Kurt Weill’s Magical Night, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

But the celebrated Pixar films paradoxically avoid the question of
what would happen if children unexpectedly encountered their own toys in a
state of animation. Kurt Weill’s fascinating 1920s ballet, or more correctly
“Children’s Pantomime” (Kinderpantomime), Magical Night
(Zaubernacht), his earliest surviving work for the stage, takes that
moment as its imaginative starting point.

Kurt Weill’s Magical Night now on at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the
Royal Opera House, London, has a remarkable history. Written to a scenario
supplied by the original choreographer, the otherwise obscure Wladimir
Boritsch, it was given three performances at the Theater am Kurf¸rstendamm,
Berlin, in November 1922. In 1925 it received a second production at the
Garrick Theatre, New York, but the score was subsequently lost. In the 1990s
Meirion Bowen bravely attempted a reconstruction from an incomplete piano
rehearsal score, and his version was premiered in Germany in 2000.

But then in 2005 a set of original orchestral parts was discovered in a
vault in Yale University Library, and this allowed a much more authentic
version of the score to be reconstructed for the Kurt Weill Edition (2008).
This was premiered at the Musikfest Stuttgart in September 2010. The ROH
production thus represents a bold investment in a largely forgotten work which
has only recently become available for performance. It is fair to assume, of
course, that Magical Night would almost certainly not have been
revived if, by some chance, Weill had died before he composed Die
. It is Weill’s name and the knowledge of what he
achieved later that generates initial interest and makes revival commercially
viable. But this is less a comment on the intrinsic merits of Magical
than it is on the difficulty of building up a head of steam behind
any unknown ballet. Magical Night is not a rediscovered masterpiece,
but it is felicitous music with a vital rhythmic pulse that, matched with
appropriate choreography, can be an arresting and enchanting theatrical
experience: which is exactly what the ROH production offers.

Not that much is known of the original scenario for which Weill wrote his
music. In his invaluable Kurt Weill: A Handbook, David Drew was able
to suggest (mainly on the basis of press reports) that it went something like
this: “As ‘the Girl’ and ‘the Boy’ fall asleep, the Fairy enters and
sings her magic spell. One by one the children’s toys, and the characters
from their storybooks, are brought to life. Presently, the children themselves
become involved in a phantasmagoria where, for instance, Anderson’s Tin
Soldier helps rescue Hansel and Gretel. At the end, the Witch is hunted by the
assembled company, and at last disposed of. The Fairy then vanishes, the
children sink back into a dreamless sleep, and their mother tiptoes into the
room to close the curtains.” The Kurt Weill Foundation states that
“Directors and choreographers are encouraged to create their own scenarios
that are appropriate to the music.”

The scenario Aletta Collins has devised for the Linbury production follows
the broad outline of Drew’s reconstruction, but also makes some telling
changes. Anyone wishing to remain in ignorance of the story now being staged
should skip the rest of this paragraph. Two young children, Megan and Jason,
are playing with their toys just before bedtime; they quarrel, and Megan pulls
the tail off Chimpy, Jason’s favorite toy. Their mother tells them to go to
bed. At midnight the Pink Fairy comes to life and casts a spell that animates
various other toys, too. The toys dance together, not always in perfect accord.
The children wake up and get drawn into the dance. Chimpy accuses Megan of
pulling off his tail. Megan, upset, withdraws from the group and draws a
picture of a witch. The toys try to warn her that this is unwise, but it is too
late, and Sarah Good, an evil witch, appears as the physical embodiment of the
picture. What happens next is a little unclear, but gradually it becomes
obvious that the witch is using her magic to take control of the other
characters. She lures Jason into a cooker, and throws in the Pink Fairy for
good measure. But the other toys manage to distract the witch and stage a
rescue; there is some superb comedy here as Mighty Robot, a Buzz Lightyear-like
character, woos the witch through dance. Finally the two children realize that
by manipulating Megan’s picture they can take control of the witch. After
screwing it up, and throwing her into convulsions, they tear it to pieces, at
which point Sarah Good spectacularly explodes in a shower of paper.

Even young children are likely to be reminded of Hansel and Gretel,
the story expressly referenced in the original ballet; older ones will probably
see a connection to Harry Potter, and adults may recollect The
Picture of Dorian Gray
and similar tales. The fact that the new
Magical Night is so strongly evocative of earlier stories does not
diminish it, though; rather it makes it powerfully familiar, expressing ideas
which have become part of our collective imagination, our modern myths of evil
and possession. It appears to be rather deeper than Boritsch’s playful
fantasy, with a more obvious psychological message: just as we can easily
create the objects of our fears, so we can destroy them. The ballet enacts the
“explanation” of fairy stories that has often been put forward: they help
children understand and master their fears.

The new story is not exactly “in” the music. There is no obvious
darkening of the sonic landscape as the witch exerts her baleful influence. But
Weill’s music throughout has a certain edgy, threatening feel to it—at no
point can it be called jolly—and allows, from the beginning, some sinister
potential. It is also music that seems to require rather than demand visual
realization, supporting rather than dominating the represented action. In this
sense visual cues influence what is heard at least as much as auditory cues
condition what is seen.

Weill’s original orchestration is brighter, bolder and more percussive
than Bowen’s version (which has been recorded). It is less subtle and
studied, perhaps not surprisingly, but this works to its advantage. In the
early 1920s Weill, who was studying with Busoni, experienced what Richard
Taruskin has taught us to regard as the quintessential dilemma of the modern
composer: torn between writing “art” music for the cognoscenti in the
concert hall or more accessible music for the larger audience at the theatre.
Some of that tension is felt in Magical Night, a remarkably
sophisticated score for a Kinderpantomime, and it would be fascinating
to know what the mature Weill thought of it. But Bowen pushed it too far
towards the “art” music side of the dilemma, and it was refreshing to hear
that the young Weill actually wanted something brasher and livelier, more
popular in tone.

Magical Night is beautifully staged in the perfectly-sized Linbury
Studio Theatre. The first part, and the last, take place in a very
realistic-looking children’s bedroom. This is literally split in two for the
witch’s dramatic entrance, and when her power is at its zenith it is turned
inside out, revealing a black shadow-world with all the necessary equipment for
her fiendish culinary arts. The dancers and the choreography are superb, with
lots of customized moves to distinguish the characters, and abilities, of the
different toys.

To get the expert opinion of a child, I brought along my five-year-old
daughter, Annie Ashizu, for a second opinion. Being well acquainted with the
Toy Story trilogy, as well as Hansel and Gretel, she had more
than enough imaginative equipment to be able to grasp, and be absorbed by,
Magical Night. Her first words at the end were of the kind to delight
any parent keen to introduce their child to the magic of live entertainment:
“Papa, I love this theatre [work]. I wish I could see it two times!” She
hadn’t said that after The Lion King, her previous benchmark for
theatrical greatness, and as we left Covent Garden I couldn’t resist asking
her if she thought Magical Night as good as Disney’s epic.
“Yes,” she replied unhesitatingly; “actually, it was better!” This may
turn out to be the greatest tribute to the success of ROH’s production to be
found in any of the reviews. Annie instinctively loved the Pink Fairy and
clearly experienced the end of the story as empowering. She talked about the
characters all the way home, when she fell asleep her head was still full of
them, and she woke up talking of how she had dreamed of being the Pink Fairy.
We’ll be going again.

David Chandler

image_description=Kurt Weill
product_title=Kurt Weill: Magical Night
product_by=Click here for cast and other production information.
product_id=Above: Kurt Weill