That Old-Fashioned Love Tickle

In my last blog post, I shared with you a bunch of revealing, fascinating quotes about The Threepenny Opera from a terrific book, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, by Pamela Katz, about Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's artistic partnership and their ever evolving philosophy and agenda.

The other cool book I'm in the middle of right now is The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal by Aaron Skirboll. It's a really fun read, about Jonathan Wild, real-life model for Jonathan Peachum in Threepenny; Capt. Jack Sheppard, real-life model for Capt. Macheath; Prime Minister Jonathan Walpole, who apparently is satirized through both characters; and some other real people who may be the models for Tiger Brown and Mrs. Peachum.

It's fascinating to see how these real people became characters in The Beggar's Opera, then characters in Threepenny, and also to see what elements of character and story come from real life.

Two quotes from the book really struck me, in terms of understanding the world and culture of Threepenny. Skirboll writes, “Whatever the people of London thought of crime, they all shared an unquenchable longing for news in general, and specifically for stories about the lives of criminals.” That sort of makes The Beggar's Opera and Threepenny thematic companion pieces to Chicago and Natural Born Killers. Skirboll also writes, “Men and women went to jail for being poor and came out criminals.”

Exactly what's happening right now with nonviolent drug offenders.

Skirboll describes Wild/Peachum and Shepard/Macheath this way: “An eighteenth-century Al Capone, Jonathan Wild was the first man to organize crime for profit and the first criminal whose name everyone in the city knew. A burglar and a prison breaker, Jack Sheppard had much in common with John Dillinger. In late 1724, a manhunt for him grabbed the city's attention like no other story and drove newspaper sales skyward. Sheppard the housebreaker ran, and thief-taker Wild chased him.”

A thief-taker in the early 1700s, when The Beggar's Opera opened, was essentially what we now call a bounty hunter. Wild would track down criminals and bring them in for the reward money.

Skirboll writes, “In short time, Wild made himself useful to many different bands of thieves, and he did so ingeniously, without ever partaking in the thievery himself. He became a manager of sorts, and as he'd promised himself, he learned to make a profit with his head and not his hands. He used the information presented to him and advised and directed individual gang members into paths of profit. Various gangs depended on him to plan their schemes.”

It's amazing how close Peachum is to Wild, in so many details:
“With his crew on board, Wild began keeping track of all the illicit action going on in the city. In essence, he was sharpening a tactic he had learned while roaming the streets with [Charles] Hitchen [a possible model for Tiger Brown], who always made sure to query his mathematicians as to where they'd been so as to know the corners where each set of rogues normally worked. Wild took this technique further, religiously recording every detail in a logbook: name, inventory, location, etc. By observing Hitchen, Wild also learned about the art of patience when negotiating. He saw that Hitchen lacked that skill, and when the marshal couldn't agree to terms with a client, he looked to unload the goods some other way. Wild, on the other hand, stayed the course when looking to strike a deal. In fact, he often compelled the client to wait under the pretense that he was running himself ragged over the ordeal, thus driving up the price.”

So how did the real Peachum become who he became? He met Mary Milliner, who may be the model for Mrs. Peachum:
“In The Tyburn Chronicle, Mary Milliner is described as ‘a common streetwalker’ who had ‘run the whole circle of vice, knew all the ways of the town, and most of its felonious inhabitants.’ But Milliner was more than a whore. She knew how to earn money from an array of shady activities. Both well versed and well connected, she usually didn't stay locked up for long. She was too smart for that. Milliner was the wife of a Thames waterman, but the underworld knew her as a ‘buttock and file’ as well – a prostitute and a pickpocket. Skilled at her work, she often pursued both functions simultaneously, robbing some poor sot while she had sex with him.

“Before meeting Milliner, Wild had been stockpiling knowledge of the underworld. Now he realized how little he knew. She revealed a whole new world to the young debtor. Milliner's domain consisted predominantly of thieves and whores. She introduced her new beau around, and soon he was learning myriad new techniques for making money.

“Under Milliner's tutelage, Wild made numerous friends and associates. His aptitude concerning thievery had grown to the point where other inmates often called on him for advice, telling him the particulars of their plans. Wild's counsel often proved beneficial to the thieves, and like an ace handicapper, he became the man to see. One contemporary account referred to him in his new Compter role as ‘a kind of Oracle amongst the Thieves.’”. . .

. . . “Wild's pardon was announced in the London Gazette on November 4, 1712. Come December, he was a free man again. He and Milliner moved in together, shacking up in Lewkenor's Lane, Covent Garden. Both were already married, but the two lived together as a married couple, Milliner the second of six Mrs. Wilds. The new lovers opened a brothel, and Wild officially began his life as a career criminal.”

As you might expect if you know Threepenny, Wild and Milliner's marriage didn't last very long...
“By the end of 1714, Wild's relationship with Milliner had run its course. The pair split just before the New Year. Some accounts say little to nothing before moving on to Wild's next wife; other accounts speak of a violent parting, such as the 1768 The Tyburn Chronicle: Or, The Villainy Display'd in All Its Branches, which says of Milliner: "She had some time so provoked him to wrath, that he swore he would mark her for a bitch, and thereupon drawing his sword, he cut off one of her ears. This occasioned a divorce." The author then stated that Wild gave Milliner a weekly pension after their parting, "in a grateful consideration of the service she had done him, by bringing him into so large an acquaintance.”

In The Partnership, Pamela Katz writes, “Pointedly, the play does not judge the individually corrupt natures of Peachum, Tiger Brown, and Macheath; it instead provokes the audience to judge the structures of power. And once corruption is exposed, the audience can yearn for change. A central element of the dramatic experience, Brecht realized, was to reveal a world that was not only imperfect but also changeable. The ability to recognize the flaws of society offered the possibility for improvement. Only plays that delivered the harshest critique could inspire the spectator's hope for the future.” And this was one hell of a harsh critique. Katz writes, “The power of the play was in the impossibility of figuring out who is good and who is bad.” Just like real life.

Of course, our actors aren't playing Jonathan Wild and Mary Milliner; they're playing Jonathan and Celia Peachum, characters based on characters based on Wild and Milliner. And several centuries later. But I still think it's worthwhile and fun to consider these details. Our actors could just make up backstories for their characters, but when such rich, crazy backstories already exist in the real world, why not take advantage of them?

Even if we adopt these real-world events as our Threepenny backstory, we know the audience won't get much of that. That's not really the point of backstory. The point is that the richer and realer the actors can make the world of the story for themselves, the more they can fully and credibly live in that world, the more honest their performances will be, and the more powerfully they'll connect to the audience.

Like the great American acting teachers (Meisner, Hagen, et al.) taught, acting really boils down to one thing: fully understanding an imaginary world and living naturally within it. In other words, pretending.

The more we know about this particular imaginary world, the better we'll pretend for you.

We open this week!

Long Live the Musical!

Such a Wonderful Lot of Terrible Things

This is another of those shows where some of the actors don't totally understand it all quite yet, though I think more of them do every time we run now, and a few are totally tuned in. The rest will get there, but maybe not till all the pieces come together. Which is in just a few days, so it won't be much longer.

I've had this experience on quite a few of the more conceptually and/or stylistically complex shows we've done, like The Wild Party, Hair, Jacques Brel, Urinetown, Bat Boy, Passing Strange, Hedwig, Forbidden Planet, The Nervous Set, The Cradle Will Rock, I could go on... Over the years, I've learned that we all always get to the same destination – it's just that not everyone has the same journey.

Our actors were relieved today when I posted this quote about the original production of Threepenny in Berlin:
This new form of musical drama was difficult for the actors to understand. They were accustomed to sincerity and satire as separate entities – operetta was saccharine, Berlin cabaret was scathing – and the mixture of tones was confusing. Weigel and Lenya were the only ones in the cast who had experienced Brecht and Weill's technique of portraying and commenting simultaneously. [The actor playing Macheath] spent a lot of time in his dressing room, "alone and miserable... This is the first time in my life that I don't know what I am doing," he said to Weill's sympathetic friend. "They're all maniacs. I have no idea what the whole thing is about. All I know is that it's a disaster."

This is from a really terrific book called The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, by Pamela Katz, about Threepenny composer Kurt Weill and lyricist-bookwriter Bertolt Brecht, and the women who worked with them – Elizabeth Hauptmann, who worked with Brecht on the text for Threepenny and other projects; Brecht's wife and muse, the actor Helene Weigel, who would create the role of Mother Courage; and Weill's wife and muse, the singer and actor Lotte Lenya, who would create the role of Jenny, and then play it again in the long-running off Broadway production years later. It's a really wonderful book, particularly for me, right now.

Though Brecht and Weill first set out to do a new adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, they eventually saw that they were creating something genuinely new, that needed a new title. Here's how they decided on one, according to Katz:
On one particularly rough day, Brecht sat imperiously in the house and openly entertained suggestions for a new title from anyone who cared to contribute. "It was the writer Lion Feuchtwanger, among the distinguished kibitzers who wandered in and out of the stalls," [Lotte] Lenya remembered, "who suggested a new title for the work, Die Dreigroschenoper." Drei means "three," and Groschen was the word used for a ten-cent coin. The word Groschen, however, was used as "penny" in English. Feuchtwanger's title was a clear reference to an inexpensive type of book known as "penny novels" that were quite popular in the 1920s, and Brecht was quickly convinced that the title captured the play's essence. "Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine," Brecht wrote, "and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called The Threepenny Opera." The title had particular relevance in the summer of 1928. The government had recently passed a controversial measure – the Law to Protect Youth from Trashy and Filthy Writings – which attempted to ban penny novels and other forms of cheap literature. The idea of a Threepenny Opera poked fun at the conservative hatred for inexpensive mass-market books that purportedly encouraged the bad values of modern urban life.

Our valiant New Line actors have struggled with the style of Threepenny. I've had enough experience with Brechtian musicals and have read enough about Brecht and Threepenny, that it all makes sense to me. But it is a contradictory artistic tightrope Brecht and Weill ask us to walk. All I can do is put trust in the material, knowing that it has been a continual success all over the world for close to a century. But even for me, it was a relief to know that the original director struggled with it too...

Katz writes:
The traditional function of a song or aria is to allow a performer to impart the emotional sensibility of their character – their feelings of love, hate, revenge, and mercy. A song allows them to bare their soul. Brecht and Weill's songs were, conversely, the moment to stand back and analyze or satirize – often to provoke a contradictory impression. They portray a pimp who felt true love for a woman he has been beating and selling, an ingenue who is anything but innocent, a blushing bride who sings of a servant girl who dreams of murder. If the audience hadn't yet been pulled off the "single track" that Brecht disdained, the songs and the music would surely activate the switch. But [original director Erich] Engel wasn't sure it would be possible to engage an audience in this multilayered musical play – one that portrayed a literal story and an icy parody all at once – without some purely emotional moments. The actors had to reach the audience on that visceral level before they jumped back and exposed an equally strong satirical perspective. Engel was all for subverting the traditional suspension of disbelief, but did it have to be so relentless? Shouldn't they be sure that the rug was properly laid, and comfortable to walk on, before pulling it out from under the audience? Shouldn't the songs provide some of that comfort?

Finally, Engel had to ask the question of how far one could stray from psychological elements before a work becomes cold and alienating. This was a difficult judgment to make in this new form of entertainment, and it is not surprising that it caused profound conflicts. A director must be engaged with the inner psychological motivations of his actors, and Engel had to make sure an actor's performance dominated the song and not the other way around. This came into conflict with Brecht and Weill's strict ideas of Gestus, where the contrast between the lyrics and the music invoked analysis over emotion – where the psychological involvement of a single performer was replaced by multiple perspectives.

Now you can see why the actors can get confused by this crazy, wonderful piece of theatre. And the show is as unconventional and quirky musically as it is conceptually.
Weill also mixed conventional chords with the occasional "non-chord." In this song, and in the others that followed, the typical journey over the keys of a piano sometimes veered off the harmonic pathway in unexpected directions. The individual chords aren't abrasive in themselves – it is just that they often have an extra note or two that no traditional composer would have added, giving them a special tanginess that had never been heard before.

You'll notice that the scores of Cabaret, Company, and March of the Falsettos all use that musical signature throughout.

Katz continues:
Weill's music surprised the audience especially because it neither obeyed the rules of the austerely modern Schoenberg school nor was it always conventionally melodic. Weill had in fact discovered an entirely new country between tonal and atonal music. The music fused with the lyrics to signal the future, simultaneously waving a clear and conscious goodbye to the past. Whether they were tourists or scholars, reviewers or musicologists, it was obvious to everyone who heard Lenya sing the "Alabama Song" [from Mahagonny] that this style had entered the world to stay.

And lest we leave out Brecht's lyrics, Katz writes, “Brecht had done what no one had done before. He had caught the sound of everyday speech without sacrificing the power of great poetry.” I totally agree. I love his lyrics.

The musical theatre today is far more sophisticated and realistic in content than it was in the 1920s, but even today, Threepenny's content seems so dark and still so unconventional. In many ways it feels as fresh as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which uses many Brecht-Weill devices.

Katz writes:
Brecht and Weill had already shocked the elite music crowd by introducing prostitutes, drinkers, and gamblers into an opera [Mahagonny] at an esoteric festival. By offering sophisticated social satire in the context of a popular and entertaining musical, they were just as fiercely challenging the conventional expectations of the popular theater. This original mixture of high and low elements was fast becoming their signature. Since existing genres of musical drama no longer related to the modern world, boundaries and borders had to be blended, redrawn, and, quite often, simply erased.

The theatre critic Walter Benjamin was very insightful in comparing Threepenny to its much older source, The Beggar's Opera. writing, "Brecht grasped that 200 years had not been able to loosen the alliance that poverty had sealed with vice, but rather that this alliance is as enduring as a social order whose consequence is poverty... The counter-morality of the beggars and rogues is bound up with the official morality... Thus, [Threepenny] which on account of its picturesque setting appeared distant, became at a stroke something of considerable relevance.”

Katz writes:
Macheath is an immoral representative of an amoral world, and the ambiguous nature of morality itself forms the essential core of the play's thematic landscape. This was best expressed by one of Brecht's most staggering explosions of poetic genius: the line "First comes food, then comes morality" [in “What Keeps a Man Alive” in the Act II finale]. The most obvious interpretation of this phrase is that in a world where people are hungry, they are entitled to break the law, or any moral code, in order to eat. The only cure is social justice. And yet, as the play made clear, crime is not limited to the hungry or to the lower classes. If anything, corruption is more rampant, and certainly more hypocritical, among the wealthy. The poor steal to stave off poverty, the rich steal to remain rich. Pointedly, it is Macheath and Mrs. Peachum who sing the lyrics – two characters who are distinguished by their greed and bourgeois ambitions – proving that Brecht was not claiming that stealing is only a consequence of poverty.

According to The Partnership, “Ever since Brecht's father had criticized him for failing to contribute to society with his work, the angry son felt driven to prove that his writing was as valuable as a loaf of bread, or as useful as the paper upon which it was written. With the advent of New Objectivity, artists would no longer be seen as bohemian dreamers but instead as construction workers helping to build a better world. Art must deal with the problems of the age and have a direct, practical influence on contemporary life.”

Sounds like New Line.

This is all really illuminating and reassuring for me, and I hope for our actors too. I guess I had a sense of much of this, but it's really nice to read this stuff. And I'm only halfway through the book!

I'll end with a few very Brechty quotes from Brecht himself...
“Most people can’t build anything larger than a doghouse, and that’s mainly because they want to build it alone.”

“We mustn’t let anyone talk us into believing that art is a hoax. Life is a hoax.”

“Tales that can be understood are just badly told.” (in his play Baal)

"Nobody has yet described the big city as a jungle. Where are its heroes, its colonizers, its victims? The hostility of the big city, its malignant stony consistency, its Babylonian confusion of language... its poetry has not yet been created.”

Thanks to Brecht, it has been now.

We open in a week!

Long Live the Musical!

The Cradle Will Rock

I blogged recently about the books I'm reading while we work on Threepenny. But the other night, something else occurred to me that would be helpful...

In 1999, Tim Robbins released a movie called Cradle Will Rock, about the legendary 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock, a show at the center of one of the greatest theatre stories ever, the only musical ever shut down by the federal government. Cradle had music and text by Marc Blitzstein, and it was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman.

Interestingly, before he died, Orson Welles was trying to raise financing for a film about Cradle’s historic first performance. Here's the story:

After seeing Robbins' movie at the Tivoli back in 1999, I couldn't wait to work on this show. The movie had revised some of the pieces of the show we see, but they really get right the energy and wild joy of that famous night. It didn't take long for me to decide that New Line would do Cradle, like it happened on that historic opening night, with only Blitzstein on piano and the actors playing the whole show out in the audience, because their union had forbidden them to appear onstage.

We produced this piece of powerful meta-theatre in 2001, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks. And our audiences went crazy for it. Many of them even embraced their own role as 1937 audience members. (The program notes supplied their backstory for them.)

While we worked on Cradle, I read an excellent Blitzstein biography called Mark the Music, and discovered that Blitzstein wrote the most famous translation of The Threepenny Opera, the version that gave us the pop hit "Mack the Knife," the version that ran more than 2,700 performances off Broadway.

And now I'm finally directing Threepenny itself, in Blitzstein's excellent translation. So I decided to revisit Tim Robbins' movie, for some inspiration as we come down the home stretch. After all, Brecht appears in the movie, as a ghost in Blitzstein's head. And Robbins made a genuinely Brechtian movie, using lots of non-realistic devices to keep you at arm's length, while delivering an unmistakably political message at the center of his film, a message that seems remarkably relevant in 2015.

If you haven't seen the film, watch it. If you have, watch it again. It really is that good.

The film places the stage musical in a social and political context, but like the controversial musical Assassins, Robbins’ movie aims for thematic and psychological truth more than historical accuracy. In fact, the film begins with the words, “A (mostly) true story.” He plays fast and loose with a number of historical facts and brings together events that actually happened years apart, to reveal a larger context for Blitzstein’s remarkable musical. He uses the film conventions of the period to paint his pictures, the devices and styles of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, and the classic films of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and their contemporaries.

Robbins used the ghosts of Threepenny's author and lyricist, German director/playwright Bertolt Brecht, and also Blitzstein’s dead wife Eva, who appear to Blitzstein in the film, talk to him, makes suggestions and offer criticisms of his musical. Robbins is not suggesting that Blitzstein saw ghosts; but this is a strong dramatic device to show the influence of these two people on Blitzstein and his work. In real life, Eva read almost everything Blitzstein wrote. Though he was gay and their marriage was largely not physical, she was his muse and his most strident critic. Even though she had died by the time he wrote Cradle, her influence over him and his work no doubt continued.

Similarly, though Blitzstein had harshly criticized the work of Brecht and composer Kurt Weill early in his career, he later came to admire their work and even emulate it. in fact, The Cradle Will Rock owes a great debt to Brecht and Weill, especially in its eventual bare-bones presentational style. Blitzstein actually met Brecht in 1936 and played for him the prostitute’s song from Cradle, “Nickel Under the Foot,” before any plans were made for the musical into which the song was eventually put. Brecht was impressed with the song and told Blitzstein that he should write a piece about all kinds of prostitution, not just the literal kind – the prostitution of the press, the church, the courts, the arts, government, money.

In Robbins' hands, this becomes a scene between Blitzstein and Brecht's ghost:
Brecht: What is your play about?
Blitzstein: What are your plays about? What is Threepenny Opera about?
Brecht: What is your play about?
Blitzstein: It's about a prostitute. It's about poverty.
Brecht: Survival? That is not enough. What about the other prostitutes? You don't have to be poor to be a whore...

The idea would percolate in Blitzstein’s brain for months before Brecht’s suggestion would inspire the creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Soon after that, Blitzstein heard Brecht and Weill’s song “Pirate Jenny” from Threepenny and he loved it. When Blitzstein wrote Cradle, he dedicated it to Brecht, and Blitzstein later wrote the most famous and most commercially successful English translation of Threepenny (the version New Line is doing). So it makes good dramatic sense in Robbins’ film, to dramatize Brecht’s influence by having his ghost hanging over Blitzstein’s shoulder, making suggestions, challenging him, ridiculing the cheap, easy moment, and pushing Blitzstein to be the best he can be.

Robbins also ties his movie to the Cradle stage musical thematically. The musical is about prostitution in various professions, the prostitution of the clergy, the press, artists, doctors, merchants, educators, and others, all set against the one actual prostitute, Moll, who is drawn with more integrity than any of the “respectable” characters. Robbins riffs on this theme by zooming in and focusing even more specifically on the prostitution of various kinds of artists. In the film, the painter Diego Rivera prostitutes himself to Nelson Rockefeller, the ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw prostitutes himself by agreeing to tutor no-talent kids in exchange for a performing job, and the Italian Margherita Sarfatti prostitutes her national art treasures by selling masterpieces by Da Vinci and Michelangelo to rich Americans in order to finance Mussolini’s war machine.

One of Robbins’ most brilliant moves during filming of the movie was to save the shooting of the history-making, renegade Cradle performance until the end of the shooting schedule. Before starting, he explained to the audience of extras the background of the event, but did not tell them that the actors would be performing the show out in the house. Instead, he let the surprise of Olive Stanton rising to sing the first song register naturally on the audience. As the show proceeded, he just let the audience react naturally to each surprise and found that they laughed and cheered and applauded just as their 1937 counterparts did, sometimes in completely unexpected places. The incredible excitement of the evening built realistically and actor Hank Azaria (who played Blitzstein) said it was a night he will never forget.

The film works on so many levels all at once. For example, the opening shot of the film is one very long, uninterrupted shot that moves from inside a movie theatre, down a steep staircase, backwards through an alley out onto the street, up onto a crane that rises up to the second story window of Blitzstein's apartment, then in through the window, across the apartment to the piano, finally resting on a close-up of the sheet music Blitzstein is working on. But this isn't just a stunt or a joke, as it is at the beginning of another Tim Robbins’ movie The Player. There's a point being made here – the connection between the people on the street, the disenfranchised poor, and the social themes of Blitzstein's musical, between the popular entertainment of the movie theatre with Blitzstein's work; and also between the political events being shown in the movie theatre newsreel with the poverty of the everyday American on the street. Like Brecht and Weill, Blitzstein was writing a musical for the people, a musical of issues, a musical about the real world, and the opening shot of Robbins’ film shows us all those important connections in concrete terms.

Watching this beautiful, powerful film again, as we're thick in rehearsals for Threepenny, it becomes clearer to me than ever that Cradle – and Cabaret, Chicago, La Mancha, Bat Boy Urinetown, BBAJ, and so many other shows – all came from Threepenny. Brecht may have been German and a socialist, but he impacted the American musical theatre more than anyone else up to that point, with the exception of George M. Cohan.

The real miracle is how relevant both Threepenny and Cradle are in 2015. I don't know if that's testament to the shows' genius or to America's inability to fix the problems that persist decade after decade. Either way, both shows are in a very heightened style, but undeniably, aggressively realistic in their content. And we have much to learn from both shows...

We've moved into the theatre now, and we open in two weeks!

Long Live the Musical!

The Noble Poor Are Nobly Underfed

A few of our actors have come to me, feeling very stuck. They're concerned that none of the Three­penny characters have any redeeming qualities (which is pretty much true) and that many of the lines seem trivial and unimportant (the operative word there is seem). They just don't see a way in...

And beyond that, I think they don't understand how such an angry, aggressive, even condescending show can engage and entertain an audience. I understand where their concern comes from. But there are lots of ways to engage an audience. People don't want only diversion. And despite what many people parrot, audiences do not want escape. More than anything, they want the truth. And they seek connection and understanding, through that truth.

Escape is disconnection. That's not what audiences want and it's not what Threepenny's director, bookwriter, and lyricist Bertolt Brecht wanted. And it's not what New Line does. We require something of our audience, and that makes much cooler theatre.

Everyone doesn't yet understand how Threepenny works, but they will. With most shows – and in particular, most musicals – the idea is to get the audience on the hero's side, to get them to empathize with the protagonist(s), so that they are emotionally invested in getting to the resolution of the central conflict. But Brecht very intentionally and aggressively stepped away from that basic premise of storytelling.

He didn't just step away from it. He wrestled it to the ground, took a shit on it, ran over it with his car, doused it in gasoline, and set it on fire.

No, we're putting on a horror show.

In Brecht's theatre, the idea is to get the audience to recognize a great social truth or problem, and to understand its effects on our/their lives. Threepenny's central argument is that it's not possible to be a moral or decent person, and also survive, in modern capitalism. And let's be honest, for many people in America today, that is true or at least nearly true. Half (or more) of the songs in the show are about that idea, directly or indirectly. It's a very different animal from its source, The Beggar's Opera, which is far more modest in its satire.

In other words, like its descendants, Bat Boy, Chicago, Cabaret, and Urinetown, Threepenny's agenda is to present a sociological (comedy) horror show, in order to convince the audience that our economic and political systems must change. The show presents the "monsters" these systems have created, for your moral horror. It's a Frankenstein story but we are the mad scientist. Instead of zombies robbed of their humanity, these monsters are just regular people, just like you and me, robbed of their humanity. And it's the banality of their lives that makes the horror so potent, and the satire so funny. They're not transformed into monsters by a supervillain or a radioactive spider, but by us, by the society that we are all part of.

We are to blame, Brecht is saying. And oddly enough, in 2015 it seems even Republican Presidential candidates agree.

What makes the show most unsettling is that morality is not just subverted here; it is absent. It is an unaffordable luxury. Jenny can't afford not to turn Mack in. The Peachums can't afford not to get rid of the competition. The police can't afford not to take bribes. The gang can't afford not to steal. At least in the world of Brecht's Threepenny.

Brecht and composer Kurt Weill are not asking you to approve; they are asking you to understand. They're not offering up an excuse; just an explanation.

Brecht has created a reverse morality tale, a stark, cautionary tale like Reefer Madness was supposed to be. But Brecht is serious in his comedy, and he's arguably right. It's not a crazy idea that a broken society creates broken people – in fact, that's the central theme of our last two shows, Bonnie & Clyde and Jerry Springer the Opera.

Interestingly, our two shows before those, Rent and Hands on a Hardbody, made the opposite argument, that even in a broken society, we can rise above it and find our way. Though I'm not sure you could find Angel's idealism anywhere in Threepenny's London. It all reminds me of one of my favorite monologues in My Fair Lady:
Higgins: You mean to say you'd sell your daughter for fifty pounds?

Pickering: Have you no morals man?

Alfred P. Doolittle: No, no, I can't afford 'em, gov'ner. Neither could you if you was as poor as me. Not that I mean any 'arm, mind you, but if Eliza's getting a bit out of this, why not me too? Eh? Why not? Well, look at it my way – what am I? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor, that's what I am. Now think what that means to a man. It means that he's up against middle-class morality for all of time. If there's anything going, and I puts in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "you're undeserving, so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widows that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same 'usband. I don't need less than a deserving man, I need more! I don't eat less 'earty than 'e does, and I drink, oh, a lot more. I'm playin' straight with you. I ain't pretendin' to be deserving. No, I'm undeserving. And I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it and that's the truth. But, will you take advantage of a man's nature to do 'im out of the price of 'is own daughter what he's brought up, fed and clothed by the sweat of 'is brow till she's growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Well, is five pounds unreasonable? I'll put it to you, and I'll leave it to you.

It's a terrifying, funny, and brilliant economic argument. Put aside the comedy of Doolittle's happily "undeserving" life, and you see Threepenny's argument, that poverty makes morality impossible. I find it so fascinating that Threepenny's first visit to Broadway was such a flop, in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression, when you'd think audiences would have seen the ugly truths in Brecht's politics.

Brecht wrote this about Mr. J.J. Peachum:
The Threepenny Opera takes us into the milieu of London's criminal districts, Soho and Whitechapel, which are still, as they were two hundred years ago, the refuge of the poorest and not always most transparent strata of London's population. Mr. Jonathan Peachum has a novel way of capitalizing on human misery by artificially fitting out healthy human beings as cripples and sending them out to beg, thereby making a profit from the sympathy of the prosperous classes. He does not do this because he is in any way innately bad. "My position in the world is one of self-defense" – that is his principle which continually forces him to act with the utmost decisiveness.

When Brecht first read The Beggar's Opera (the source for Threepenny), he was struck by "the danger of a society that values money over equality and justice." He saw that happening in 1920s Germany, and it's easy to see now in 2015 America as well.

After yet another unarmed black man was killed last month, this time in Baltimore, I posted this to my Facebook page:
I know how to solve many (most?) of the problems in Baltimore, and other US cities, and if voters would give Democrats power for a while, it wouldn't be that hard to do these things.

1. Automatic voter registration, and online and mail-in voting, to really give power to the people.
2. End the War on Drugs, and release all nonviolent drug offenders in the country. And offer treatment to those who need it.
3. Create a new Works Progress Administration, and put Americans back to work fixing our crumbling infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, etc.
4. Invest in our schools the way we did when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, and forgive student loan debt.
5. Create a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, that is above the poverty line (essentially a better Social Security).
6. Tax the mega-rich the way we did in the 50s and 60s – 90% or higher – and remove the cap so that rich folks pay social security tax on their entire income.
7. Body cameras on all police officers, and require police officers to live in the communities where they work.

The reason I repost this here is that it hit me the other night at rehearsal: Do these things in Threepenny's England, and people could afford to have morality. Give them political power, put fewer of them in jail, give them jobs, give them meaningful education, give them a police force that truly serves, and then crime will no longer be the only career option, and the opportunities for corruption will shrink.

And of course that brings me back to Ferguson, Baltimore, Brooklyn, the list goes on...

Brecht died in the 1950s but he's still talking to us. He's telling us that there is a price to pay for amoral, unfettered capitalism, for wild income inequality, and for an apathetic electorate. Brecht and Bernie Sanders. He's telling us that if we don't want our world to look like Threepenny, we have to act, we have to take power, we have to use our Democracy as it was intended, to work the will of all the people, not just the will of Tiger Brown, the Peachums, and their 2015 counterparts... who themselves could never begin to live on our minimum wage...

Here's how Mack puts it in "Ballad of the Easy Life" in Act II:
A question please: Is this what you call living?
Then take a little tip from Mack the Knife.
While still a child, I heard it with misgiving:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.

They tell you that the best in life is mental;
Just starve yourself, and do a lot of reading,
Up in some garret, where the rats are breeding.
Should you survive, it's purely accidental.

If that's your pleasure, go on, live that way –
But since I've had it up to here, I'm through.
There's not a dog from here to Timbuctoo
Would care to live that life a single day.
So listen closely to Mack the Knife:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.

Now once I used to think it might be worthy
To be a brave and sacrificing person.
I soon found out it wasn't reimbursin';
Decided to continue being earthy.

The noble poor are nobly underfed,
And being brave will bring an empty fame;
You're all alone with no one else to blame.
You're mingling with the great, but you are dead.
Where's the percentage? Ask Mack the Knife:
The bulging pocket makes the easy life.

Of course, Mack's solution to the problem is not to solve income inequality for all, just for him. He is, Brecht's arguing, the inevitable result of the kind of selfish, amoral economics that have guided the West for much of our history, a problem we've created but one we aren't willing to solve – a point driven home forcefully and comically in the show's ridiculous ending.

Which is why the revivals of Threepenny keep coming. When Mack sings, "So listen closely to Mack the Knife," he means it. And we'd better hear him.

The adventure, onstage and in real life, continues.

Long Live the Musical!

The Cement's Just for the Weight, Dear

One of the challenges of Threepenny is that the music is so quirky, it really is hard for the actors to learn, unless they're already familiar with it. They have to get that utterly unique Kurt Weill sound into their heads. I know that, over time, they'll settle into the songs, and they'll stop sounding so odd to them (that's already starting to happen). But that quirky music is a huge part of what makes Threepenny so beloved and so powerful.

Composer Kurt Weill wrote:
Nearly all worthwhile operatic experiments in recent years [leading up to the late 1920s] have been basically destructive in character. With The Threepenny Opera, reconstruction became possible, since it allowed us to start again from scratch. What we were aiming to create was the prototype of music theatre. With every musical work for the stage the question arises: how is music, particularly song, at all possible in the theatre? Here the question was resolved in the most primitive way possible. I had a realistic plot, so I had to set the music against it, since I do not consider music capable of realistic effects. Hence the action was either interrupted, in order to introduce music, or it was deliberately driven to a point where there was no alternative but to sing.

The piece, furthermore, presented us with the opportunity to make 'opera' the subject matter for an evening in the theatre. At the very beginning of the piece the audience is told: 'Tonight you are going to see an opera for beggars. Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine, and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called The Threepenny Opera.' Thus the Act III finale is in no way a parody. Rather, the idea of opera was directly exploited as a means of resolving a conflict and thus shaping the action. Consequently it had to be presented in its purest, most pristine form.

This return to a primitive form of opera entailed a far-reaching simplification of musical language. The task was to write music that could be sung by actors, that is, by musical amateurs. At first this appeared to be a limitation. As work progressed, however, it proved to be an enormous enrichment. Only the realization of a coherent, identifiable melodic line made possible The Threepenny Opera's real achievement: the creation of a new type of musical theatre.

I love reading things like this from the writers of shows we work on. The more I can learn about what the writers intended, the better a job I'll do directing those shows and communicating the essence of each show to our actors.

Threepenny's prologue, "Mack the Knife," is all at once a pop song, a strong opening number for a stage musical, and a creepy, gothic horror story. Its music feels jaunty and innocently poppy, but also vaguely sinister. The lyric is both flippant and deeply disturbing ("The cement's just for the weight, dear."). Like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," it should make the audience's blood run cold. We're used to hearing it as a hipster pop song, pretty much ignoring the implications of the lyric. But look at that lyric:
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.

We're all so used to this lyric, thanks to Bobby Darin, Sinatra, and other singers. But think about it for a second. The very first image of the song (and the show) is how beautiful a killer shark's teeth are. Then we get to the second line, and we think, hold on, sharks don't "show" their teeth! Right. We're not really talking about sharks. We're talking about a shark-like man, a deadly predator. We're telling the audience up front, before we even start the story, that their hero for the evening is a monster – but a monster that's hard to see...
When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear,
So there's not a trace of red.

So Mack is both murderous and classy. Nice. Now it gets specific and concrete.
On the sidewalk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life.
Someone's sneaking 'round the corner.
Is the someone Mack the Knife?

From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag's dropping down.
The cement's just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie's back in town.

Sloppy Sadie was discovered
With a knife wound in her thigh.
And Macheath strolls down on dock street,
Looking dreamy at the sky.

The perverse fun of this song is that almost every verse introduces us to another victim. Mack has left bodies all over London! And to add to the horror, it's clear he'll never get caught...
There was rape down by the harbor.
Little Susie caused a stir,
Claiming that she'd been assaulted.
Wonder what got into her?

This is the most disturbing verse for me. First, this is the first time the song has actually mentioned rape, and the victim is "Little Susie." Sure, maybe that's a whore's nickname, but you can't help but picture a little girl. And then it gets worse – she's only "claiming" that she's been assaulted, implying that it may not be true, even though the lyric stipulates that she has indeed been raped. She "caused a stir" by reporting the crime committed against her. And the verse ends with the dismissal, the trivialization of her rape – "Wonder what got into her?" That last line stings so much because it both makes light of her attack with a dirty joke, and also implies that she wouldn't be believed if she pressed charges.

In these more aware times, as our culture grapples with the problem of rape, it's probably harder to hear that verse now than at any time in the past. Especially with the upbeat music that accompanies it.

The script includes several alternate verses you can use. We're using one that mentions several of our characters:
Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown –
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear,
Now that Mackie's back in town.

That third line, "The line forms on the right, dear," tells us a lot about Mack. He's dangerous, wholly without human feelings. He's a genuine sociopath, the ultimate "bad boy," and women line up to be his lover. That's so fucked up. And the show explores that fucked-up situation through the character of Jenny, and her tortured love-hate relationship with Mack.

There's one other alternate verse that's really striking, though we won't be using it because the song would just get too long.
Big explosion at the market.
Twenty people blown to death.
In the crowd stands wide-eyed Mackie,
Only slightly out of breath.

That sounds so freakishly contemporary, as if it could be describing the Boston Marathon bombing.

The whole point of this song is that Mack's backstory, before any of the action of Threepenny Opera even begins, is that he's essentially Jack the Ripper. That's just a given, and the fact that he's a rapist and murderer hangs over the entire show, particularly anytime he's with women. The whole perverse joke of the show, the satire in its conception, is that a rapist and murderer is the hero of a romantic musical comedy.

Only Brecht. Although, now that I think about it, The Robber Bridegroom is an obvious companion piece to Threepenny, since both shows have sociopaths for heroes and rape at their centers.

Often, when I start a new show, I rewatch Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, an old PBS series with Bill Moyers that is one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. Six episodes that tell you everything you'll ever need to know about storytelling, religion, human culture, psychology, et al. Listening to Campbell talk about the Hero Myth, its details, its conventions, reveals to me just how deliciously fucked up The Threepenny Opera is.

You can't tell from these characters' behavior who's the protagonist and who's the antagonist, between Mack and Peachum. But you can distinguish those roles through the conventions of musical comedy, by the kind of songs they sing. After all, this isn't really an opera; it's a musical comedy, filtered through the amazing but weirdly distorted lens of Brecht and Weill.

It's a romantic musical comedy that doesn't want you emotionally involved. It's obvious Mack is never sincere, even when he's singing a love song with Polly. Everything that makes a romantic musical comedy is here but massively subverted. This is a musical comedy that refuses to end with our hero and heroine together. Brecht and Weill were searching for new ways to tell a story with music, at just about the same time that Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern were also seeking new ways to move beyond old-school musical comedy. Like Threepenny Opera, Show Boat was a musical comedy (in its form) that forced its audience to confront intensely serious social issues.

The Threepenny Opera's central theme is that people can't be heroic, can't even be humane, inside the inhumane, broken economic system of capitalism. As I type these words, Baltimore is suffering through terrible destruction at the hands of rioters, after yet another unarmed black man was killed by police. Today, thirty-five years of Republican economic policies have systematically destroyed labor unions, and as a direct result, destroyed the American middle class; and the largely Republican (and totally ineffectual) War on Drugs has put massive numbers of men of color into prison, destroying their families and communities in the process. Our world today is not far removed from the world of Threepenny.

Capitalism is not a system of morality, only a system of capital: money and labor. When morality (not to be confused with religion) is taken or kept out of our economic system (as it has been since 1980), we get Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Koch Brothers; and we get today's minimum wage of $2.13 for restaurant servers. People tend to forget that the War on Drugs was never a well thought-out policy designed to solve a problem; it began as little more than a Nixon campaign slogan, designed to terrify racist, middle-class white voters. But it created a permanent economic underclass, trapped by failed communities and oppressed by police, communities where the only viable option for many young men is crime and the drug trade. Are they that different from Filch in the show, starving on his own, till he joins up with Peachum's criminal enterprises?

The great philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell once said of Darth Vader, "He isn't living in terms of humanity; he's living in terms of a system." And that's the crux of Threepenny, the unbalance at the heart of the story. Morality is impossible in such dire economic circumstances, Brecht is telling us. Perhaps Threepenny is a closer companion piece to Brecht's Mother Courage than we thought.

But there's even more here...

In an aggressive act of literary and cultural subversion, Brecht made Macheath, the thief, rapist, and serial polygamist, into a Christ figure. Stephen Hinton writes in "Misunderstanding The Threepenny Opera," an essay in the Cambridge Opera Handbooks: The Threepenny Opera:
The most striking irreverences in the Threepenny text concern the Bible. Sacred means are used to profane ends. 'Wake up, you corrupt Christian,' sings Mr Peachum in his opening 'Morning Hymn'. The alert listener will indeed stumble across a whole host of biblical quotations and allusions. For example: Polly's lyric, 'Anywhere you go, I will go with you' in the 'Love Song' is lifted verbatim from Ruth 1:16 ('Whither thou goest' etc.). It is first of all quoted by Mr. and Mrs. Peachum with a blasphemous 'Jonny' tacked on the end in their 'Instead Of Song,' and twice parodied by Polly when she becomes 'poetic' before the first finale, quoting the exchanges between Macheath and Brown: 'If you down another [cocktail], then I want to down another one, too' and, with lavatorial euphemism, 'If you go somewhere, then I want to go somewhere, too.'

Peachum's 'And when he asks for bread to eat, not get a stone.' in the first finale is a paraphrase of Matthew 7:9 ('Being given bread to eat and not a stone'). Macheath's fate may even be seen to parallel in its broad contours the fate of Jesus Christ. The marriage to Polly, the beginning of the story, takes place in a stable. Presents are brought, not by kings but by gangsters. Mack, like Christ, is betrayed on a Thursday and is to be executed on a Friday. Mrs. Peachum bribes Jenny, just as the Caiaphas paid Judas. Brown, like Peter, disowns his friend. In Scene 6, Mack borrows from Luke 22:61-62: 'I looked at him and he wept bitterly', adding 'I learnt the trick from the Bible.' Jesus begs forgiveness for the sins of others; Macheath for his own. Jesus is raised from the dead; Macheath reprieved by the King's Messenger. When asked by the magazine Die Dame in October 1928 about 'the strongest influence' on his work, Brecht replied: 'You'll laugh: the Bible.' He was probably being serious. Not necessarily identified as such by the audience, the biblical quotations and innuendoes nonetheless strike a familiar chord as common cliches.

The bottom line is this. Threepenny is certainly an old show, first premiering in Berlin in 1928, but it is as timely and as relevant as last night's news. This is a show that tells the truth, about then, about now, about humanity at any and all times. This is a show that pushes all our buttons to shock us into paying attention. This really is a neo musical comedy, even though it was written nearly a century ago.

This is the oldest show New Line has ever done, and it's also one of the most slyly potent. After all these years of reading about Threepenny, it is such an honor and a joy to finally work on it. I can't wait to share it with our audiences, especially those who've never seen it before...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

They Tell You That the Best in Life is Mental

God bless Amazon. I remember the first show I did after discovering Amazon was Assassins, and I found the most amazing book – American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics by James W. Clarke, in which each character in the show gets their own mini-biography and psychoanalysis. It completely changed the way I approached the show. I had already directed the show once, pre-Amazon, and in retrospect, there was so much I didn't understand about these characters.

Now every time I start work on a new show, I stop by Amazon, and see what books or videos they have that might help me. There's always so much. When we did Bonnie & Clyde last fall, I bought a bunch of movies we know Bonnie and Clyde had seen, movies and actors we know they imitated in certain ways, so we could really get inside their distorted worldview. While working on Jerry Springer, I was reading books about daytime talk shows, Dante's Inferno, Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and a book about schadenfreude.

This time, as we launched our adventure into Threepenny, I found some really wonderful books to read, and a few very cool videos I've been watching.

I discovered early in my research that Brecht, in an effort to set in stone his characters and themes, wrote The Threepenny Novel, retelling his story with way more detail and context. I'm in middle of reading it now, and I really love it. First of all, it's a seriously valuable peek inside the brain of our bookwriter and lyricist; that's always awesome. Also, it gives me so much extra information about these characters, this world and its politics, and more than anything, an understanding that these actually aren't outrageous characters; they are realistic characters in outrageous times. Very much a comic analogue to Brecht's Mother Courage. (Which blew my mind.)

I learned from the novel that beyond what we know from the musical, Macheath also has several legitimate (or semi-legitimate) business interests, which often don't do very well. Combine that information with Mack's hyper-violent past (laid out in "Mack the Knife"), and that's one weird, fucked up character, a businessman-thief-rapist-murderer. The extra backstory and character insights I get from the novel are such a gift. Nothing is more interesting than complexity, and Mack as he existed in Brecht's imagination, was endlessly complex. No, we can't communicate all of that through the musical, but a lot of that information will make our show and our characters richer.

Probably the most valuable book I found was the Cambridge Opera Handbook: The Threepenny Opera by Stephen Hinton, a collection of essays, reports, analyses, reviews, all about Threepenny and its various productions and translations. I'm so glad I read this before I started work. I really understand the show differently from how I saw it before. Maybe more than with any other show I've worked on, Threepenny's historical and political context are inseparable from its artistic creation and intentions.

The other book I'm devouring right now is The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, by Pamela Katz. Metaphorical chocolate cake for the musical theatre nerd. It's a really entertaining journey through Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's entire relationship, both personal and artistic, along with the women who profoundly influenced them. There's Elizabeth Hauptmann, who worked with Brecht on the text for Threepenny and other projects. And then there's Brecht's wife and muse, the actor Helene Weigel, who would create the role of Mother Courage; and Weill's wife and muse, the singer and actor Lotte Lenya, who would create the role of Polly Peachum, and then decades later become famous in America playing Jenny Diver. The relationships among these incredibly talented, incredibly smart, and somewhat fucked up artists are all so fascinating, and they really give me insight into why Brecht and Weill created Threepenny and what they wanted it to accomplish.

What I would give to go back in time and talk with Brecht. Although, they say he always had really bad body odor. So there's that.

Even though it probably doesn't help me in any specific way, I also wanted to learn what I could about The Beggar's Opera, which Brecht and Weill adapted into Threepenny. I started with Modern Critical Interpretations: John Gay's The Beggar's Opera by Harold Bloom. Part of the fun with this book was that all my life I've read about The Beggar's Opera, and I know it was an ancestor of sorts of our musical theatre today. But I never was that interested in exploring it. So seeing the film and reading this book really surprised me. The show does feel very 1700s in certain ways, but it's also very funny, very satiric, and quite naughty. I'm really glad I know it better now.

Connected to that, I'm also reading The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal by Aaron Skirboll. It's a really fun read, about Jonathan Wild, real-life model for Mr. Jonathan Peachum; Capt. Jack Sheppard, real-life model for Capt. Macheath; and Prime Minister Jonathan Walpole, who apparently is satirized through both characters. It's fun to see how these real people became characters in The Beggar's Opera, then characters in Threepenny.

In addition to these books, there are also some cool videos I've watched in preparation for working on this show.

As I mentioned above, I recently watched the 1950s film version of The Beggar's Opera, with Laurence Olivier as Macheath and directed by Peter Brook, based on their stage production. There are slow parts, but much of it is very funny. And it's such a revealing glimpse into our artistic past. Quite a bit of the Threepenny plot is already in place in The Beggar's Opera, but Brecht also made some major changes, not the least of which was the creation of corrupt Chief of Police Tiger Brown.

The documentary Shadows in Paradise - Hitler's Exiles in Hollywood is about the German artists who had to flee Germany as the Nazis came to power, including Brecht, Lenya, Weill, and Weigel. Understanding the cultural and artistic environment they were working in before they left Germany (when they created Threepenny) explains so much of what Threepenny is saying, as well as its tone, and its angry, fearless satire.

I had seen the documentary Theater of War before, but one of our actors had mentioned it at rehearsal, so I thought it would be worth a rewatch. It follows actors Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Austin Pendleton, director George C. Wolfe, and translator/adapter Tony Kushner, through rehearsals and performances of Brecht's Mother Courage at The Public Theater in New York. It's an extraordinary master class in what Brecht wanted from theatre, and how to do Brecht so that it is both honest and Brechtian.

After all these years of doing Brechtian shows – Cabaret, Company, Hair, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Assassins, Floyd Collins, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Man of La Mancha, Passing Strange, Bukowsical, and so many others – it's very cool, at long last, actually to be working on Threepenny itself, the show that pretty much singlehandedly changed the trajectory of the American musical theatre in the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Not all that different from how I felt about working on Rent two years ago. This has already been so much fun for me, and we're only halfway through blocking.

I love research. Funny how I never felt that way until after I was out of college...

The (very dark) adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you go to instead of to shop, the site will ask you to name a charity, and then for most things you buy, the charity (like New Line, for example, hint, hint) gets a small cut.


Sometimes we start work on a show and I feel like we're stepping into some vast, rushing river of theatrical history. When we produced Marc Blitzstein's 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock, we recreated that historic opening night, when the federal government tried to shut them down, the unions forbade the actors from appearing onstage, and so the cast performed the entire show out in the audience. Sometimes I feel this deep obligation to history, to get it right, to keep passing the torch. I felt the same way when we produced The Nervous Set, Hair, Rocky Horror, Jacques Brel, and even Rent.

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.

Brecht began to co-write with Elizabeth Hauptmann a new, contemporary, sociopolitical, satirically savage updating of the show called The Three-Penny Opera, with a dark, groundbreaking, jazz score by Kurt Weill (pronounced Wile by Weill himself, but usually pronounced Vile by others). Cultural historian Stanley Crouch has said that artists who want to express adult emotions, who want to move beyond adolescent emotions, use jazz. Musical theatre historian Cecil Smith later wrote, "It proves that a small musical show can be both engrossing and magnificently entertaining without sacrificing high imagination, acute intelligence, superbly unified and thoroughly artistic production, and an underlying sense of purpose."

(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.

A German film version was made, 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’OpĂ©ra 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.

The new Threepenny, directed by Carmen Capalbo, opened at the Theatre de Lys off Broadway in March 1954, using New York’s first thrust stage. Fifties Commie Hunter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, called Threepenny "a piece of anti-capitalist propaganda which exalts anarchical gangsterism and prostitutes over democratic law and order." Then the show was kicked out of the theatre after twelve weeks because of a prior booking. The public clamored for its return and so, a few months later, it came back to off Broadway in September 1955, and it ran 2,706 performances and six years, becoming the first off Broadway mega-hit, and causing a sea change in the philosophy of serious musical theatre in America.

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."

Threepenny would return to New York in 1976, starring Raul Julia, in a much grittier translation – free of 1950s censorship – for another 306 performances. Since that production, directors tend to cast "sexy" Macheaths, but that wasn't what was intended. As Brecht himself wrote about his anti-hero, "He impresses women less as a handsome man than as a well-heeled one. There are English drawings of The Beggar's Opera which show a short, stocky man of about forty with a head like a radish, a bit bald but not lacking dignity."

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!