Director Brian Kulick says, "America didn't fully understand Brecht's black humor until Vietnam and Watergate, and in a way we've caught up with his humor. It was always there, but we couldn't hear it. His ironic, one might say cynical, outlook just didn't fit with a Rodgers and Hammerstein world. And now, post all these horrible things that have happened in the twentieth century, we've learned how to laugh the way Brecht laughed."
But to be fair, it's cynicism in the service of idealism, Brecht's horror tale to urge us toward a better future. Still, along the way, it's sure a dark, cynical slog. If not for the quirky songs and the black humor, it would be too much.
And maybe that's why it's a masterpiece. It nimbly walks that artistic tightrope like no other show ever has. As Kulick puts it, "Brecht is a smuggler. He knows that if he tells a joke, or has a song, in between the joke and the song, a message can come through. That, to me, is black-market dramaturgy."
After two and a half hours of watching Mack act like an epic dick to everyone, his time finally runs out. He's going to hang. Oh, whoops. Nope, Brecht and Weill are gonna double-cross us, with an aggressively ridiculous, last-minute deus ex regina, a dramatic coitus interruptus right at the climax of the show. Why? Because life is pandemonium, as the Spelling Bee kids would put it.
And we see there is truth in the double-cross. We realize that it's really only a double-cross because (in Brecht's view) theatre doesn't usually tell the whole truth about the random callousness of life. They've double-crossed the theatre (and the theatre audience), by telling the messy truth the theatre will not tell.
And then our 3PO writers double-cross us again and make it even worse. Not only does Mack escape punishment; he gets money and presents. And perhaps most cynical of all, he gets respectability.
At first it all feels like a fuck you to the audience. But it's not really. It's a fuck you to storytelling that doesn't tell the truth, to shallow operas and operettas, to fantasy and romantic comedy. Many bad deeds do go unpunished in real life. And life is rarely resolved, all nice and tidy. It's also a fuck you to tolerated public corruption. Of course this is wrong!, Brecht is screaming at us. Whaddya gonna do about it?
Mostly, Brecht is always asking us: What good is storytelling if we don't learn from it? If it doesn't move us to act?
So just as Natural Born Killers and Chicago become the thing they're commenting on, to make their point (and to implicate us, along the way), so does Threepenny. It becomes the cynicism it argues against. It becomes the ugliness to make us see the ugliness. This 1928 show still feels more adventurous, more cutting edge than any of the shows that descended from it – Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, BBAJ, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys, Company...
I think our audiences have really been surprised – and often delighted – at how challenging a piece of theatre this is. It really is ugly, and at the same time funny, quirky, outrageous, charming...
And damn, is it cynical...
Look at this lyric in the Act I finale:
Oh, sad to say, he tells the truth:
The world is mean, and man uncouth.
That's a hell of a broad and dark statement. But these two lines aren't just describing two facts about the world. They are drawing a conclusion. This lyric isn't saying, "The world is mean, and also man is uncouth." It's saying, "The world is mean, and so, man is uncouth." The world is a jungle, and so, man is an animal. Not just coincidence, but cause and effect.
The same point is driven home in the Act II finale, "What Keeps a Man Alive?", which in some translations is called "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" I mention that because this isn't a song about the morality of Mack or any other single person. It's about the morality of all of us, of our collective humankind.
What keeps a man alive? He lives on others;
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole, if he can;
Forgets that they're supposed to be his brothers,
That he himself was ever called a man...
This is Brecht's central theme, that it's impossible to be a moral person and also survive, in modern capitalism. Same idea as "A Little Priest" in Sweeney Todd (also a rousing act ender). The right-wing press called Threepenny "literary necrophilia" and "a political horror ballad." Well, yes, it is.
Those last two lines of the stanza are the real meat of it. In less poetic terms, it's saying that we all (man, mankind) do not treat others with common humanity (we "forget" that they are "our brothers"), that we're all the same underneath. And in the last line, they're telling us that we've also forgotten our own humanity; we've lost our empathy. In other words:
[He] forgets that they're supposed to be his brothers,
[And he forgets] that he himself was ever called a man...
Of course "He" is us. In other words, we fall down on both ends of the compassion equation. How could we have a moral society under those circumstances?
He's lying, as in not telling the truth, because he swears he's not addicted, and his actions prove otherwise. But also, he's lying, as in lying down, because he fails the test every night by ending up back in bed with another woman. In other words, Mack is lying about lying – and that will prove to be his ultimate downfall.
As with much of Threepenny, these lines are saying two things at once, both very revealing of character. One of the surprising character traits revealed here is Mack's complete lack of self-awareness. We see it again, perhaps most blatantly, in "Tango Ballad." It hasn't even occurred to Mack that Jenny's experience throughout their relationship has been less than positive. He can see nothing but his own interests. And sure, he's a monster, but we made him.
Maybe what keeps an audience engaged in Threepenny (against Brecht's wishes?), and they really have been engaged, is how fascinating and complex these people and their relationships are, endlessly tangled and interconnected. Just like real life. Even though 1838 London is a long way from our lives today, we recognize these people and their economy. Mack belongs on Springer.
Maybe what keeps people engaged is that today we're really just as cynical as Macheath and the Peachums. Certainly parts of our culture are, anyway. J.J. Peachum is surely close cousin to Rupert Murdoch. We all see truth in this show. And that, above all, is what audiences want. Tell them the truth and they'll go anywhere with you.
It's so amazing every night, watching audiences connect to this nearly-century-old show, which feels as contemporary and unconventional as anything being written today. It's been such a fun adventure so far, and our run is only half-over...!
Long Live the Musical!