On the morning of Threepenny's opening night in 1928, Bertolt Brecht was in a panic. Would people like Threepenny? Would they understand it? Would they ponder its issues the way he wanted? In a move of pure desperation, he told the set designer, he needed a life-sized, mechanical, metal horse for the Queen's messenger to ride in on, at the end of the show.
It was built, they couldn't get it to work right, time was ticking away, and they had other tech issues still to work out before opening a few hours later. Begrudgingly, Brecht agreed to cut the horse. After it fell off the stage into the audience...
But he was still terrified that his great experiment would fail.
New Line does a lot of shows about the failure of our institutions – the justice system, the government, religion, the family, education, etc.
Threepenny is about much of that as well. Though it's obvious why recent shows tackle those subjects right now in these turbulent times, it's fascinating to see shows from other periods of cultural tumult do the same. But Threepenny is also about the failure of one institution the others don't address – the theatre.
Brecht and Weill were both utterly disappointed in the theatre they saw around them and they wanted to change it all, to lay siege to all that came before and start fresh. And that's pretty much what they did. Perhaps that same impulse led us into this new Golden Age for the musical theatre, starting back in the mid-1990s. What were Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, Floyd Collins, Noise/Funk, Songs for a New World, if not the rejection of the bombast and superficiality of musical theatre in the 80s?
Threepenny was the first commercial success to employ Brecht's famous (infamous?) distancing effect. More than most, this is a piece of theatre that demands you think about what you're seeing and hearing.
Here's a freaky, satiric scene that was cut from Threepenny, which was supposed to happen after Mack's march to the gallows, right before the finale. (In the final version, all this dialogue is replaced by a short speech by Peachum.)
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: Well, what happens now? Do I go off or not? That's something I'll need to know on the night.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: I was telling the author only yesterday that it's a lot of nonsense, it's a heavy tragedy, not a decent musical.
ACTRESS PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: I can't stand this hanging at the end.
WINGS RIGHT, THE AUTHOR'S VOICE: That's how the play was written, and that's how it stays.
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: It stays that way, does it? Then act the lead yourself. Impertinence!
AUTHOR: It's the plain truth: the man's hanged, of course he has to be hanged. I'm not making any compromises. If that's how it is in real life, then that's how it is on the stage. Right?
ACTOR PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: Right.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: Doesn't understand the first thing about the theatre. Plain truth, indeed.
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: Plain truth. That's a load of rubbish in the theatre. Plain truth is what happens when people run out of ideas. Do you suppose the audience here have paid eight marks to see plain truth? They paid their money not to see plain truth.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: Well, then, the ending had better be changed. You can't have the play end like that. I'm speaking in the name of the whole company when I say the play can't be performed as it is.
AUTHOR: Alright ladies and gentlemen, you can clean up your own mess.
ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: So we shall.
ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: It'd be absurd if we couldn't find a first-rate dramatic ending to please all tastes.
ACTRESS PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: Right, then let's go back ten speeches...
Pretty wild, huh? And this is 1928!
In her book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, Pamela Katz writes about this section of the show:
What he didn't understand is that audiences will take from the show what they need. If they are deep thinkers, they will find oceans to ponder here. If they themselves feel oppressed by the government and other social forces, they will find here a forceful critique of the status quo. If they're musical theatre lovers, maybe they'll see the line of evolution that stretches back from some of our most powerful contemporary musicals, all the way back to Threepenny.
And if they've just had a really bad day, Threepenny will allow them to laugh at the darkness we all encounter to one degree or another, every day.
Because more than anything, Threepenny does tell the truth. It's an ugly truth, but that doesn't make it any less true.
There's just so much there...
Long Live the Musical!