Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (My Favorite Theater Musical Songs)

“Moon of Alabama” (“Alabama Song”)

Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performers: Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, 1927
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
Performers: Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, 1930
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Lotte Lenya, 1930
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: David Bowie, 1978
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Marianne Faithfull
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Nina Hagen, 1992
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Nina Simone
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: David Bowie, 2002
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Performer: Ute Lemper
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Audra McDonald

Listening yesterday to over 10 versions of Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s central song in their Sprechstimme operetta, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930), I realized that this just pre-Hitler work (the music was composed in the late 1920s), was perhaps the culmination of the Weimar Republic’s cynical visions of the need for alcohol, love, and, most importantly, money. There has never been a more cynical song, particularly in its bid of goodbye to the “moon over Alabama,” which remains also simply a beautiful ballad. It’s song that you can hate and love equally, yet you want to listen to over and over again. And apparently anyone, with a good voice and the guts to perform such a raunchy piece, has attempted it.
      Lotte Lenya, the original singer, still sounds best to me, with her raspy German cabaret voice; she was after all the composer’s wife, a perfect interpreter, which, in one recording, Weill performs alongside her. But you can’t not love David Bowie’ (two performances of which I have included, although I wish he might have kept the original lyrics, with the pretty boys instead of pretty girls, given his own sexual ambiguity), Marianne Faithfull’s, and Audra McDonald’s later performance of it.
     Nina Simone tunes it down, actually using the Sprechstimme techniques to tell the story of the early choruses, before suddenly breaking into her wonderful renditions of the “Moon of Alabama” interjections. She’s also such a wonderful pianist that she can torture all the dissonance out of the song. The Doors’ version may be one of the best! And Ute Lemper is always the best interpreter of Weill songs that one can imagine. Nina Hagen does an almost drag version, which is perhaps not a bad interpretation of the women who want whiskey, pretty boys, and dollars as fast as they can get them—or they will die:

Oh, show us the way to the next whiskey bar!
Oh don't ask why,
Oh don't ask why!
For we must find the next whiskey bar
For if we don't find the next whiskey bar,
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mamma
And must have whiskey
Oh, you know why.

Oh show us the way to the next pretty boy!
Oh don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why!
For we must find the next pretty boy
For if we don't find the next pretty boy
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have boys
Oh, you know why.

Oh show us the way to the next little dollar!
Oh don't ask why,
oh don't ask why!
For we must find the next little dollar
For if we don't find the next little dollar
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have dollars
Oh, you know why.

This is a world in which everything important of the past has died, and the survivors expect that they won’t survive either, the fact of which, obviously was borne out in Hitler’s World War II destructions of his own people; yet here, the same fate is projected onto the American experience.
     It’s utterly amazing to me how such a truly ugly view of the world is rendered tragically beautiful in Kurt Weill’s version, with its memory of the moon of Alabama constantly vying with the terrible demands of human sexuality, drugs, and their need of money. This song is a lesson in human failure and depravity without consigning its singers to Hell. No American-born writer could possibly write such a remarkable piece of music, I am certain. It came right out of the raw Weimar experience, even though it pretends to be in a fantasy America somewhere between Alaska and Alabama.


Los Angeles, February 27, 2018

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