Especially in 1949, Alan Paton’s international best-selling novel Cry, the Beloved Country must have seemed a very unusual choice to adapt into a Broadway musical (decades before “Sweeny Todd” or “Nixon in China,” years before even transforming “Liliom” into “Carousel”). Material more astringent than the typical Broadway froth was not alien to composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), who was and remains most famous for his collaboration with Bertholt Brecht in turning “The Beggar’s Opera” into “Threepenny Opera” (with the less than frothy hit songs “Mack, the Knife” and “The Pirate Jenny”). The librettist, Maxwell Anderson, was famous for some high-falutin’ plays (Elizabeth the Queen, Anne of the Thousand Days, Joan of Lorraine) and some earnest “problem” plays (Winterset, The Bad Seed, Key Largo).
Contrary to the expectations of many (I’m sure), their play about apartheid, interracial murder, and a preacher losing his faith, “Lost in the Stars” was a critical and popular success on Broadway.
The 1974 movie of the musical (between two non-musical adaptations of Cry, the Beloved Country does not strike me as stage-bound. People burst into song (which is never naturalistic except in movies about staging musicals), but a lot of the musical takes place out of doors. The print of Robert B. Hauser’s cinematography transferred to DVD is not the best, but it is clear that it had bright colors to go with a sad story.
The story is that of a Zulu minister, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo (the anguished and formidable Brock Peters), who travels to Johannesburg, looking for his son Absalom (a very handsome musical theater performer Clifton Davis). I’m not very interested in providing plot summaries, especially of very well-known works such as Cry, the Beloved Country so let me interrupt myself by noting that anyone familiar with the Bible and naming a son Absalom is inviting grief.
Absalom left the rural Zulu area to find work in the diamond mines, notorious as places in which parental/traditional supervision was missing. Absalom got in more than the usual drinking and fornicating kind and, his father learns in Johannesburg, was in prison. Absalom is out on parole, shacked up with looking for his son Absalom (Clifton Davis). Like many of his people, his son has gone to seek work in the mining town, but when Stephen arrives in the city he finds out from his brother that Absalom has been in trouble, has just been released from prison and is shacked up (literally in a shack) with Irina (Melba Moore) whom he has impregnated. She has an unimaginatively staged (medium shot) but fervently performed rendition of the play’s main hit song, “Trouble Man.” The acting is ludicrous, but the song manages to survive.
With a cousin and another thug, Absalom takes part in a robbery—of the liberal son of a hard-bitten white farmer back home. The man is supposed to be out, but is not and is shot pretty much on reflex by Absalom. Absalom’s father catches up with him in prison, certain that no son of his could have killed a white man. Absalom tells his father that he had not meant to, but did in fact pull the trigger. Absalom is determined to tell the truth, while his accomplices plead “not guilty.” Stephen Kumalo’s brother John (a glowering but underused Raymond St. Jacques) tells Stephen that admitting guilt is a guarantee of the gallows, but Stephen is not prepared to urge his son to lie. (And Absalom is determined to lie no more.)
Stephen goes into a church and with great anguish delivers the other most memorable song from the play (“Lost in the Stars”). In the trial, dishonesty is rewarded and honesty leads to the death penalty (as everyone knew it would). The Rev. Kumalo performs a prison-cell wedding and takes Irina and her young son home, after a dramatic but underplayed scene with the dead man’s father and dominating force in the homeland, James Jarvis (Paul Rogers). There are a number of choral commentaries, but the major dialogue is spoken rather than sung. There are also some unimaginatively filmed dance numbers. Neither the music nor the dance bears much relation to South African music or dance. Despite being an independent production, the music and dance are very Broadway (the production numbers in the MGM musicals of the late-1940s and early-1950s were not so staticly filmed).
There is more drama involving the Rev. Kumalo’s crisis of faith and no happy ending (“Victorious messengers do not come riding often,” Brecht warned after the reprieve in “Threepenny Opera” (in Marc Blitzstein’s translation).)
(Lotte Lenya with Kurt Weill, ca. 1942)
Other than hearing Weill’s music in its original dramatic setting (the Brechtian choruses as well as the two enduring songs already mentioned) (or to fantasize about Clifton Davis), the major reason to view this DVD is the powerhouse performance of Brock Peters—he was the defendant memorably and unsuccessfully defended by Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and extraordinary as the neighbor of Leslie Caron in “The L-shaped Room,” Rodriguez in “The Pawnbroker,” the detective in “Soylent Green” and who has had few good roles since “Lost in the Stars,” which he had played in the Broadway revival the year before the movie was made. (Trekkies may fire at will.) Like Lou Gossett, Jr., Brock kept busy, but rarely was given the chance to show what he could do.
I wish that Melba Moore had brought more fire to the role—or, perhaps that the role of Irina had some of the fury of the Pirate Jenny and less of making calf eyes. (Moore and Davis apparently had a 1972 tv series).
The DVD mostly advertises other American Film Theater productions (e.e., Brecht’s “Galileo“. I saw it in a theater, so did not have access to the essay that is in the DVD package.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray