Lotte Lenya achieved pop culture status in 1963 when she played the role of Rosa Klebb and tried to kill Sean Connery with her poison tipped shoes in the second James Bond film, “From Russia With Love.” No one was thinking of her as a singer at the time and many had perhaps forgotten that she was the wife of famed German composer Kurt Weill. Yet it was Lotte Lenya’s voice, colorfully described as “one octave below laryngitis” that could evoke pre-war Berlin like no other.
Here is an offering of the ten best songs of Lotte Lenya:
1. The Ballad of Mack the Knife (Moritat) – Kurt Weill’s most famous work was “The Three Penny Opera” which he wrote in 1928 with his close collaborator, the poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht. The hit single, so to speak, from that work is “Mack the Knife.” Say what you want about Bobby Darin’s finger popping version of this tune (and it is good), Lotte Lenya gives it the necessary menace and relentless danger.
2. Bilbao Song – This song became much more famous than the Weill-Brecht musical that gave birth to it, titled “Happy End.” It is a charming, melancholy remembrance of Bill’s Dancehall in Bilbao where you could get noise and pleasure, or “Krach und Wonne” in German. The singer chides, “I’m not sure whether you care for that sort of thing.”
3. Lost in the Stars – One of Kurt Weill’s underrated shows was titled “Lost in the Stars” which was a musical based upon Alan Paton’s award winning novel about South Africa, “Cry, The Beloved Country.” Maxwell Anderson wrote the lyrics. This title song is a political allegory with massive scope and the power of a prayer. It was written with a booming baritone in mind, but it is surprising what effect Lenya’s brittle, frail delivery brings to the message of faith.
4. Speak Low – This could be Kurt Weill’s most beautiful tune. It is from a show titled “One Touch of Venus” which featured a text by Ogden Nash. Lenya is in command of the sentiment. “Time is so old and love so brief. Love is pure gold and time a thief.”
5. Alabama Song – “Oh show us the way to the next whisky bar. Oh, don’t ask why. Oh, don’t ask why. For we must find the next whiskey bar. For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar, I tell you we must die.” Debauchery is joyful in Lenya’s hands.
6. Surabaya Johnny – This is another number from Weill-Brecht’s “Happy End.” It is about deception and unrequited love, giving Lenya ample opportunity to emote with a compelling combination of singing and talking.
7. Seerauber Jenny (Pirate Jenny) – You don’t have to understand German to catch the drift of the underlying threat that saturates this ballad from “The Three Penny Opera.” Lenya injects a dose of Rosa Klebb into this one.
8. The Song of No and Yes (Barbara Song) – Lenya dramatizes this tale of a proud but fallen woman in such a manner that it feels like a fractured bedtime story.
9. September Song – Singers as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante and Brian Ferry have recorded this wonderful ballad of devotion from the popular show “Knickerbocker Holiday” written by Weill and Maxwell Anderson. But Lenya’s quavering, vulnerable vocal gives this song a special quality.
10. The Saga of Jenny – Broadway style fun from a show titled “Lady in the Dark” with text by Ira Gershwin. Lenya’s off-key delivery seems appropriate. “Jenny made her mind up at seventy-five, she would live to be the oldest woman alive. But gin and rum and destiny play funny tricks, and poor Jenny kicked the bucket at seventy-six!”