by Nita Congress · May 22, 2015
I was privileged to attend the Carnegie Hall concert adaptation of the 1937 The Road of Promise by Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel earlier this month. What an intriguing work! What a fascinating pedigree and history. And what a glorious production.
Artistic director Ted Sperling and adapter Ed Harsh gave an invaluable pre-concert talk, explaining the rich history of the work and why it has remained largely unseen and unheard for decades. The Road of Promise was conceived and spearheaded by the fervent Chicago Zionist Meyer Weisgal, who assembled a team of Jewish artists in various stages of flight from the Nazi regime to create a five-hour spectacular drawn from the Old Testament to highlight the plight of European Jewry. It ran 153 performances, each night losing thousands of dollars; as the program notes point out, it was “[s]imultaneously a smashing success with public and critics and a spectacular failure with accountants.”
The frame story of The Road of Promise is a community gathered in a synagogue in an unspecified time and place of threat and despair to draw comfort from their rabbi as he draws on Torah stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, Ruth, and Zedekiah. Providing counterpoint and conflict are two other characters: a young boy of bar mitzvah age who knows nothing of his heritage and has been sent here by his father (“I’m safe here and I have so much to learn”), and a character known as The Adversary in this production, and The Estranged One in the original, who challenges the rabbi’s interpretations and advocates for reason—and cynicism at times—over faith. Their dialogue, dramatically pared down from Werfel’s original, is set against the choral and orchestral presentation, which is in turn supplemented and complemented by beautiful projections of biblical art. It all makes for a feast for eyes and ears—not to mention heart and mind. Strange and fascinating and engaging.
The theater world is full of long-lived collaborations: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kaufman and Hart, Sondheim and Prince, and myriad others working together over time to infuse, inform, and inspire each other in the creation of a distinctive body of work.
And then there are these almost surreal one-time-only unions of talents, temperaments, and tastes. Such was the case for The Road of Promise, originally known as The Eternal Road. Among the talents associated with it were—in addition to Weisgal, Weill, and novelist-poet Werfel—director Max Reinhardt, designer Norman Bel Geddes, and translator Ludwig Lewisohn; appearing in the original cast were Sam Jaffe, Lotte Lenya, Dick Van Patten, and Sidney Lumet. Not surprisingly, each of the creatives had his own vision of the work: journalist Weisgal saw it as a means to stir popular sentiment and raise awareness. Weill, son of a cantor, found in it a way of reconnecting to the music of his youth; the program notes observe that he researched some two hundred remembered Jewish melodies in attempting to capture the feel of the piece. For the German Weill, this was the beginning of his American sojourn, the halfway point of a musical career that had begun in 1919 and would last a dozen more years till his death. Austrian Franz Werfel—a fascinating relic of the Weimar Republic, author of The Song of Bernadette and married to Alma Mahler, herself a friend of Gustav Klimt, a patient of Sigmund Freud, lover of Oskar Kokoschka, widow of Gustav Mahler, and ex-wife of Walter Gropius—was anti-Zionist but was feeling first hand the effects of Nazism, with his books being burned and his homeland threatened. Reinhardt, one of the first great modern directors, now sixty, had just seen his theater closed by the Nazis and received an irresistible invitation from Weisgal to choose his collaborators and make the production his own. And Bel Geddes—father of Barbara and the only native-born American on the project’s design team—brought incredible vision and unbelievable expense, gutting the Hammerstein Opera House to build a six-story set which was so vast the front rows and orchestra pit had to be removed. This meant that the music had to be prerecorded and piped in, an unheard-of innovation at the time.
Bel Geddes’s work delayed the production several times over, meaning the collaborators and cast moved on (in fact, Sidney Lumet’s voice changed during the delays, and he had to be recast with “Dickie Van Patten” taking over Lumet’s role, notes Meyer Weisgal in his frank and candid memoir which includes a fascinating chapter on The Eternal Road) and switched back as needed.
But what could it have meant for those who were left behind? The audience? What did it say to them? For it is a puzzling work, and the idea that something so religiously based could be so acclaimed and well attended seems odd today: popular theater, and this was most emphatically designed as popular theater, today mocks and pokes at religion. Where did it take the audience of the late 1930s? Its message is not propagandist. It ends with an affirmation of faith and forbearance. The Adversary, who likely most anticipates today’s modern secularism, leaves the synagogue to fight the threat in his own way, without God or community.
I tend to think through, more than feel, music. But some grand moments while listening to the magnificent 200-person Collegiate Chorale and Orchestra of St Luke’s as they met in soaring Weill melancholic rapture moved me beyond thought to a place with no words, only beauty and transcendence.
That was a pretty good place to get to go. Maybe that’s where the original audiences went as well. The terrific news is that the general public, unable to make it to the two performances of this production will be able to hear it soon, as a live cast album is being prepared. And for a brief taste of the work—and some excellent explication by the dedicated developers, including Ted Sperling, Ed Harsh, Chorale director Edward Barnes, and members of the Chorale—click here for episodes 1, 2, and 3 of “The Road to the Road of Promise.”