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."
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Sounds like New Line.
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!