Anyone who comes to the Young Vic expecting a traditional musical is likely to be taken aback by Street Scene. The West End this ain’t. Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes wrote their ‘Broadway Opera’ in 1947, a harsh, edgy vision reflecting their outsider perspectives: Weill an exile from Nazi Germany, Hughes a black writer in a segregated society. The music is complex, the dramatic structure unconventional, and the cast enormous. But the end result, although by no means perfect, will stay with you far longer than any musical across the Thames.
The Young Vic has revived its award-winning co-production with the Opera Group which played only a short run in 2008. Directed by John Fulljames, it is a major undertaking that cheerfully defies the Young Vic’s modest auditorium. The 30-strong London Concert Orchestra is stacked at the back, crowbarred in like the inhabitants of the crowded New York Lower East Side where the story is set. A large cast of children, teens and adults mill around the block during a summer heatwave, living in each other’s laps. It’s a cauldron of nationalities – Italians, Swedes, Germans, Jews, Irish, Poles – where nothing stays secret for long.
But this is no nostalgic portrait of community life. Tensions are never far from the surface, and anyone who is different suffers. The book-reading Sam Kaplan is mocked relentlessly, while his elderly father’s communist ideals are the butt of everyone’s jokes. The men are mostly bullies, drinkers or ineffectual, while the women’s whispers about the unhappy Anna Maurrant’s dalliance with a milkman prove corrosive and ultimately disastrous.
The music, sung in an operatic style, mixes jazz, blues and show tunes, dissonance and sudden bursts of melody. There are no Threepenny Opera-style killer tunes - this is more a song cycle. Sometimes Hughes’ sharp lyrics are difficult to hear, but it’s hard to fault any of the performers who put on a storming show. Perhaps the highlight is the beautiful heart-breaking ‘Somehow I Never Could Believe’ sung by Elena Ferraris’ Anna, reflecting both her own despair and the drudgery imposed on women. Elsewhere, her daughter Rose struggles to break away from her tyrannical father, while a troupe of singing, dancing female graduates in white dresses suggest the next generation will break free from its bonds. But the pull of the tenement is strong, and not everyone will be so lucky.
Street Scene may not be a complete success as a work of art, but it turns the Broadway musical into a potent tool for social commentary. This production is a powerful, absorbing staging. It’s hard to imagine it being done better.
Street Scene is at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ until 1st October.