But no show we've ever produced has a history to compare with The Threepenny Opera (originally titled Scum, it also later had the subtitle, The Pimps' Opera), with music by the great composer Kurt Weill, and book and lyrics by the genius writer and director Bertolt Brecht.
It all started way back in 1728, when Englishman John Gay wrote the ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, a satirical comedy about corruption in London society, featuring many of the characters who would later appear in Threepenny. According to Richard Traubner's Operetta: A Theatrical History, the original idea for the opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope in 1716, asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Newgate (pronounced nu-git) was London's central prison.
Their friend John Gay decided that it should be a satire rather than a pastoral opera, and based his central characters on real people – the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard became Jonathan Peachum and Capt. Macheath. In fact, it seems Peachum is really a mix of Wild and the pompous, long-serving prime minister Robert Walpole.
The story satirized politics, poverty and injustice, and everyday corruption at all levels of society. But The Beggar's Opera is really more romantic comedy, laced with social commentary; while its descendant The Threepenny Opera is social commentary, laced with romantic comedy. (Laurence Olivier made a pretty decent film version of The Beggar's Opera in the 1950s, which is now on commercial video.) Gay later wrote a sequel for Polly, set in the West Indies. The Beggar's Opera continued to be revived for the next 200+ years.
In 1920, yet another revival of The Beggar's Opera opened in London, and ran an impressive 1,463 performances, becoming a certified hit; then it played Austria, where it caught the attention of Bertolt Brecht.
(An interesting side note: Elisabeth Hauptmann was originally listed as co-author of The Threepenny Opera, having purportedly written the majority of the text, and also having translated the English text of The Beggar's Opera into German for Brecht and Weill to work on. But she gets virtually no credit today.)
Stephen Hinton writes in Misunderstanding The Threepenny Opera, "Weill conceived Die Dreigroschenoper as a work of experiment and reform. To use his term, it is a Zwischengattung, an 'in-between genre,' systematically between existing genres, historically a stepping-stone in a development toward a new type of musical theatre. . . It is not so much opera as opera about opera." In other words, it's a meta-musical, like many of the shows it later inspired. Hinton writes about, "Weill's implicit flouting of the traditions of nineteenth-century opera and music-drama. This is not full-scale, grand opera, but a cheap 'threepenny' version. The old grand operatic form is suppressed by [art song], cabaret song, and ballad."
Exactly what Bat Boy and Urinetown did.
Certainly, Three-Penny was a lot more adult than much of what had come before it. The show opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in August 1928. It was such a hit, additional companies were opened in Vienna, Budapest, Frankfurt, and Hamburg.
Bertolt Brecht was already forging a new kind of theatre in the early part of the twentieth century. He didn't like the way most plays involved their audiences emotionally but not intellectually. Audiences laughed and cried but never thought about what was happening in the story. He wanted to create a theatre of ideas, a theatre of issues, and in order to encourage an audience’s intellectual involvement, he began to develop ways to continually remind the audience that they were in a theatre, to keep them from being too swept away by the story, to keep them from getting "lost" in the fictional reality that most other theatre writers strove to create and maintain.
Brecht would have actors step out of scenes to talk directly to the audience, and he would use songs that commented on what had just happened or was about to happen (again addressing the audience directly), rather than using only songs that sprang organically from the action. Today, this idea is not so revolutionary but when Brecht began to make theatre this way, it was bizarre. Today, concept musicals like Company, Follies, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago, Evita, Assassins, Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, The Wild Party, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, and perhaps most of all, Sweeney Todd, are all extremely Brechtian in their construction and style.
When the mid-50s revival of Threepenny opened in London, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, "A Brechtian, let me explain, is one who believes that low drama with high principles is better than high principles with no audience, that the worst plays are those which depend wholly on suspense and the illusion of reality; and that the drama of the future will be a wedding in which neither partner marries beneath itself."
Dark, aggressive, and unrelenting in its social commentary, The Three-Penny Opera was a political satire for a new age and for a Germany on the brink of fascism and Nazism. The show also found success touring Europe, playing an estimated 10,000 performances over five years.
One of Germany's premier theatre critics, Herbert Jhering wrote in the Berliner Borsen-Courier:
The success of the Dreigroschenoper cannot be rated too highly. It represents the breakthrough into the public sphere of a type of theatre that is not oriented towards chic society. Not because beggars and burglars appear in it, without a thriller emerging, nor because a threatening underworld is in evidence which disregards all social ties. It is because the tone has been found that neither opposes nor negates morality, which does not attack norms but transcends them and which, apart from the travesty of the operatic model at the end, is neither parodic nor serious. Rather, it proclaims a different world in which the barriers between tragedy and humour have been erased. It is the triumph of open form.
Sounds a lot like Jerry Springer the Opera. The critic of Der Tag wrote:
Most important is what the thing as a whole attempts: to create from the dissolution of traditional theatrical categories something new that is all things at once: irony and symbol, grotesque and protest, opera and popular melody; an attempt which gives subversion the last word and which, leaving its theatrical claims aside, could represent an important phase in the otherwise directionless discussion about the form of the revue.
A decade later, Weill's music publisher would write to him, "In certain private circles during the Nazi period, the songs of Die Dreigroschenoper were a kind of anthem and served as spiritual rejuvenation for many an oppressed soul." The show's opening song, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife") was based on a song form called "moritaten," literally, murder-deed song. It soon became the most popular song in Europe.
Die 3groschenoper, by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring original cast member Lotte Lenya (the original Polly, the wife of the composer and, not incidentally, a former prostitute) as the whore Jenny. The film was an interesting preservation of the piece but not a great film, disjointed, too stagey for film and too filmic to be just a recording of the stage play, it ended up wandering somewhere in the middle. Still, some considered it a masterpiece and the German government thought it might be good anti-capitalist propaganda.
The film version's editor, Jean Oser, said in an interview, “Three-Penny Opera was a very hot property at the time: it had come out as a big theatrical hit; in fact in was almost phenomenal how much it influenced a complete generation. It formed the entire pre-Hitler generation until 1933; for about five years every girl in the country wanted to marry a man like Mackie. Apparently, the ideal man was a pimp.” The French made a film version, L’Opéra de Quat’Sous, filmed at the same time as the German film and on the same sets.
In 1933, Weill and Lenya were tipped off that they were on a list of Jewish intellectuals about to be arrested by the Gestapo. They escaped to Paris, and then to the U.S. Meanwhile, Hitler decided that Three-Penny was an attack on wholesome German family values and it was banned. In Hitler’s Museum of Degenerate Art (no kidding!), one room played songs from Three-Penny on an endless loop so that wholesome Germans could be outraged by them. But so many people came to listen to the great songs that the exhibit was hastily closed down.
The stage version of Threepenny (the hyphen now gone) was mounted in a total of 130 international productions already by 1933, when the show came to New York in a reproduction staging by Francesco von Mendelssohn. But New York was not yet ready for Brecht and it ran only twelve performances on Broadway. Critic Robert Garland wrote in The New York World Telegram, "A rebel of an operetta, it walks boldly and bitterly through the autumn in which we all reside, kicking up the leaves and applying lighted matches where lighted matches are sure to do the greatest harm. The trouble is that it does not laugh as it is doing so ... You'll know what I mean when I say that The 3-Penny Opera is as humorless as Hitler." Wow. No wonder it ran 12 performances!
It did better in Paris in 1937, in London in 1940, and in Milan in 1956. Desmond Vesey’s English translation of the show was preformed in America in 1945 and 1948, and later in a dual translation with Eric Bentley.
In 1934, fearing that his show would be misunderstood, Brecht wrote The Threepenny Novel, in which he expanded on his central themes, and gave us way more backstory of all the main characters. It's a fun read. Brecht also continued to tinker with his show, making its satire, sharper, nastier, more truthful.
After Kurt Weill’s death in 1950, fellow composer and lyricist Marc Blitzstein (who had written book, music, and lyrics for the very Brechtian The Cradle Will Rock, which he had dedicated to Brecht) decided to write a new translation of The Threepenny Opera. He had already worked on a few isolated songs from the score. With some strong nudging, Lotte Lenya agreed to allow a new production of Blitzstein’s translation. But they wanted her to recreate her original role of Polly Peachum, and at age fifty-five, she didn't think she could pull it off. Eventually she agreed to play Jenny again, and she became the cast’s stylistic advisor, teaching them Weill’s special style of speak-singing (sprechstimme), talking about the original production, about Weill and Brecht’s original intentions, and more.
Lotte Lenya won the 1956 Tony for her performance in Threepenny, even though the show ran off Broadway. The show itself was also given a Special Tony for "Distinguished Off Broadway Production."
Before his death, Brecht read Blitzstein's translation and called it "magnificent." Weill's widow Lotte Lenya mentioned in a letter to a colleague, "the admiration I have for [Blitzstein's] work and my feeling that no other exiting version gives a hint of Brecht's poetry and power." Hans Heinsheimer, head of the opera division at Universal Edition music publishers, said, "Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation was so true to Bert Brecht's German original that we are hearing essentially the same piece that had taken Germany by storm twenty-four years earlier."
Kim H. Kowalke writes in the Threepenny edition of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, "All in all, the final version of Blitzstein's adaptation followed Brecht's script more literally than it did Weill's score. Although he had softened the tone of the original language in a number of places, made a few judicious cuts in the dialogue (the first preview still lasted nearly four hours), reordered some passages, and reinstated Gay's opening to the brothel scene, Blitzstein's script undermines the sense and shape of the 1928 libretto less obviously than does Brecht's own literary version published in 1931 – the 'authorized' text, now often mistaken as the historically 'authentic' one."
Blitzstein's translation also gave the world one of its greatest pop hits, "Mack the Knife." Unfortunately, stage censorship at the time prevented Blitzstein from being entirely faithful to the Brecht. Blitzstein’s version was also produced in London in 1956, and around the world since then, becoming the preferred translation. By the time it closed off Broadway, it had run longer than the longest-running Broadway musical at the time, Oklahoma! The Threepenny cast album had sold 500,000 copies, and "Mack the Knife" had forty different pop recordings, that had collectively sold over ten million copies.
In 1962 a lifeless, English-language film version was made called The Three Penny Opera (each version seems to have its own spacing and punctuation). In desperation, the producers tacked on a new, cheaply made opening to the film, in which Sammy Davis Jr. sang "Mack the Knife," and then they sold the film as "starring" Davis.
Back in Germany, Brecht's Berliner Ensemble finally added Threepenny to its repertoire in 1960, four years after its playwright's death. Director Erich Engel wrote about why he revived the show, "Today, as before, it is useful, by way of consciousness raising, to utilize such a satire in order to submit to the viewer's critique the adulteration of life under capitalism."
An excellent 1989 film version, Mack the Knife, starring Raul Julia, rock singer Roger Daltry, Richard Harris, and Julie Waters didn't do well either, but in many ways, this version was closer to Brecht’s philosophy and theories on theatre, and his famous distancing effect. There have been other high-profile revivals, one with Sting, one with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper, but they weren't particularly successful.
Threepenny is like Show Boat, in that there isn't just one authentic or "correct" version. Brecht himself rewrote the show over time, changing its tone and the prominence of its politics after its first production. There are four translations available for production, from various sources, and they differ quite a bit.
Once New Line announced last season that we were producing Threepenny, the show's fans all wanted to know which translation we'd be using – and they all have their favorite. So why do the Blitzstein translation? Because though some may think it's not as faithful to Brecht's German lyrics as other versions (though Brecht and Lenya disagreed), I think Blitzstein's translation works the best as theatre and as storytelling. I think his lyrics are the most singable. Some of the other translations are dirtier, more adult, and in certain ways perhaps more faithful to the original, but the other translations all sound like translations to me. Blitzstein's doesn't.
Plus, I think audiences want to hear the famous lyrics they all (partially) know to "Mack the Knife." One translation of the show moves this song to the opening of Act II, which I hate.
I've seen Threepenny onstage three times, all amateur, and I've loved it every time. Though in talking to people who've seen other productions over the years, apparently a lot of directors don't seem to know this is a comedy. I'm not sure how that's possible, but I've heard of many productions that just weren't at all funny.
Believe me, with the cast we've assembled, there's no way that will happen to New Line.
Still, there is this weight of history on my shoulders. I know there is a vast, unknown army of Threepenny fans. I know a lot of people love this show deeply. But really, all we have to do is the same thing we do with every show – just follow the text and go where the writers take us. People often ask me about a given show, "So what's your concept for it?" My concept is the clearest storytelling we can muster. That's all.
This is going to be such a fun rehearsal process, and we're going to have such a blast sharing this with our audiences.
Another great adventure begins...!
Long Live the Musical!