She’s done it again. Only more so this time. Over several seasons, we’ve come to expect the best from Sally Darling, including straight-ahead, uncluttered vocals, a profound understanding of lyrics, and an infectious sense of humor when her material requires it. But in her current cut-above show at Don’t Tell Mama, with the somewhat brazen title And Kurt Weill Begat Kander & Ebb, in just a bit over an hour she solidly proves her title thesis. And this goes well beyond the obvious link between Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, or the fact of Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, having created the role of Pirate Jenny in the former in 1928, and that of Fräulein Schneider in the latter, nearly forty years later. As Darling explains and then proceeds to demonstrate, Weill’s music was especially notable for its “driving rhythms, high drama, and lush ballads.” And so was Kander’s. Proving the latter point, she delivers a poignant pairing of Weill’s “My Ship” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) followed by Kander & Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing.”
Starting at the top of the show, music director and pianist Matthew Martin Ward plays his intricately clever creation of a combined instrumental overture morphing into a sung medley that Darling begins with a powerful rendition of “Mack the Knife” in German (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), continues with “Wilkommen” from Cabaret in its several tongues, and goes on to Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” in English (lyrics Brecht, translation by Michael Feingold). Ward continues his welcome and witty noodling—for example, with Darling’s vocal of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (Weill, Ogden Nash) interspersed with piano-only snippets of Kander & Ebb’s “New York, New York.” It proceeds like that for a delicious ten minutes or so. Throughout the entire set, Darling gets an inestimable degree of underpinning and more direct assistance from Ward. In this seventh collaboration between the two artists, they most manifestly display their evolved symbiosis with a ravishing face-to-face duet on “It Never Was You,” from Weill’s first American triumph, Knickerbocker Holiday (1938, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson). For this one number, we in the audience are mere voyeurs of a compelling relationship.
Later in the proceedings, Ward sings a touching solo on the same show’s enduring classic, “September Song,” evoking both its hero, Peter Stuyvesant, and Walter Brennan, the actor who played him, as well as the universal pondering of a man’s growing older. An even bolder evocation of the evening is Darling’s back-to-back renditions of Lenya’s two solos from Cabaret. I saw Lenya sing “So What?” and What Would You Do?” in the show’s original Broadway production; Darling’s chilling reprise of both numbers not only recalls the Fräulein Schneider character’s attitudes and aspects, it evokes themes of the whole of Cabaret, including regret, indifference, and resignation to the Nazi terror to come.
Darling shows Weill’s most direct influence on the later pair of songwriters in a segment of four Kander & Ebb songs, including “My Own Best Friend,” from Chicago, for its driving rhythms, and “I Don’t Remember You,” from The Happy Time, dealing with mistreatment by a former lover. And she shows the similarities in their humorous work in her pairing of “That’s Him” (Weill, Ogden Nash, from One Touch of Venus) and Kander & Ebb’s “I Wrote the Book” from Woman of the Year.
If you care at all about the continuum of stage musicals and popular song in general, I urge you not to miss this show.
And Kurt Weill Begat Kander & Ebb
Don’t Tell Mama — August 11, 16, September 12
About the Author
Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.