"The Threepenny Opera"
MUSIC: Weill: Overture from The Threepenny Opera performed by the original Theater de Lys, New York City, cast [Decca 012 159 463-2, track 2] [under the following]
This is an overture to a very unusual opera. A “Threepenny Opera,” called as such because it was written for beggars, and had to be cheap enough for a beggar to afford it. The music was composed by Kurt Weill. The original text was by Bert Brecht. The English adaptation of the book and lyrics was by Marc Blitzstein. I’ll tell you the fascinating story of its success, failure and renewed success in a moment.
Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.
In the early 1960s the American composer, Marc Blitzstein, said: “I wish I had written The Threepenny Opera. But since I merely translated it into English and adapted it for American audiences, I can come right out and say freely that the work is a miracle, a phenomenon, a shining landmark in the history of the international musical theater.”
Several years earlier he predicted that The Threepenny Opera would become one of the most important music theater works of the 20th Century. And, according to the excellent program notes by David Farneth that come with the Decca compact disc reissue of the original long playing record, Blitzstein’s prediction has come true.
Farneth writes that The Threepenny Opera is now an international, theatrical institution. It has been played on every continent in scores of languages, touching the lives of millions of people across all social, economic, political, intellectual and geographic boundaries. But its success in the United States did not come on first try. More on that subject later.
For now, let’s continue to listen to the Decca CD, which is a recording of the original cast album from 1954: The famous “Ballad of Mack the Knife,” and the “Instead-of-Song.”
The action takes place in 1837 in Soho, the slum and underworld quarter of London at that time. It is here, one early spring evening that the Street Singer recounts the exploits of one Macheath, head of a notorious gang. He is known to all who fear him as “Mack the Knife.”
MUSIC: Weill: “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Gerald Price from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 3]
The “Ballad of Mack the Knife” as sung by Gerald Price in the original Theater de Lys off-Broadway production in New York City, which I was fortunate enough to see in person when I was a teenager.
Next let me introduce you to Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who runs a “Beggars’ Outfit Shop” in Soho, where he guarantees to make a beggar so pitiful-looking that passers-by will actually be willing to part with their money. It is morning and Peachum is opening his shop. One of his first chores is to clear the store of sleeping panhandlers.
MUSIC: Weill: “Morning Anthem” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Martin Wolfson from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 4]
Mrs. Peachum appears and is informed by her husband that the dapper anonymous stranger their daughter Polly has been seeing is none other than Mack the Knife. This must be stopped, of course, and the Peachums comment on the antics of the young in the “Instead Of” song.
MUSIC: Weill: “Instead Of” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Martin Wolfson and Charlotte Rae from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 5]
Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptman wrote their adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera in several weeks “as a lark” while vacationing on the French Riviera. Imagine their surprise when the 1928 premiere was such a huge success that it made them famous overnight. And during the next several years, more than a hundred theaters across Europe mounted productions.
But the story was totally different in the U.S. In 1933, five years after the German premiere, an English translation flopped on Broadway, receiving harsh reviews and closing after only two weeks.
The failure made Kurt Weill extra cautious about finding an English version suitable for the U.S. He wrote:” Because of the structure of the American theater, It is very tricky to revive a play that has failed once before.... But no doubt we will have a first-class revival of The Threepenny Opera if we wait for the best combination of translator (for the play and, what is especially difficult, for the lyrics), director, producer, and actors.”
Weill worked for 15 years to find a suitable translation, but he died in 1950 without seeing his most famous work produced commercially in his new homeland.
We’ll come back to the story of The Threepenny Opera’s success in America in a few minutes. But let’s get back to the story of the musical now.
It turns out that the Peachums were quite correct about their daughter being involved with Mac the Knife. In fact he is about to marry Polly and has picked a deserted stable for the wedding ceremony. Macheath’s gang starts unloading a wagon filled with stollen furnishings, and soon the stable is completely transformed into something resembling an ornate drawing room.
Macheath is waiting for a new arrival, none other than Tiger Brown, Commissioner of Police. He and Mack were buddies in the army. Now the Commissioner takes a cut of Mack’s loot. Mack and Brown reminisce about the olds days in the army together.
MUSIC: Weill: “Army Song” from The Threepenny Opera from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 6]
Polly, as it turns out, isn’t overjoyed about the idea of being married in a stable, so the gang tries to comfort her.
MUSIC: Weill: “Wedding Song” from The Threepenny Opera from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 7]
The wedding ceremony takes place and the gang leaves. Macheath and Polly find themselves alone.
MUSIC: Weill: “Love Song” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Scott Merrill and Jo Sullivan from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 8]
You are listening to “The Threepenny Opera” on this hour of Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.
[optional one-minute break not included in total timing of the program]
I mentioned before that The Threepenny Opera was a flop on its first New York production. But the American composer Marc Blitzstein was, ironically, to change all that.
In the early years of Blitzstein’s career he firmly believed that true art was only for the intellectual elite. He denounced composers -- in particular Kurt Weill -- who he felt debased their standards to reach a wider public.
Nevertheless, when Blitzstein heard a performance of The Threepenny Opera in Germany in 1929, he fell in love with it. Twenty years later, in 1949, he drafted translations of a few Threepenny Opera songs and showed them to Weill, who encouraged him. After attending Weill’s funeral the following year, he decided to translate the rest of the songs, although he had no immediate prospect for a production.
Two years later the New York City Opera’s plans for producing Blitzstein’s new version, with Leonard Bernstein conducting, evaporated when the announcement produced protest from witch-hunting, right-wing McCarthyites. They indirectly accused Blitzstein and Bernstein of being Communisits, and characterized The Threepenny Opera as -- quote -- “a piece of anti-capitalist propaganda...”
Well, of course, there’s a happy ending to this story, and we’ll get back to it in a few minutes. But first, let’s continue with the story and music of the original Theater de Lys production.
Mr. and Mrs. Peachum are outraged when they discover that their daughter, Polly, has actually married Mack the Knife. They cook up a plan to dissolve the marriage. It involves Jenny, Mack’s old flame, who works out of a bordello. Mrs. Peachum will ask Jenny tell the police where Mack can be found. But before going to find Jenny, Mrs. Peachum sings about the victimization of men who find themselves in the throes of love.
MUSIC: Weill: “The Ballad of Dependency” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Charlotte Rae from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 9]
Polly returns to her home, and the Peachums restate some of the facts of life to her. But Polly defends her right to marry Macheath.
MUSIC: Weill: “The World is Mean” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Jo Sullivan, Martin Wolfson and Charlotte Rae from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 10]
Mrs. Peachum then makes the necessary arrangements with Jenny. Police Commissioner Tiger Brown sends a warning through Polly to Macheath to get out of London. Macheath instructs Polly on how to keep the “business” going during his absence and kisses her good-bye.
MUSIC: Weill: “Melodrama and Polly’s Song” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Scott Merrill and Jo Sullivan from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 11]
Jenny reflects on her sordid life in the bordello. She is different from the other women. She has bitter dreams...
MUSIC: Weill: “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Lotte Lenya from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 12]
Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” from the original cast recording of the Kurt Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera.
The girls of the bordello are sure that, by this time, Macheath must be on the outskirts of town. But it is his regular Thursday, and he never misses Thursday.
Macheath recalls his old life with Jenny. As he sings, Jenny herself appears in the rear doorway with a constable. She points out Macheath, and the constable stays in the doorway, watching. Jenny joins Macheath and they perform a little dance together.
MUSIC: Weill: “Tango-Ballad” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Lotte Lenya and Scott Merrill from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 13]
Next Macheath, who is alone, sums up his philosophy of life.
MUSIC: Weill: “Ballad of the Easy Life” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Scott Merrill from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 14]
Macheath’s interests apparently travel in several directions. One of these is named Lucy. She is the daughter of Tiger Brown and the mistress of Newgate Prison. She reminisces on what it was like to fall in love with Macheath. This is sung by the late Beatrice Arthur in her debut New York role.
MUSIC: Weill: “Barbara Song” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Beatrice Arthur from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 15]
The constable decides that enough is enough and seizes Macheath. Soon he is locked in a cell in Newgate Prison. The capture has brought him very close to Lucy. When his bride Polly comes to visit him, a little incident takes place between Polly and Lucy.
MUSIC: Weill: “Jealousy Duet” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Jo Sullivan and Beatrice Arthur from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 16]
Lucy knows her way about the jail, so Macheath caught in a conflict
between these two women, chooses Lucy. The weeping Polly is dragged off
by her mother. Lucy steals the key to the cell and Macheath is away in
a flash. It is just before dawn on the day of Queen Victoria’s
Coronation, a red-letter day for Peachum’s begging business. In his
shop, Peachum is in fine spirits.
MUSIC: Weill: “Useless Song” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Martin Wolfson from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 18]
Macheath is recaptured. The beggars, on their way to the Coronation, will stop to witness an even more interesting ceremony: the hanging of Mack the Knife. While we wait for the hanging, Jenny Shares some thoughts with us about wise old Solomon, Julius Ceasar, top dogs, and reforming herself.
MUSIC: Weill: “Solomon Song” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Lotte Lenya from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 8]
The scene is a death cell at Newgate Prison. It is now 5:30 a.m. Macheath will be dead by six. He is desperate and calls for help.
MUSIC: Weill: “Call from the Grave” from The Threepenny Opera sung by Scott Merrill from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 20]
As Macheath mounts the steps to the gallows, Peachum stops the proceedings and announces a sudden happy ending and the arrival of a messenger from the Queen.
MUSIC: Weill: “Finale: The Mounted Messenger” from The Threepenny Opera from the original cast recording [Decca 012159 463-2, track 22]
Marc Blitzstein finally got a tryout for his Threepenny Opera adaptation in a 1952 concert performance at Brandeis University, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. The success of the concert brought a commitment from Decca Records to make a recording with a cast featuring Lotte Lenya, but Brecht’s German publisher -- you remember that Brecht was the original German lyricist -- refused to issue a license.
That didn’t discourage top-notch Broadway producers like Roger Stevens and Billy Rose from asking Lotte Lenya for the stage rights, but she refused to allow the changes they demanded.
Finally, in October 1953, two fledgling producers working in the story department of CBS Television asked Lenya for permission to mount the work off-Broadway, with the promise to be faithful to the original work and to Blitzstein’s adaptation. Lenya obtained Brecht’s approval and that led to the Theatre de Lys production in Greenwich Village.
The Threepenny Opera opened on March 10th 1954 to mixed reviews. But it caught on following rave reviews a few days later from the New York Time’s famous drama critic Brooks Atkinson. It ended up playing for 2,611 performances and eclipsing Oklahoma! as the longest running musical at that time. Over its seven-year run it brought in $3 million dollars from a $10,000 investment.
Last I looked you could still obtain new remastered copies of the original cast recording of The Threepenny Opera. You may want your own copy to hear these wonderful songs again and again, as well as to listen to the one song I didn’t have time to include in this one-hour program. If you buy your own copy though, I must warn you, every song is a real gem and the music will grow on you until you can’t get any of the songs out of your head -- ever again. And you won’t want to!
You have been listening to Compact Discoveries. This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for listening.
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Program Ends at 58:30
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