Even in a city addicted to eye-popping spectacles, Kurt Weill’s “The Eternal Road,” which opened in New York in 1937, was the most extravagant musical production that anyone had ever seen. Intended as a wake-up call to Americans about the worsening plight of the Jews of Germany, the show centers on a rabbi who employs stories from the Hebrew Bible to teach a Jewish boy about his heritage, even as demonic forces gather around the synagogue where the lessons are taking place — forces that the boy may be able to defeat once his education is complete. A new, slimmed-down, concert staging, using one of the work’s original titles, “The Road of Promise,” comes to Carnegie Hall next week with Broadway veteran Ron Rifkin in the cast, along with eight operatic soloists.
Weill was a German cantor’s son whose best-known works are his satirical compositions with Bertolt Brecht, including “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” Born in 1900 in Dessau, he fled his native land in 1933 and settled in Paris, where he began work on “The Eternal Road,” a work he completed after migrating to the United States in 1935.
The impetus for the show came from Meyer Weisgal, the visionary, publicity-seeking Chicago-based executive director of the Midwest region of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA); he had already produced two huge Zionist pageants, “Israel Reborn” in 1932, and “Romance of a People” at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. That show had a cast of 6,000, and was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people; much of the revenue went to German Jews who were escaping to Palestine.
Fervently trying to galvanize the world to resist the onset of Nazi persecution of German Jewry, Weisgal turned to the illustrious German émigré director Max Reinhardt, who in turn tapped Weill, along with playwright Franz Werfel, to collaborate on the pageant. Rather than remain powerless, Weisgal hoped, Jews could finally end their suffering in Europe and be put back on track toward the glorious destiny set forth in the Torah. (Nevertheless, as the late music scholar Alexander Ringer has written, “The Eternal Road” was probably not the best choice of title, since it seemed to refer to the myth of the “wandering Jew” whose sins preclud him from acceptance in any community.)
Each of the four acts was a re-enactment of a biblical episode; the production climaxed with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and a messianic voice proclaiming the hope of ultimate redemption in Zion. In his review of the original production, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times exulted that “when the portals of heaven open before Abraham, letting out the rapturous light and sound of a choir of angels, the goodness of God becomes for an instant the most overpowering force in the Broadway theatre of 1937.” John Mason Brown, the critic for the New York Post, went even further, finding “moments of such visual beauty as the modern theater never has seen equaled or approached” and calling it simply “the stage spectacle of all stage spectacles.”
In composing the score, Weill mixed musical themes from Jewish liturgical melodies, snippets of Mozart and Wagner operas, marches, German folk songs, and show tunes; music critics have generally compared it to sacred oratorios by Handel and Bach, with particular similarities to Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion.” Highlights of the work were released by Naxos in 2008; the two performances next week will be recorded live for release on the same label.
Weisgal insisted on fidelity to Jewish sources, not just in Weill’s music but also in the costumes and sets (both designed by Norman Bel Geddes) and choreography (created by Benjamin Zemach). And he spared no expense; the production, which ran at the 3,100-seat Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street, incorporated a five-tiered stage, 245 performers and 1,772 costumes. Because the opera pit was needed to house the synagogue set, the majority of the score was supplied by recorded music by a 100-piece orchestra. Despite its enthusiastic reception, it ran for just 153 performances before bankrupting Weisgal. The work was not produced again until 1999, when it was produced in Chemnitz, Germany in a production that came the following year to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Conducted and directed by Ted Sperling, in an adaptation by Ed Harsh, “The Road of Promise” is presented by the Collegiate Chorale, a symphonic choir of close to 200 singers who perform at major venues throughout the New York area, as well as in Austria, Switzerland and Israel. Sperling, who won the Tony for his work on Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza” at Lincoln Center in 2005, is frequently drawn to Weill’s works; in recent years, he has directed the Collegiate Chorale in celebrated concert-style productions of “The Firebrand of Florence” and “Knickerbocker Holiday.”
In an interview, Sperling told The Jewish Week that “The Eternal Road” was a “transitional work” for Weill, who composed it during his flight to America, when he was “still writing in the operatic tradition of ‘Mahagonny’ but was also hearing the siren call of Broadway.” Sperling’s hope is to “get it back into the repertoire as a concert work for opera.”
Rifkin, a veteran actor who has appeared in many Jewish roles, plays The Adversary, whom he called a “classic doubter,” a cynical character who is “a good fit for me, being smart, old and a doubter myself.” (Rifkin grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Williamsburg, but rebelled against his upbringing when he was in his thirties.) Among the questions raised in “The Road of Promise,” he said, are “Is there a God? If so, why has God put me in this situation with people waiting outside the door to destroy me and my family?”
Stephen Hinton, a musicologist at Stanford, is the author of a 600-page, magisterial study, “Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform” (University of California Press, 2012). In an interview, he noted that Weill possessed “remarkable versatility” — after the completion of “The Eternal Road,” he wrote lush scores for “Lady in the Dark,” “One Touch of Venus” and other Broadway musicals. While Weill also created a choral version of the “Kiddush” blessing, Hinton said that “his main goal was to write for the popular theater.”
But while “The Eternal Road” may have been extremely attention getting in many respects, Hinton noted that it failed to achieve its overarching political purpose. “History was already overtaking it,” Hinton said, and it did not lead to rescue action on behalf of European Jewry.
Weill was to try again in 1943 when millions of Jews had already perished, with “We Will Never Die,” a stirring theatrical pageant at Madison Square Garden attended by 40,000 people. Again, little was done by the American government, or by Jewish groups, to save Jews from Hitler. “All we have done is make a lot of Jews cry,” Weill told his collaborator, the playwright Ben Hecht, “which is not a unique accomplishment.”
“The Road of Promise” will be staged on Wednesday, May 6 at 8 p.m. and Thursday, May 7 at 7 p.m. at Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Ave. For tickets, $15-$135, call (212) 247-7800 or visit carnegiehall.org.