Happy Anniversary to 'The Threepenny Opera'

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

On August 31, 1928, “Die Dreigroschenoper” opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin.  On September 1, there were riots in the streets.

Composer Kurt Weill and dramatist Berthold Brecht had transformed Englishman John Gay’s 18th-century “The Beggar’s Opera” into a blistering comment on the moral decadence that was then eating away at the fabric of society, not only in the authors’ homeland, Germany, but throughout much of Europe.  While the socio-political landscape may have shifted, “The Threepenny Opera,” as it would become known in English, has remained a cultural juggernaut for nearly nine decades, challenging social values while continually thrilling audiences with its fierce theatricality the world over.

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in the 2006 Broadway revival

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in the 2006 Broadway revival

Astutely billed as “a play with music,” “Threepenny” was a continuation of the political theater movement Brecht had helped establish.  Caught up in Germany’s post-WWI inflammatory political circumstances, Weill had already earned a radical reputation and, in the free-spoken librettist, found a sociological and artistic soul mate.  The original production brought the 28-year-old Weill instant international renown and, creating the role of Jenny, established his wife, Lotte Lenya, as a leading player on Berlin’s vigorous theatrical scene.  During the next five years “Threepenny” received over 10,000 performances in 18 languages throughout Central Europe, but its powerful voice was quickly silenced by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933.  Declared a work of Kultur-Bolshevists and a menace to the Reich, the musical was banned.

Weill’s trenchant views and Jewish heritage made it impossible for him to remain in Germany.  Even as he and Lenya fled to Paris, “Threepenny” found its way to New York.  An English language production opened on Broadway in April of 1933.  The translation, by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky, was considered awkward and too Germanic in tone, its agitprop sensibilities out of tune amidst the glamorous escapism of Broadway entertainment during the Great Depression.  A revival of the Gershwin’s political lampoon, “Of Thee I Sing,” was a big hit that season; two years earlier the original production had been the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.  Meanwhile, America’s first “Threepenny” closed after a disappointing 12 performances.

Twenty-one years would pass before “The Threepenny Opera” received the acclaim in America it had garnered in Europe, but for Weill, the recognition would be posthumous.  Marc Blitzstein, a Philadelphian studying composition in Berlin during the 1920s, had been deeply inspired by the exhilarating theater work of Weill and Brecht, and was an ardent fan of the original production of “Threepenny.”  In 1950 he translated one song from the score, “Pirate Jenny,” and sought out the composer’s opinion.  (Legend has it that he called Weill and sang it for him over the phone.)  Wildly enthused by Blitzstein’s interpretation, Weill suggested that they collaborate on a new translation of the entire work.  Less than a month later, Weill was dead of a heart attack at the age of 50.

Blitzstein moved forward with his adaptation and its American premiere was scheduled for the spring of 1952.  It was, however, unceremoniously canceled.  Was it a coincidence that a post-WWII America was, at the time, playing out its own variation of the political paranoia which had first inspired the work following a previous war?  Fortuitously, Blitzstein’s protégé, a young composer by the name of Leonard Bernstein, happened to be arranging an arts festival at Brandeis University and offered to include Blitzstein’s “Threepenny.”  In June of 1952 it premiered in Waltham, Massachusetts, conducted by Maestro Bernstein.

Lotte Lenya in the 1955 New York production

Lotte Lenya in the 1955 New York production

Nearly two years later “The Threepenny Opera” opened in New York City’s Greenwich Village at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortell.)  It was nothing less than a sensation, establishing off-Broadway as a viable, progressive alternative to uptown fare.  Once again starring Lenya in the role she had created in Berlin 26 years earlier, and featuring Beatrice Arthur, Jo Sullivan (Loesser), and Charlotte Raye, this little production became legendary.  It was booked for a limited engagement of 12 weeks, after which the theater ensconced a previously scheduled production.  But interest in “Threepenny” would not fade.  New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who hailed the musical as “an authentic contemporary masterpiece,” went so far as to end numerous reviews of other shows with a plea for the return of “Threepenny.”  In a rare response to genuine public demand, the production reopened the following season, settling in for an astounding six-year run.  It firmly established the musical as Weill’s greatest triumph (and “Mack the Knife” as his most popular song) while also influencing the style of future musicals on socio-political themes such as Joan Littlewood’s “Oh, What a Lovely War” and Kander and Ebb’s Brecht-influenced “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”  There have been other English language translations of “Threepenny” throughout the years but none have improved upon Blitzstein’s landmark text.

It’s easy to understand how, in the twilight years of the Weimar Republic, audiences could empathize with the musical’s cynical narrative, mirroring the corruption, anger and desperate gaiety which had become so much a part of their daily lives.  But what accounts for its continued prosperity as it approaches its 90th anniversary?  Perhaps it’s the profound synergy of its authors’ craft, intelligence, conscience and balls.  The biting wit and timeless satire of the libretto joined to the music of one of the theater’s most original voices still has something to say about the decline of moral values, within any society at any time.  (Anyone who has watched television in the past week knows what I’m talking about.)  That this message is delivered with daring broad humor, a ribald romantic charm and unflagging musical brilliance has ensured its endurance as a modern classic.