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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 Smile.Amazon.com instead of Amazon.com 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.