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The Bear That Plays Like a Man

Hotshot gangster meets pure-at-heart Salvation Army lass; they kiss, they sing, they fall in love; at the curtain, the gang vows to abandon its evil ways. Guys and Dolls? Yes, but no. Twenty-one years before Frank Loesser’s snazzy musical won the delighted hearts of its first Broadway audience, another item, called Happy End, the fashioning of the agitprop dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the multitalented composer Kurt Weill, suffered a somewhat less happy end: a mere three-day run at the same Berlin theater where their Threepenny Opera had taken off like gangbusters a year before. Why? Weill‘s songs were (and are) wonderful; the book (despite Brecht’s attempt to repudiate his work and to use the pseudonym ”Dorothy Lane“) not all that bad. Find out for yourselves when Happy End starts a two-week run in the galleries of MOCA‘s Geffen Contemporary, a lively kickoff to this year’s celebration of the Weill centenary.

No, it was the times themselves that wiped out any hopes of a happy ending for Happy End in its 1929 incarnation. Passionately in love with the Chicago of Al Capone and his gangsters, Brecht set the action in that toddlin‘ town; Weill’s music managed a fascinating synthesis of jazz and old-timey American hymn tunes. Did it matter that neither of the two had yet set foot in this land? Not a bit. In a Germany stirring to a demagogue‘s call for a regained nationality, a surfeit of American icons did not make for happy theater.

Worse yet, at the final curtain on opening night, the actress Helene Weigel, star of the show and Brecht’s wife, pulled a paper out of her pocket and started reading a full-blast, down-with-everything communist tract. The audience rioted; in a land fearful in the deepening shadow of Hitler‘s gangsters, there was less and less room for the freethinking Brecht or the eclecticism of Weill’s musical mastery. A couple of the show‘s songs -- the heart-rending ”Surabaya Johnny“ for one, which more than a few trustworthy critics have dubbed the greatest of all theater ballads -- were sneaked into print and recorded in 1929 by Weill’s wife, the legendary Lotte Lenya (who was never actually in the show). Happy End gathered dust until, thanks to the admirable proselytizing by the widowed Lenya to restore her husband‘s fame, Weill’s old publisher, Universal Edition, finally issued the score that had sat in its vaults since 1929. Lenya -- her voice by her own admission ”two octaves below laryngitis“ -- recorded the complete score that year, and the world found itself possessed of a brand-new wacko masterpiece.

Happy End had its American premiere in 1972, in Michael Feingold‘s splendid Englishing, an unerring mix of elegance and slang that exactly matches the substance of both words and music. That translation will also be used at MOCA, in a production that foretells mucho snazz: puppets intermingling with live actors and filmed cameo appearances by Mayor Richard Riordan and the one-and-only Angelyne (you know, the car). Sets, promises director Randee Trabitz, will move around to fill the entire 18,000-square-foot gallery space. Under music director Joseph Berardi, the Eastside Sinfonietta -- formed in 1998 for the Brecht centenary -- will be augmented this time with brass and piano. Soprano Weba Garretson gets to sing three wonderful BrechtWeill songs (”Lieutenants of the Lord“ and ”Sailor’s Tango,“ plus ”Surabaya“); actors Dan Gerrity, Elizabeth Ruscio and Chris Wells head the ensemble.

For more Brecht-Weill, the Museum of Television & Radio presents ”Threepennies and a Touch of Venus: The World of Kurt Weill,“ a screening series of selected American and European productions of their work, including Happy End, through March 19. See Museum listings for details.