dialogue snippets were funneled, a decade later, into the Spewacks’ more American take on backstage shenanigans, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.
The cross-Atlantic teaming of Weill and Harburg was matched by another international “almost”: the pairing of Lorenz Hart, at loose ends while Rodgers worked with Oscar Hammerstein II on Oklahoma!, with the king of exiled operetta composers, Emmerich Kálmán. Their project, a musical espionage thriller called Miss Underground, about a circus troupe in occupied Paris, got somewhat further along: At least four songs exist (Kálmán reused one or two in later works), and I once had a brief glimpse of some very handsome set renderings by Jo Mielziner. What torpedoed the project was Hart’s increasing alcoholism, in full tilt after the breakup with Rodgers. In her memoir, Kálmán’s widow tells a hilarious story about Hart staying over for work sessions and her making sure (having been forewarned) that the servants locked him into his room for the night—only to find him missing in the morning. He had somehow managed to pick the lock and gone off on another bender.
Some musicals die aborning because the material proves intractable: In the 1920s, the Gershwin brothers and S.N. Behrman wrestled unsuccessfully with Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson; in the 1960s, Bernstein, Comden, and Green came up empty-handed—an unlikely result for such fecund artists—after months of struggle with Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. (A later foray into Wilder’s extravagant play, Kander and Ebb’s Over and Over, got as far as tryout but then stopped cold. Possibly its title discouraged audiences.) A complete score apparently exists from Vernon Duke’s late 1940s attempt to musicalize the unforgettable French film Children of Paradise, though it never saw the light of day. In contrast, Moose Charlap and Norman Gimbel’s 1961 venture into Preston Sturges’ wartime thicket of stinging ironies, The Conquering Hero, actually got as far as Broadway, but lasted barely a week, its travails in pre-Broadway tryout leaving nothing behind but a memorable quip from book writer Larry Gelbart along the lines of: “If Hitler’s alive today, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”
The scores and/or books of never-quite-musicals that inhabit this shadowy realm fall there for a variety of reasons. Sometimes rights to the source material prove unobtainable: Hearsay alleges that a complete score by poet Richard Wilbur and movie-score honcho Michel Legrand exists for a musical adaptation of Giraudoux’s Madwoman of Chaillot, ostensibly titled Crazy Lady—a choice of title that suggests the Giraudoux estate may have been wise to grant the rights to Jerry Herman instead, though Dear World didn’t bring anyone involved much glory. According to producer-director George Abbott, it was star Rosalind Russell’s distaste that prevented the score initially planned for Wonderful Town, by Leroy Anderson and Arnold B. Horwitt, from gaining a hearing. Russell threatened to withdraw; Abbott hurriedly phoned a team of old friends, and the familiar Comden-Green-Bernstein score was hastily carpentered up as a replacement.
Attempts to celebrate the alcohol-fueled life of W.C. Fields in song have left scattered fragments behind, including an evanescent recording of a partial score by Al Carmines, and a script, taking an entirely different approach, by poet-playwright Arnold Weinstein. Both versions were entitled, puckishly, W.C. The Carmines version got as far as a pre-Broadway tryout, with Mickey Rooney as Fields, before collapsing. The latter, intended for a score by composer-arranger Laurence Rosenthal, never saw the light of day; I don’t know if any music exists. Some songs apparently do exist for another improbable attempt at a biomusical, Trafalgar, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s try at a survey in song of the love affair of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, the unlikely designated book writer for which was to be the radical and notoriously contentious British playwright John Arden.
Most prestigious of all, perhaps, have been the artistic aims of those who dreamed of making a musical about Storyville, the New Orleans red-light district etched in legend as the birthplace of jazz. I’ve seen the scripts for two attempts at such a production, and the librettists’ names they bear—names golden far beyond the boundaries of the Broadway musical—are those of, respectively, Toni Morrison and August Wilson. Yet no musical ever transpired; the rocky road to Broadway success holds pitfalls even for world-class artists.
And the larger world, too, holds such pitfalls for musical-makers. A lost show that I’ve often dreamed of piecing together sits, neatly stacked in boxes, in a storeroom at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. A work with a Civil War setting, it is Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s attempt at a prequel to Show Boat. Titled Gentlemen Unafraid, it played in the summer of 1938 at the St. Louis Municipal Opera (aka the Muny), which had become something of a second theatrical home to Kern and Hammerstein through its repeated revivals of Show Boat. Their quasi-prequel, based on a story by one Edward Boykin, played that summer, was received sympathetically, and was never heard from again.
According to rumor—in this case transmitted to me by the always delightful but often factually unreliable late producer Ben Bagley—what stopped Gentlemen Unafraid dead in its tracks on its planned progress to Broadway was not any artistic, contractual, or economic issue, but the sheer intrusion of world politics. Feelings of reluctance and dread toward the probable war in Europe lay heavily in the American air in 1938, and Hammerstein’s take on the Civil War seems to have been largely a pacifist’s despair. (In one number, recorded by Bagley on a later disc of his Jerome Kern Revisited LP series, the men’s chorus sings a mashup of the two sides’ marching songs—“John Brown’s Body” and the Confederate “Bonnie Blue Flag”—while the women respond, in counterpoint, “And I wish that there wasn’t no war.”)
This was not a mood in which to mobilize the United States into preparedness for a war which FDR’s administration increasingly saw as inevitable, and the national attention that a huge hit musical preaching pacifism, by the beloved authors of Show Boat, would garner was the last thing the government wanted. (According to Bagley, the person who gave Hammerstein the stop-here signal was no less than Edward Stettinius, at that time the chairman of the board of U.S. Steel and subsequently Roosevelt’s secretary of state.) Whatever or whoever caused it, Gentlemen Unafraid suddenly ceased to be viable. And so a major work by two of Broadway’s greats sits, in an archive, waiting to be rediscovered. As the many paragraphs above indicate, it does not sit alone. It’s simply another of the vast set of treasures, or half-treasures, buried, or merely dreamed of, on the grueling route to that place where the lights are always bright, the money rings out like freedom, and the show—once it has fought its way past countless obstacles—must go on.