The Broadway musical Johnny Johnson, which opened on November 17, 1936, was an antiwar satire with a libretto and lyrics by Paul Green and music by composer Kurt Weill, a recent émigré from Nazi Germany. It was a flop, running only 68 performances, and even if it had been successful, the age of the original Broadway cast album had not yet begun; the show's music went unrecorded, and it was forgotten. In 1954, however, Weill's 1928 German show The Threepenny Opera was successfully mounted off-Broadway in a new translation by Marc Blitzstein, resulting in a cast recording, including Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, released by MGM Records. Conductor Samuel Matlowsky seems to have looked around on behalf of MGM for something to follow it and hit upon Johnny Johnson. A studio cast was assembled including film star Burgess Meredith (who actually had appeared in the 1933 Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera), resulting in this, the first recording of the score, 20 years after its stage premiere.
Weill's career usually is divided into his German and American periods, which evince different musical styles. What is interesting about Johnny Johnson, his first Broadway musical after his arrival in America, is that it is the missing link between the two styles, demonstrating the transition from Weill's German music (think "Mack the Knife") and his American work (say, "September Song"). Several songs here -- in particular "Capt. Valentine's Tango," "Cowboy Song, the Rio Grande," "Mon Ami, My Friend" (theatrically sung by Lenya), and "The Psychiatry Song" -- sound like they could fit into one of Weill's German shows, while other songs already are taking on the sound of Broadway show tunes. Johnny Johnson is a strange show, and a strange show for Weill to have undertaken, since its seemingly trendy pacifistic theme would seem to have been at odds with his own recent experience of the Nazi oppression that would lead to World War II. Given its music and its message, it comes off as something of a cross between the then-recent Gershwin shows Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake and Weill's shows written with Bertolt Brecht, particularly The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The plot, which follows a peace-loving stonecutter from before the start of World War I to after its end, is episodic and outlandish, allowing plenty of space for individual characters to express themselves in song, whether it's Johnson's sweetheart (Evelyn Lear) singing "O, Heart of Love" or the Statue of Liberty (Jean Sanders) presenting "Song of the Goddess." Weill fans, of which there were plenty of new ones in the mid-'50s, had reason to be delighted by the recording, even if it clearly was not one of the best shows overall with which he was associated.