The explosive collaboration of two brilliant artists.
When composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) met in 1927, they were certain they had much in common: Both were artistic iconoclasts; both believed that art must address social, political and philosophical issues; both were intent on “liberating culture from its elitist jail cell.” As screenwriter and novelist Katz shows in this deft, incisive cultural history, despite their artistic affinities, what divided them made their six-year partnership volatile and, finally, impossible. Weill was self-disciplined, quiet and unwilling to let distractions—women, political activism—get in the way of his work. When he fell in love with singer/actress Lotte Lenya, he married her. Brecht was messy, noisy, cynical and undaunted by scandal. By the late 1920s, he was involved with three women: his wife, Marianne Zoff, with whom he had a daughter; actress Helene Weigel, with whom he had a son; and writer and translator Elisabeth Hauptmann. Although Weigel and Hauptmann energetically pursued their own careers, they were remarkably devoted to Brecht, acquiescing to his many demands but giving him the space and freedom he desired (Weigel moved into her own apartment after their son was born so the infant would not disturb Brecht). As Weigel described him, he was “a very faithful man—unfortunately to too many people.” Katz focuses most on Weill and Brecht’s two famous collaborations: the bawdy, irreverent Mahaganny, a musical play about a mythical American town dominated by greed; and The Threepenny Opera, a blatant critique of injustice, corruption and hypocritical morality, which made Lenya a star. Their work incensed the Nazis, and in 1933, both men—and Lenya, Weigel and Hauptmann—fled. Weill eventually had a successful career in the United States; Brecht, after years in exile, returned to East Germany.
With a novelist’s eye for telling details, Katz offers a colorful, perceptive and riveting portrait of a remarkable artistic partnership.