The Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes-Elmer Rice musical Street Scene is one of the few Broadway shows adopted by opera (like Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd), and Portland Opera's current production should show why. With its serious songs and psychological depth, Street Scene seems as if it would've been more at home at the Met. But when it opened on Broadway in 1947, it set a new standard for the musical, one upon which Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim would build.
In the middle of a successful film career, actress and singer Anne Jeffreys found herself taking on Broadway as Street Scene's heroine, Rose Maurrant. Jeffreys spoke to WW in Los Angeles about being a part of musical history.
WW: Weill picked you for Rose.
Anne Jeffreys: I was performing Tosca at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. After a performance, there were two men waiting outside my dressing room. One was a tall man with big glasses, and the other was a small man with big glasses. They introduced themselves, and, of course, the smaller man turned out to be Kurt Weill. They came in, and Kurt said that he wanted me to play one of the leads in his new show. I told him that I was under contract at RKO in Hollywood, and that I had to get back to the studio. "Well," he said, "would you just come and listen to the music?" Now, who can say no to Kurt Weill? So, I went along to the Adelphi Theater and went into this cold office, and there was Kurt at a piano, and he started playing the score and singing in his squeaky little voice, and I was thrilled. It was the loveliest music. He said, "Would you play Rose?" and I said, "Let me call Hollywood."
What was the opening like?
We tried out first in Philadelphia. As we headed to New York, I began feeling unwell and, wouldn't you know it, I was hit by the flu. So, for the rehearsal week before the show opened on Broadway, I stayed in bed, with doctors hovering about. I made the last rehearsal before opening night. They had a cot for me in the dressing room, and Kurt, that sweet man, would come popping in to see if I was well enough to go on. Well, I didn't think I had a choice, and I made it through. The next day we were scheduled to do the recording of the show. I was so weak that I was hanging onto the stool to sing it!
Really? But you sound wonderful on that recording.
It came out pretty good, didn't it? I've listened to it since and thought, my Lord, did I ever sing that well?
What was the response for the show?
We opened to rave reviews..."biggest thing since Oklahoma!"-that sort of thing. But we only ran for six months. I loved singing that music, and I loved the people around me...Kurt, Langston Hughes, the cast. I feel honored to have been a part of it.
Portland Opera at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Saturday and Thursday, March 26 and 31, and Saturday, April 2.
The original cast recording of Street Scene, featuring Anne Jeffreys, is available from Sony for $11.98.