"I hate musicals," says singer and actress Marianne Faithfull in her low, whiskeyish voice. "Really despise them, detest them. I used to quite like them. . . . But recently it's got so, so--" She gives a small but intense shrug of disgust. "Uhh! Andrew Lloyd Webber. Uchhh!"
It's hardly a surprise that Marianne Faithfull should shudder at the current rage for overblown, syrupy musical theater. Her own work is known for its leanness and tough candor. Broken English, the 1979 album that marked her comeback after a period of personal decline, boiled over with rage (most notoriously in the raunchy cult hit "Why D'Ya Do It?"); the 1987 Strange Weather was marked by a worldly-wise irony even in such selections as Jerome Kern's romantic ballad "Yesterdays." Given Faithfull's sensibility, it was probably inevitable that her career should lead her to the work of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, whose efforts for the musical stage in the late 1920s and early '30s are still unmatched for ironic incisiveness and stringency.
More usually teamed with an electrified pop band, the 43-year-old Faithfull is in Chicago this week for a concert with the classical chamber ensemble the Chicago Sinfonietta. The highlight of the program is The Seven Deadly Sins, a dramatic cantata that Weill and Brecht wrote in 1933. Though her mother (a descendant of the Viennese writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) was a dancer in Berlin at the time Brecht and Weill were active there, Faithfull says, she only became familiar with that material in the past few years: "If anyone had ever told me that I would be starting to do these kinds of things, I would have been amazed." But Faithfull has never been one for making safe choices. She laid bare her own battles with drugs when she cowrote the grisly lyrics for the Rolling Stones' "Sister Morphine"; and her career, launched when she was 17 with the recording of "As Tears Go By" (written for her by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Andrew Loog Oldham), has ranged from challenging legitimate theater (Ophelia to Nicol Williamson's Hamlet, The Three Sisters with Glenda Jackson) to innovative musical projects, including a track on Lost in the Stars, the anthology of Weill songs performed by pop musicians.
It was her recording of Weill's "The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" on that album that led to her involvement with The Seven Deadly Sins, a little-known work originally conceived as a "ballet with songs" that proved to be Weill and Brecht's last collaboration. Jason Osborn, a British conductor and composer who also participated in the album, says, "When I heard her sing "Soldier's Wife,' I thought she would be an ideal person to do Seven Deadly Sins. So Hal Willner [who produced the Weill record as well as Strange Weather] gradually eased her into the idea that she could do a 40-minute piece with orchestra. He played her Lotte Lenya's recording of the work, and she took to it."
Faithfull has been compared to Lenya on numerous occasions; indeed, a review of Lenya's 1933 performance of The Seven Deadly Sins in London could easily apply to Faithfull: "She has a strange voice with harsh notes in it, not a beautiful voice, but one with some curiously moving quality that cannot be analyzed."
Lenya, of course, was the original interpreter of much of Weill's music. They were husband and wife--though at the time Weill, then in exile from Nazi Germany, wrote The Seven Deadly Sins, he and Lenya were estranged and on the brink of divorce (though they later remarried). Commissioned for choreographer George Balanchine's Ballets 1933 troupe, the work tells of the life of a young woman named Anna, who is represented by two people, a singer and a dancer. ("We have one past and one future," sings Anna I of herself and her alter ego, "one heart and one bank account.") Brecht didn't consider his libretto a very important effort; "I guess it's because he didn't have quite as much opportunity as he often does to sort of rant a lot," Faithfull comments wryly. Yet the work is one of his most concise and ironically illuminating analyses of morality versus reality. Anna leaves her devoted family in "old Louisiana" to seek her fortune in the big cities--seven of them, one for each sin. But what qualifies as sin is the point of Brecht's pointed satire. For instance, in Anna's case "pride" is artistic integrity: hired as a dancer in a cabaret, she tries to display her love of classic ballet, but is quickly forced to lower herself to the male audience's lewd expectations. And "lust" consists of Anna giving herself sexually to the ne'er-do-well she loves, rather than the wealthy man who pays for her favors. As experience systematically disabuses Anna of these "sins," she learns to get ahead in the world despite the emotional cost--finally ridding herself of her "envy" of people who live decent, happy lives.
To Brecht's barbed libretto, filled with the mocking homilies he was so fond of (often sung by a moralizing male quartet), Weill composed a remarkably rich and varied score, sometimes dissonant but always melodic, that simultaneously spoofs and luxuriates in such styles as Viennese operetta, American folk, and even schmaltzy barbershop quartet singing. The role of Anna I is a tour de force of emotional complexity, as the singer must at once experience the story she's telling and comment on it. This is especially true when, as here, the work is done purely as a concert piece, without staging.
Faithfull first performed The Seven Deadly Sins in December 1989 at Saint Anne's Church in Brooklyn. (The concert was given about two weeks after the pop concerts at the church that were recorded for her recently released album, Breaking Away.) Chamber Music Chicago contacted Faithfull and conductor Osborn, who led the Brooklyn concerts, about doing the work here to open its 1990-'91 "DejAvant" series. Osborn will lead the Chicago Sinfonietta in a full-length program that also includes two orchestral selections--Weill's Little Three Penny Music (a suite of tunes from The Threepenny Opera) and Stravinsky's Suites nos. 1 and 2 for small orchestra. As a warmup for The Seven Deadly Sins, Faithfull will also sing Weill's "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday and "Thousands of Miles" from Lost in the Stars (both with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) and the volcanic "Pirate Jenny" from Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera.
For The Seven Deadly Sins, Osborn is using the English translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman that Balanchine used when he revived the work for the New York City Ballet in 1958; Osborn admits that he'd have preferred the new translation he and British poet Christopher Logue have created, but the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music insisted on the Auden-Kallman. But he hopes his own version will have a hearing sometime in the future--and he and Faithfull intend to take the work to other audiences; negotiations are under way both for a recording and for a performance with a major ballet company, using Balanchine's original choreography.
But these plans extend a few years into the future. "I always take my time with new projects," says Faithfull, whose cultish following has developed from only a handful of records. "That's how I am. I have to go slowly." She has other irons in the fire as well--including collaborating with Osborn on an opera based on the legend of Persephone--and she doesn't want to spread herself thin. "I feel very much with The Seven Deadly Sins," she says, "that I have to be very, very focused and not think about anything else."
Chamber Music Chicago's presentation of Marianne Faithfull in The Seven Deadly Sins is tonight only, at 8 PM at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan. Tickets are $15-$40; for information call 242-6237 or 663-1628.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.