The audience for our one preview performance was very quiet. We weren't sure if they were baffled or bored or horrified. But then on opening night, you would have thought we were performing Spelling Bee or Cry-Baby. Big laughs, all night long, from an amazingly responsive and big audience.
At first, the lack of those big laughs freaked out the actors because they thought something had gone "wrong" from Friday to Saturday night. But all the rest of the performances have been like that third one. Apparently, opening night was a comedy false-positive. I think the response we've gotten from later audiences is probably the "normal" response to this show. I had been thinking about it as this outrageous comedy, but I don't think it really is (for normal people, anyway).
I think really it's more like Sweeney Todd (duh! I've been calling Sweeney "Brechtian" my entire adult life), a very dark tale that has dark humor to (barely) leaven it. It's grim and morally bankrupt, and carries the extra weight of being truthful still today (though hopefully exaggerated), and everybody knows it. They find the Peachums really funny and really horrifying. Same with the vaudeville-comical but murderous gang, etc.
If you think about it in those terms, the audience's response has been perfect.
So many people – a couple dozen maybe? – have used the word "wonderful" to me after performances. Several have sincerely thanked me for letting them experience Threepenny. They love the overall experience of it, even if they're not laughing as much as opening night.
Of course, some people have really struggled with the show, for various reasons.
Considering the thousands of different productions of this show throughout the last century, in many styles, in many languages, it's funny to me that some reviewers become Instant Brecht Experts (just add water) when they review Threepenny, telling us what we did "right" and "wrong," where we were sufficiently "Brechtian" and where we fell short. A couple of them scolded us because our actors actually play the characters, rather than standing outside them, commenting on them as Brecht's theories would dictate.
I think these folks misunderstand something basic about making theatre. There's no fun or challenge in imitating other productions. Anybody can do that. And there's never only one way to do a show. It's rare that a New Line production resembles a show's original production. In most cases, we completely discard the original production, and start from scratch. I'll always remember, in the early 1990s, reading an interview with director Jerry Zaks, talking about the revival of Guys and Dolls, and how he approached it not as a classic, but as a new, untested piece. And the quality and artistry of that production is a testament to that approach.
In the case of Threepenny, I had no interest in reproducing Erich Engel's original Berlin production. What spoke to audiences in 1928 Berlin is different from what speaks to audiences in 2015 St. Louis. Our cultural markers are different, storytelling conventions are different, the role of women in society is different, conversations about rape are different... even though some economic and moral issues may be the same.
Brecht knew that. In 1941, he made plans for an "all-Negro" Threepenny set in Washington DC during a Presidential inauguration, though the production never happened.
So we New Liners created a Threepenny that is a blend of Brecht's theoretical ideas, what we can know about Engel's original production and the original 1954 production of this translation, the New Line house style, and the neo musical comedy style that has evolved from Threepenny over the last century. This is not the production Brecht would have staged. This is a New Line production of Brecht and Weill's material, for our audience in 2015. We're not Brecht's employees; we're his collaborators.
And besides all that, I don't know that these reviewers understand that what Brecht wrote about theatre was often pretty different from what Brecht actually did in the theatre. Throughout his career, Brecht worried because people enjoyed Threepenny too much, they got engaged more than he thought they should, they cared about the characters too much, etc. And all that is true because Brecht was a great writer, and he couldn't help but write engaging, emotional, truthful human drama. Just like Mother Courage and his other plays.
"The Threepenny Opera is the oldest show New Line Theatre has ever staged. It might also be the hottest, the sharpest and the best." – Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"New Line Theatre's near-perfect production of The Threepenny Opera." – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times
"Fresh, vital and deliciously subversive" – Mark Bretz, Ladue News
"Sinister and sizzling . . .New Line Theatre gives us this stage noir classic with all its wickedness intact. It's a pitch-black masterpiece that sucks you in with its nightmarish charms." – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld
"This 1928 show, one of the highlights of the German Weimar period, seems to have snapped out of hopelessness and morphed into the first rebellious musical of the 'post-Ferguson' era." – Richard Green, TalkinBroadway
Though we usually get rave reviews across the board, this show split the reviewers, and their reactions were fascinating. One reviewer was sure we got most of it wrong. One reviewer wrote that "it felt as if the music had been altered to be easier but flatter." It felt that way...? No, the music was not altered. We don't rewrite music to make it easier. Another complained that we weren't using accents, and she declared confidently that the show's humor all depends on cockney accents. I pointed out to her that this translation of the show was written by an American writer for American actors in an American production that did not use British accents.
Why would someone just make up something like that...?
One of the reviewers decided that Threepenny's "happy ending" is a cop-out. On the contrary, Mack's pardon from the Queen is perhaps the most morally disturbing moment in the show. When the rapist-murderer-bigamist-thief gets a pardon, cash, and prizes, that's no happy ending. Which makes the "Mack the Knife" reprise at the end so much darker and more ironic:
Happy ending, nice and tidy,
It's a rule I learned in school.
Get your money every Friday,
Happy endings are the rule.
If you think about it even for a second, you recognize that this ending is not happy, it's not nice, and it's definitely not tidy. It's a dark parody of a happy ending. The murderer-rapist will be back on the street, richer and safer than ever. The second line of the stanza may be the most ironic in the show. Brecht has subverted every rule he ever learned, every convention. It's only a happy ending for Mack, who once again has escaped real justice and will be getting his pension payment "every Friday."
But these four lines are also saying something else. They're also saying your happy ending isn't the same as our happy ending. From the point of view of the world of Threepenny, a happy ending means you don't starve or freeze out in the cold. It means food and shelter, which requires money. It doesn't mean love and romance. Think of the last two lines this way: "[As long as you] get your money every Friday, [then] happy endings are the rule." Nice and tidy.
It's like Brecht is saying, You want a happy ending? Okay, I'll give you a really fucked-up happy ending that will offend every moral teaching you know. Money buys happiness. After all, this is Brecht's moral horror story. He wants to horrify us into making our world a better place. The end of the story is a happy ending for Mack, but it's horror for the rest of us.
Not exactly a cop-out, is it?
A couple reviewers thought Mack should be more "charming" and "charismatic," and another thought he was too charming and he needed to be more passionate. In other words, they wanted Mack to be a more conventional musical theatre hero.
But that is a fundamental misreading of the character and the show. This story is about the banality and the ubiquity of evil. If it's obvious why women would be attracted to Mack, or even more to the point, if we are attracted to him, that lets the female characters off the hook. The whole point is that all these people want to be in Mack's orbit, despite the fact that he's a complete, unrepentant asshole, with no redeeming qualities at all. Maybe these reviewers (all women, BTW) don't want to believe that women fall for assholes. But they do. That's part of the story's intentional ugliness, and if you short-circuit that by making the women's motivations more rational, by making Mack "attractive," you also short-circuit the story.
Pamela Katz writes in her wonderful book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink:
Even less compatible with American theater was Brecht’s refusal to invoke the Aristotelian concept of empathy with the main character and the attendant comfort of catharsis. In Aristotelian theater, the hero’s ability or inability to overcome his weaknesses determines his fate. In Brecht’s epic theater, man is not defined by his psychological or spiritual condition but instead is elevated or defeated by his society. In order to change the fate of men, men must change the society that determines their fate. The epic theater provokes action, Brecht contended, while Aristotelian theater encouraged passivity. Attendant upon this redefinition of the building blocks of drama is a transformation of the dramatic experience. Rather than suspending the audience’s disbelief, Brecht made sure that as they became aware of the social structure, they simultaneously became aware of the apparatus of the theater itself They had to be able to judge the events onstage with the full recognition that these events are being consciously performed for them. They had to judge the presentation and the presenter simultaneously.
The silliest of the reviewers praised the acting, the songs, and other things, but he declared at great length the show itself no longer worthy. He ended his review with "You'll find much to enjoy in New Line's Threepenny Opera, but if you're looking for shattering, revolutionary theatre, this isn't it." What the fuck is he talking about? Who said it was? I doubt seriously that anyone bought a ticket to our show because they were in search of "shattering, revolutionary theatre." We certainly didn't promote it that way. We're producing a 1928 musical in a 1954 translation. We weren't expecting any shattering.
So much of this guy's review was all about how the show's not what it was a hundred years ago. Well, no, Einstein, it's not. It's something different now, for different audiences in different times. The miracle is how much it still entertains and speaks to audiences. But he was too wrapped up in his narrow, weirdly eager condemnation to see that. Pretentious hack.
I think most people are buying tickets because they're hearing that it's a great, funny, dark, wild ride, and a great stage classic that most people have never seen before. Musical theatre fans are coming because they know this is the ancestor of Sweeney Todd, Cabaret, Chicago, Urinetown, Bat Boy, and so many other great shows we all love.
Despite what the pretentious hack thinks, part of why this show has gotten so many great reviews and is selling so well, is that it still (or maybe once again) speaks to the choking economics of our times and the corrupting power of money in our government, both of which are already becoming major themes in the 2016 Presidential election. More than at any other time in recent memory, Threepenny speaks to post-2008 America.
This is one of our best selling shows and there's a reason for that. It's really entertaining – though admittedly in a different way than we initially thought – and it's really, really insightful.
And that's enough.
Long Live the Musical!