We Will Never Die was a dramatic pageant staged before an audience of 40,000 at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943, to raise public awareness of the mass murder of the European Jews. The pageant starred Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni and subsequently traveled to other cities. Kurt Weill (1900–1950) was a leading composer in Germany and subsequently for the Broadway theatre. Moss Hart (1904–1961) was a leading Broadway dramatist.
Weill and Hart had recently scored a big Broadway success with Lady in the Dark (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) and at the time were supporting the war effort by collaborating on Lunch Hour Follies, a series of variety shows staged by the American Theatre Wing to boost the morale of workers in factories manufacturing war materials. (Weill, who had not yet been granted US citizenship, was often barred from the defense plants).
It is unlikely that Weill and Ben Hecht had met during Hecht's reporting stint for the Chicago Daily News in Berlin in the early 1920s, but Weill had identified Hecht as early as 1934 as a potential American collaborator. It is probable that they met soon after Weill came to the US in 1935 to work on The Eternal Road, a huge biblical spectacle staged in New York by Max Reinhardt with music by Weill and a libretto by Franz Werfel. Weill was also eventually connected socially to Hecht through his fellow neighbors living in Rockland County, including Burgess Meredith, Helen Hayes, and her husband Charles MacArthur, who was Hecht's frequent collaborator.
Weill had all the necessary credentials to collaborate on We Will Never Die. As a German emigrant, son of a cantor, student of Ferruccio Busoni, and a born theater composer, he had mastered techniques for the effective use of music in both pageants and radio. He had used theater to highlight social concerns throughout his career. Although often characterized as a “political” composer because of his association in Germany with Bertolt Brecht, close analysis of his music and writings reveal him to be more concerned with the human condition than with political causes. His willingness to work on We Will Never Die was probably motivated more by the plight of the Jews in Europe than by a conviction to join Hecht in supporting Peter Bergson and the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews.
Although largely a pacifist in his early years, Weill was deeply committed to supporting the American war effort and demonstrating his allegiance to the US In 1941 he provided music for Fun to be Free. This earlier pageant by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur was staged at Madison Square Garden and sponsored by Fight for Freedom Inc., a group that supported total US involvement in the European war. He also wrote propaganda songs (some for broadcast in Germany); incidental music for Your Navy, a radio program written by Maxwell Anderson and jointly commissioned by CBS and NBC; music for Salute to France, a US propaganda film directed by Jean Renoir; and four patriotic melodramas for Helen Hayes, recorded by RCA Victor under the title Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.
When approached by Hecht to collaborate on We Will Never Die, Weill was busy developing a script with Bella Spewack for a Broadway show based on One Man's Venus to star Marlene Dietrich (a project that did not materialize but that would later develop with other collaborators into One Touch of Venus). After reading Hecht's script, Weill decided to reuse some music from The Eternal Road as well as other preexisting music that would have meaning to the audience. As a result, the score is not a formal composition but a collection of incidental music compiled to highlight the dramatic shape of Hecht's script.
Weill brought composer and conductor Isaac von Grove to the project to lead the 50-piece NBC Orchestra, prepare the choruses, and deal with musical logistics. Having conducted 153 performances of The Eternal Road, Grove was the perfect musician to adapt excerpts from the work to the requirements of We Will Never Die. (Grove had also conducted Weill's music for Railroads on Parade, which played five performances a day during the 1939–1940 New York World's Fair).
The Hollywood Bowl performance on July 21, l943, which was broadcast on NBC nationwide, was conducted by well-known film composer Franz Waxmann. Unfortunately, none of the performing materials have survived, which would have provided clues as to how much the “score” was altered to accommodate the requirements of subsequent productions after the first two performances at Madison Square Garden in New York. Although this Hollywood Bowl broadcast describes the production as an “exact replica” of the New York production, the recorded text differs in some respects from Weill's copy of the script. One can hear music from The Eternal Road adapted as background music for the spoken texts and an orchestral version of Miriam's Song used for incidental music. Also included are sundry fanfares, successions of sustained chords, and fragments of Nazi music countered by arrangements of the Hatikvah and the Warschawianka. The second section, Jews in the War, features a sequence of national anthems and melodies, including Tipperary and the Red Army Song by Lev Knipper, which is also known as Cavalry of the Steppes.
Because most of the musical sources have vanished, it is very difficult to reconstruct the music for We Will Never Die short of transcribing what can be imperfectly heard on the radio recording. In the end, the music is not central to an appreciation of the work, nor did Weill really ever claim it as a composition. But Weill knew how to use music to dramatic effect, and he succeeded in providing the heightened emotion that combined effectively with all the other theatrical elements to make We Will Never Die a overpowering experience.
Article written by David Farneth