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.
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.
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.
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!