Review of The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz
Martin Hennessy, “Review of The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz,” The New Music Connoisseur, Vol. 15, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2007-08.
The Center for Contemporary Opera presented the first complete U.S. Performance of The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz as part of the popular Wall to Wall series at Symphony Space on Saturday, May 19. This year’s series was entitled Wall to Wall Opera 1607-2007 and represented pieces from a variety of companies including New York City Opera, American Opera Projects and Encompass Opera Theatre.
With a libretto by Valeria Vasilevski and music by Eric Salzman the 45 minute music theatre piece proved a stand out among the evening’s contemporary selections with its compelling re-imagination of the legendary “last words” of the infamous gangster, Dutch Schultz, denounced by J. Edgar Hoover as Public Enemy Number One.
In October of 1935 after he was gunned down in the urinal of the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey, Arthur Flegenheimer, alias Dutch Schultz, survived for two days at Newark’s City Hospital. Although he was fatally wounded in the abdomen and suffered internal bleeding that caused an infection and high fever as well as administered large doses of morphine, the authorities insisted that his dying words be recorded by a police stenographer in order to ascertain the identities of his assailants in addition to any information about the mob’s operations.
Apart from some rare intervals of lucidity, in which he refused to disclose who shot him, these “last words” comprise a suite of feverish, disconnected references to childhood, old songs and rhymes and read much like a stream of consciousness monologue. The stenographer’s transcript and its surreal poetic landscape subsequently inspired various books and stories, none more notable or admired than the tightly wrought William S. Burroughs novel The Last Word of Dutch Schultz, subtitled A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script.
Although in its title the Salzman/Vasilevski treatment proudly asserts its uniqueness from the Burroughs’ fiction as The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz, its seven scenes offer a musical version of the gangster’s fevered ramblings every bit as evocative and disturbing as the Burroughs’ literary achievement.
Like the Burroughs there is a strict economy and restraint maintained throughout which assures the story’s gruesome trajectory. A deconstructed lament for scordatura violin begins the Prologue or Requiem for a Gangster and returns as an idée fixe throughout the piece, a descending diminished fifth describing the slippery moral slope of the anti-hero and his tenuous hold on life. It wilts and mourns its way, accompanied by the sound of a dripping toilet, until momentarily blossoming into a jazzy swinging gigue that anticipates one more emergence from delirium, abruptly interrupted by the detective’s shouted question: “Who shot you?”
Thus begins Scene II/Interrogation and we are off on a psychological rollercoaster that alternates between lucidity and feverish ranting all to the amplified sound of the gangster’s panting breath and heartbeat, intertwined with Salzman’s shadowy jazz constructions. Scored for the aptly miserable instrumentation of scordatura violin, tuba, keyboards, percussion and Foley table and ably conducted by Victoria Bond, Salzman’s music sports an appropriately Weillesque veneer, skillfully manipulated to reflect the gangster’s delirium with obsessive repetitions, sudden stops and sharp outbreaks from the male quartet (which ventrioloquize Dutch’s mob buddies) and lend a stark, expressionistic hue to the canvas. Imagine Weill meeting Berg!
But even Freudian darkness needs comic relief and in Scene III, as Dutch meets his mother, the mob buddies transform into a barbershop quartet, building their chords on an “m” to then climax in a bilabial explosion of “Mama.” The hilarity of this moment is trumped by the counter tenor in the quartet, Marshall Coid, who dons a scarf and becomes the mother: “When you were young, you ate like a little sausage maker. You never told me, why do they call you Dutch?” These clever and effective extrapolations contributed by librettist Vasilevski are imbued with bosomy and honeyed tones by Mr. Coid and his maternal alto, while throughout the evening this artist proves a radiant presence. Yet a dying gangster’s tortured psyche is unpredictable at best, and the breezy comedy of the quartet soon darkens into a complex background for DutchÕs continued obbligato of ramblings.
Scene IV/The Racket marked Fast and Furious in the score is an evocation of the numbers racket that made Dutch rich after his bootlegging business went bust when Prohibition was abolished. Comparable to the Burroughs’ screenplay and its dizzying series of camera shots that make the reader feel as if s/he were smelling and breathing New York’s underbelly in the 20’s and 30’s, this scene employs an assortment of sound effects such as brakes squealing, machine gun fire, glass shattering and toilets flushing that coupled with a driving locomotion in the music amount to a similarly visceral effect. The propulsive score rants in four and then withholds in half note chords, as the male quartet intones seemingly random numbers in a mantra-like monotony. The chaotic fury then unleashes again, this time overlaid with detective interrogations in funky waltz rhythms. Most disconcerting and wonderful of all is the vertiginous culmination in a complex stretto in 3/4, pitting the quartet in unison against Dutch in a hocket-like polyphony, while the libretto becomes absolutely Dadaistic with lines such as “So get your onions up” and “Thank you, Sam, you’re a boiled man.”
Kudos to Robin Payne as the Girlfriend who lent her amber tones to the fragmented cabaret styling “When he is happy he don’t get snappy.”
However the real coup de theatre is Scene VI, entitled The Nightmare which is essentially a mad scene for baritone and ice scraper—think Lucia and glass harmonica!
The gangster experiences a delirious premonition of his ultimate fate in this thrilling morgue sequence. There is no written score, rather the singer improvises cadenzas out of sibilance and guttural utterances. Dirk Weiler, in the demanding role of Dutch Schultz, was able to transform the criminal’s sharp intelligence and penchant for cruelty into the instincts of a feral animal trapped in a world in which it is now at the mercy of forces greater than itself. His improvisation was a tour de force that reduced life to the simple act of breathing. It is brilliantly conceived theater that reveals breath as the vehicle of sound, word and ultimately ego which Dutch had in abundance. As the scene climaxes he begins to mouth words and once again his bravado rages into a soaring high note after which he swoons and topples to the floor.
Guided by Grete Holby’s assured staging, one rarely lost the sense of being in the fevered mind of the dying criminal. Striking in its effect was the use of a hospital gurney as a sort of rapid entry vehicle for the anti-hero as well as an ever revolving energy that helped connect the scenes and evoke an unsettled sense of time and space.
In the original Netherlands production the audience heard a tape of William Burroughs reciting the stenographer’s transcript while taking their seats. Although this production omitted that homage to Burroughs, it shows the debt of gratitude Vasilevski and Salzman must feel for the edgy gifts of the Beat Generation writer and indeed they are able to engineer a similar grim vitality for which his novel/film script is treasured. However, The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz, ultimately, stands on its own as a unique and compelling musical dramatization of the notorious gangster’s final hours.
Martin Hennessy is a composer, pianist and vocal coach in New York City. His music has been presented by the New York City Opera Vox Series, the Guggenheim Works and Process Series, American Opera Projects, and the New York Festival of Song. Visit him at www.martinhennessy.net.