Maxwell Anderson is far better known as a playwright than a composer, but his collaborations with German-born composer Kurt Weill added several classic standards to the popular song lexicon. Anderson was born in Atlantic, PA, on December 15, 1888. His father worked as a traveling minister, and thus his schooling was split between several different states. He graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1911, and completed his master's degree at Stanford three years later. He taught there briefly, then worked as a journalist and editorial writer for several newspapers and magazines. His first play, White Desert, was a contemporary verse tragedy that opened in 1923 to little response. Retooling his approach to establish himself, he scored a hit by co-writing the WWI comedy What Price Glory in 1924, and returned to drama for another success, 1927's Saturday's Children; later, he also returned to verse dramas with the first of many historical plays, 1930's Elizabeth the Queen and 1933's Mary of Scotland. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 1933's Both Your Houses, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the highly successful and acclaimed contemporary tragedy Winterset, which was based on the Sacco & Vanzetti trial. He repeated the latter feat in 1936 with High Tor. In 1938, Anderson teamed up with the recently emigrated composer Kurt Weill, who'd fled to New York in the face of Nazi persecution, and sought out the city's top playwrights in search of collaborators. Their first effort was Knickerbocker Holiday, a historical musical set in the time when New York was still the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Anderson wrote the book and lyrics, and although the play was a decent-sized success, its "September Song" proved to have a life far beyond its source. Thanks in part to a recording by Frank Sinatra, "September Song" became a pop standard, covered by countless singers and jazz instrumentalists alike. Years later, Judy Garland adopted another tune from the show, "It Never Was You," as a regular part of her repertoire. In 1939, Anderson and Weill began work on another musical, to be titled Ulysses Africanus; however, they never found a black actor suited to the lead role, and the show was never completed. Anderson and Weill remained on good terms, but it took them quite some time to find another project to work on together; Weill originally wanted Anderson to write lyrics for the play that became Street Scene, but Anderson, unconvinced of his talent as a lyricist, let the job go to poet Langston Hughes. In the meantime, Weill completed several successful Broadway musicals, while Anderson wrote plays like Key Largo (1939), The Eve of St. Mark (1942), and Joan of Lorraine (1946), among others. Additionally, Knickerbocker Holiday was made into a film in 1944. Anderson and Weill finally came together again in 1949 for Lost in the Stars, a musical based on Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country, which examined racial tensions in South Africa. They adapted some of the songs that had been written for the unfinished Ulysses Africanus project, and the show opened in late 1949 to generally positive reviews. The title song took its place as another classic pop standard, again recorded by Sinatra and many others. Following Lost in the Stars, Weill and Anderson began work on a musical version of Huckleberry Finn, but sadly, it was never finished; Weill died of a heart attack in April 1950, effectively ending Anderson's side career as a song lyricist. He remained a prolific playwright during the '50s, with highlights including 1951's Barefoot in Athens and 1954's Bad Seed. He died in Stamford, CT, on February 28, 1956, and was buried in Meadville, PA, near his birthplace.
Share this page