Work: Surabaya Johnny
About This Work
After the enormous success of Die Dreigroschenoper in 1928, composer Kurt Weill and writer Bertolt Brecht collaborated in 1929 on another gimlet-eyed depiction of the wonders of human nature in the ironically named three-act comedy Happy End. A
variation of Shaw's Major Barbara and a precursor of Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls, Happy End weds Chicago gangsters with Salvation Army workers, allowing Brecht to indulge in his "capitalism is gangsterism misspelled" Marxist rhetoric. In the event, Happy End was insufficiently vile for Brecht who all but insured the failure of the work by having his wife sabotage the premiere with standard-issue Marxist oxymorons from the stage. Despite this, Happy End contains some of Kurt Weill's most repulsively attractive songs in his best tough-guy sentimental vein already familiar from Die Dreigroschenoper. Perhaps the best-known song form Happy End is Surabaya-Johnny, a sort of Dido's Lament for the jazz age. Sung by an innocent seduced and deflowered by an itinerant intercontinental Mack the Knife, the song begins with the same melodic motif that began Die Moritat von Mackie Messer from Die Dreigroschenoper, but it builds here into a highly dramatic, deeply felt, and wholly ironic climax before collapsing into an apthetic and bathetic ballade in its chorus. A hideously beautiful and wonderfully disgusting song that was a favorite of Marlene Dietrich, Surabaya-Johnny is still revolting after all these years.
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