Monday, May 29, 2023

Johnny Johnson

Recently I was at Westsider Books, hoping to pick up some--you know--books, when I got distracted by the vinyl records they had, including a cast recording to the Broadway revival of Kurt Weill and Paul Green's Johnny Johnson.

The recording is from the 1956 revival, but Johnny Johnson originally premiered on Broadway in 1936, billed as a "play with songs" rather than a musical. It was based loosely on Jaroslav HaĊĦek's novel The Good Soldier Schweik, which had already been turned into a piece of Epic Theatre by Erwin Piscator.

For the Broadway production, Green and Weill made the protagonist an American soldier during the First World War, and reportedly chose the name "Johnny Johnson" because that name appeared on American casualty lists more than any other. Johnny begins the play having sculpted a peace monument that is no sooner dedicated than the announcement comes that the United States has entered the war. Johnny becomes a soldier, and misadventures ensue, leading him to eventually be sent to a mental hospital.

For the score, Weill noticeably recycled a melody he had previously used in Happy End. Overall, the music is recognizably his, even when he isn't rehashing earlier material. A typical number is "Song of the Guns" in which the chorus chants: "Soldiers! Soldiers! / Sleep softly now beneath the sky / Soldiers! Soldiers! / Tomorrow under earth you lie."

Johnny Johnson is not as well known as Weill's earlier work he wrote in Germany, such as The Threepenny Opera, nor was it as successful as his later work for Broadway, such as Knickerbocker Holiday. Still, it's worth a listen.