CD Review by Joseph Pehrson (v.6#4, pp.41-42, Fall/Winter 1998) of
A BLITZSTEIN CABARET with Helene Williams, soprano, Ronald Edwards, baritone; Leonard Lehrman at the piano (and singing). Available through Premier Recordings, Box 1214, Gracie Station,New York, NY 10028 (released in 1990)
Probably like many people, I had heard of Marc Blitzstein through his fabled leftist opera/musical The Cradle Will Rock and his untimely death from a beating and robbery in Martinique, but I had never heard a single note of his music. This is understandable since it isn't performed very often these days. Leonard Lehrman is making a valiant effort to remedy the situation by currently bringing Blitzstein's fascinating music to the public, both through the former's historic completion (1973) of the unfinished one-act opera, Idiots First (based upon a story by Bernard Malamdu), and by performing with Helene Williams and Ronald Edwards a full-length evening of material drawn from Blitzstein's various musicals/operas. He is also editing a new publication by Boosey & Hawkes, The Marc Blitzstein Songbook which should be available in the very near future.
Blitzstein's work defies easy classification. I suppose the work is more music at the service of theatrical ideas than anything - an "uber"-Broadway musical, verging on opera. A good part of Blitzstein, who apparently wrote almost all of his own librettos, is "The Message is the Medium," the depth and staying-power being the social and human imagery even more than the music - which can be a bit on the light side. However, this is part of the fun - Blitzstein is the writer of musicals for people whose interest in most musical theater is limited. His work is a cut above the usual genre. In this sense, he reminds me of the social-commentary songs by Tom Lehrer (who has acknowledged Blitzstein influence) or an English languge equivalent of Kurt Weill. It is no coincidence that Blitzstein translated The Three Penny Opera into a wildly popular English version in the 50s which included the mega-hit song, "Mack the Knife," that we know today.
Blitzstein's esthetic was the result of a calculated effort. He started as a young man (he was born in 1905) writing complex, dissonant works like every "real" composer was supposed to at the time. However, during the social upheaval of the 1930s, a period we cannot fully appreciate today - the stock market crash of 1929 thoroughly undermining some people's confidence in capitalism - he turned toward a more immediate populist art to spread his messages. It worked. His music is great "fun" in the sense that the popular-sounding songs immediately draw a person in, but then the multi-dimensionality of the text and ideas strike. It's a "double whammy" - the rather lighthearted music making an immediate appeal, followed then by the realization that there is something significant going on. The music and texts together cause a strong emotional reaction. Although light by itself, the music is very well put together, with interesting chord changes and, sometimes, great beauty.
Leonard Lehrman has assembled and edited the cabaret evening. This has required arranging a piano-vocal score in some cases, and in the case of Idiots First, adding a bit of music. The performances on the CD are very good, particularly from a dramatic standpoint. Who could possibly rival Helene Williams in the dramatic rendition of "Goloopchik" - a hilarious parody of the Russian language - and in her spoof of an upper-class women's club in "Send for the Militia"? It takes very special performers to properly deliver these songs, and Lehrman and Williams are the perfect team for them.
Curiously enough, some of the most affecting Blitzstein songs are delivered solo by Lehrman at the piano with his untrained voice. Perhaps the simplicity of this delivery reminiscent, again, of Tom Lehrer, is what lends such a striking quality. Leonard's two solos are "The New Suit" from (the otherwise lost) New York Opera -- affectionately known as "Zipperfly," since it portrays a young man who wishes for a new suit with such a convenience, and "Penny Candy," a song detailing the "fine art of panhandling" according to the program notes, but which also hurls a portrait of satisfaction in simple, everyday pleasures. The arresting pictures of everyday life are what gives Blitzstein his wallop. This is more than music - it is an experience.
Ron Edwards, with his trained tenor voice, adds the needed veneer (Vermeer?) to the record, and the song "What is the Stars?" from Juno is hilarious with its play on language and loony philosophy. This song was changed drastically in edits when it was placed on the Broadway stage - the intellectual component was completely taken out and it became "Life on the Sea." No surprise - as I mentioned, Blitzstein wrote Broadway musicals taken to another dimension. Unfortunately, the average audience member may not be inclined to go along.
I would have liked a little orchestration on the CD - perhaps the use of violin and cello with the piano and vocals for a couple of the selections. That would have been easy to do, and it is not an exorbitant production expense. The unrelieved solo piano accompaniment would in this way be varied for greater effect - although Blitzstein himself might have preferred the spareness.
This CD is a special experience and a voyage to many different places. Anyone who both enjoys music and has a mind is certain to savor it.