Book Review: "Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform"

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform. By Stephen Hinton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. [xvi, 592 p. ISBN9780520271777. $49.95.] Music examples, illustrations, appendix, notes, index. Also available in ebook format.

Reviewed by Arreanna Rostosky

Seeking to produce a more comprehensive examination at Kurt Weill’s life and works than currently exists in musical theater scholarship, Stephen Hinton, in his book, Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform, creates a biographical, musicological, and philosophical portrait of the composer. The strength of this book is also its weakness: it is intensely detailed. As a renowned Weill scholar, Hinton’s knowledge and command of his subject is astounding; anyone reading this study, regardless of their initial knowledge of Weill’s work, will come away with a more substantial understanding of the composer’s artistic contributions viewed through an interdisciplinary lens.

In an effort to reach the widest audience possible (“It is my hope, then, that the present volume, beyond appealing to music historians, may also be useful to a wide constituency of people interested in Weill’s music. Prominent among my envisaged ideal readers are theatrical practitioners, especially those considering future productions,” page xv), Hinton’s approach to cover as much material as he does might come across as overambitious. At a whopping 592 pages, the book is not to be trifled with. Despite the high page count and complex subject matter, Hinton manages to break up his study of Weill’s career into four fairly manageable pieces: 1) a biographical sketch of Weill, which includes a review of previous biographies and how Hinton’s approach improves upon them; 2) an outline of Weill’s compositional approach, viewed through Weill’s own self-perceptions; 3) a series of case studies organized by genre, with each chapter following a loose chronological trajectory; and 4) a discussion of Weill’s posthumous reception. Hinton himself suggests that the book is “neither a new biographical study nor a comprehensive account of all the works. Rather, it is an investigation of Weill’s musical theater from a number of different angles that include the biographical, the philosophical, the historical, and the music-analytical” (xii). In this respect, Hinton certainly succeeds in his goal. Although his book is not comprehensive (though what book is?), Hinton’s engagement with Weill as a composer, an artist, and a philosopher provides a multi-faceted study of the composer that allows for a more engaging discussion of his works and methodologies.

Part of what makes Hinton’s evaluation of Weill’s life so compelling is Hinton’s uncanny ability to put numerous scholars into dialogue with each other throughout the book, in addition to bringing in Weill’s own words and those of his collaborators. This approach makes the book feel like a collaboration across the ages, contributing to the interdisciplinary atmosphere of the book; however, in working to bring in so many different perspectives, it is in this respect that Hinton’s attention to detail is both valuable and distracting. For the musical theater scholar or theater professor already familiar with Weill, the amount of time and engagement with Weill’s collaborators, creative influences, and scholars is priceless. The first two chapters of the book set up the methodological framework of Hinton’s analysis and provides an in-depth understanding of Weill’s own influences and his subsequent methodological decisions. Most helpful is the second chapter, in which Hinton investigates Weill’s purported influences in the figures of Brecht, Busoni, Mozart, and Wagner (though for a more tantalizing and engaging discussion of Brecht, see chapters four and six especially). Hinton is careful to lay out and dissect such major concepts as “New Classicality” and the Urform as conceived by Weill and Busoni, developing a working knowledge that the reader will need to draw upon while examining the case studies populating the rest of the book.

For the Weill neophyte, however, the astounding amount of detail Hinton goes into could be overwhelming at first, most particularly when the discussion veers more into critical theory and philosophy in the early chapters. It is not an issue of the subject matter being inaccessible; rather Hinton’s discussion of the material tends to take on a level of engagement that could, for the more casual reader, be viewed as impenetrable (one passage of note deals with a digression into linguistic and translation problems for the distinction between Klassik and Klassizimus). It is for such reasons that I feel Hinton’s desired audience for the book as a whole cannot be as wide as he hopes. Although his subsequent chapters and case studies are quite engaging (chapter five presents a fascinating opportunity to consider the function of music in a play versus music in an opera and what the difference is between the two, if any), the first two chapters, as short as they are, are packed so densely with information that the casual reader would do best to get a few case studies under their belts before marching back to take on Busoni and Brecht.

The book as a whole serves a very specialized audience, one that not only has some background knowledge of Weill, Brecht, Busoni, and perhaps a few others, but that also has the scholastic chops to handle Hinton’s narrative shifts between different disciplines. When used as a research tool for more substantially filling out one’s understanding of Die Dreigroschenoper, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, or Street Scene, to name a few, Hinton’s case studies prove to be an invaluable resource that work well in the context of the book or on their own. Ultimately, Hinton manages to create a text that is not only engaging in a fresh way (which other Weill scholar will reference Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” and Kurt Weill in the same breath?), but one that can speak to those hoping to gain a greater understanding of one of the most fascinating musical theater figures of the twentieth century. 

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