In 1949 Broadway saw the premier of ‘Lost in the Stars’ a musical with it’s book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and music by Kurt Weill. This musical has largely been left in the back shelves of the Broadway musical library, but what caught my eye was it’s basis; Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. As a South African, the idea of American creatives staging this inherently African story in the late 1940’s, piqued my interest to say the least.
The musical follows a very similar plot to that of the novel it’s based on. Set in South Africa at the very beginnings of what would become Apartheid, Paton’s novel tells a rich and endearing story of a Zulu Reverend, Stephen Kumalo, who travels to Johannesburg from his small Natal village, Ndotsheni, to go find his son, Absalom. Absalom has gotten caught up in a life of petty crime which eventually leads to the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a renowned fighter of racial injustice. Kumalo finally finds his son in jail and asks him about his actions. Absalom confesses to the crimes, but also states that he had two accomplices and that he didn’t intend to kill Arthur. At the trial Kumalo meets Arthur’s farther, James who owns a farm near the village that Kumalo is from. Absalom tells the truth but is found guilty and sentenced to death while his accomplices are acquitted. While his son is on death-row, Kumalo returns to Ndotsheni with his faith shaken. Kumalo then meets James Jarvis’ younger son and they soon become acquainted. James becomes increasingly involved in the village helping them with food and their agriculture. On the day of Absalom’s execution, Kumalo goes into the mountains to observe this this time in peace. On his way though, he finds James and the two men speak about the village, faith, the loss of their sons, but also the bright future of James’ youngest son. Alone, Kumalo falls into prayer and starts weeping, mourning the loss of his son.
Reading Cry the Beloved Country, you clearly see the South African names, context and cultures shine through. This, with some plot points and characters, was ineffectively translated to the stage by Weill and Anderson. The New York Times stating that they clearly had some ‘difficulty’ transforming ‘so thoroughly a work of literary art’ into a theatre piece and that the musical was at times ‘skimming and literal where the novel is rich and allusive.’ Even Paton himself had his qualms with the piece saying that Anderson strayed away from the fact that Christianity and faith has a huge focus in the novel.
On the positive end, the reviews praised Weill’s composition saying that it complimented Paton’s writing and enhanced the narrative. ‘The music is deep, dramatic and beautiful.’ The show also had a fair run of 281 performances and has had some revivals and was turned into motion picture. One of the biggest reasons that this musical hasn’t been completely forgotten is the title song, Lost in the Stars, which has been performed by many legends such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Judy Garland to name a few.
All this being said, I have to say I completely disagree with the fact that Weill’s music complemented the story. I actually disagree with the musical in general. The story of Cry The Beloved Country was completely ‘Americanized’ by Anderson and Weill. Having American actors portray people of Zulu and South African heritage is one thing, but having them do it in a general American accent throughout the show completely threw me off. With several mispronunciations of names and not even mentioning some very problematic lyrics, I kept asking “Who thought this was a good idea?” Another point is that of Weill’s music- Looking at it as a separate entity, I can admit it is a good composition. The problem for me lies again in the ‘Americanization’ of it. The score comes across much more African-American, than anything else. Yes, listing to inherently African music and comparing it to African-American music there are definite similarities, but for me Weill failed in setting the musical sound in Southern Africa rather than the United States.
Now, I realize, of course, that I am writing out of a modern context, with a societal lens that has completely shifted since the 1940’s. Yes, Anderson and Weill were Americans, so it makes sense that the show would naturally gravitate to American-isms. Back then they didn’t care as much about appropriation or the idea of authenticity when it comes to representation of different cultures. In modern times we have seen shows like The Lion King, which had a creative team who invested a lot of time in bringing the cultures, languages and feel of Africa into the piece using research and the help of actual people from African countries.
This, however, brings me to the point of this post- there are some musicals that are better left ‘forgotten’ and I feel Lost in the Stars is one of them. As a South African I am clearly more sensitive to this story in particular, but then we must not forget about the musical giants who stole their stories from other cultures to be displayed in an Westernized fashion for Western audiences *cough* The Mikado, Mulan, Pocahontas…*cough*
What would really make this blogpost end in a happy note would be an announcement that Cry the Beloved Country will be RE-adapted to stage as a musical with a fully South African creative team. I do think the novel has a lot of merit to be turned into a musical theatre production and can definitely be story that has weight in today’s society.
Do you think a new and improved adaption of Cry the Beloved Country could work? Or do you think one was enough? Let us know your thoughts down below.