Tomorrow marks the 64th anniversary of the opening night in Greenwich Village of Threepenny Opera at the Theatre De Lys (now named for its longtime owner Lucille Lortel, who also happened to be the producer of this production). In 1954, it gave audiences a chance for a revisit (or claim a first time) to this Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical, twenty-one years after it was last done in New York. This production also came to be Off-Broadway's first mega-hit. How it happened makes for a fascinating story, especially by way of what the American composer, Marc Blitzstein contributed to its place in the pantheon. In any event, here's as much of it as I can fit into a 1,000 words (actually 1,200, by my final count):
Scott Merrill as Macheath and Beatrice Arthur as Jenny in Threepenny Opera (1954).
Based on The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s 18th-century English ballad opera, Weill and Brecht’s “play with music” got off to a poor start in its first German production. As described on the Kurt Weill Foundation website (www.kwf.org), “the audience sat in stony silence through most of the first act, until Mack and Tiger Brown’s duet ‘Kanonen-Song’ (The Army Song). For whatever reason, that rip-roaring number broke the ice, and the suddenly the frenzied crowd demanded an encore then and there. From that point on, the show was assured of success, despite the fact that many critics didn’t know what to make of it.”
That success also had something to do with the popularity of its star Lotte Lenya, married to Weill at the time. Already a singing artist of some renown, her performance as Jenny served as Lenya’s breakthrough role. In quick fashion, Threepenny would be translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages—all in the shadow of Hitler's rise to poser. As those dark days descended, Weill and Brecht were forced to endure performances of their 1930 opera Mahagonny interrupted by brownshirt thugs, claiming that it brought the contamination of black and Jewish musical influences into the German opera house. In 1933, with an interest from America in producing Threepenny on Broadway, Weill and Brecht took the opportunity to take leave from the disturbing goings on in their native country.
Lotte Lenya (circa 1930s).
Threepenny's Broadway production had a cast of forty-one (you could do that in 1933), with few of the actors baring names of significance today, save for a young Burgess Meredith in a small part. A tough sell in Depression-era New York, its Broadway run lasted just ten days. Adapted into English by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky, who also produced the show, their translation is impossible to judge since it no longer exists. Perhaps a clue can be derived from Percy Hammond's review in the New York Herald Tribune: "A torpid affectation, sluggish, ghastly and not nearly so dirty as advertised."
Australian actor Robert Chisholm, Macheath in the 1933 Broadway Threepenny.
In the intervening years, Kurt Weill became a force on Broadway to be reckoned with. However, by 1954, he had been dead four years, the victim of a heart attack, a month after his fiftieth birthday. From the time in 1935 when he came to live in America permanently, he composed music for no less than twelve musicals in fifteen years. In spite of such an extraordinary output, Weill died without Threepenny having been given its proper due. It was the composer Mark Blitzstein who played an enormous role in re-crafting Threepenny into a show for the ages. This excerpt from a short bio of Marc Blitzstein at the Kurt Weill Foundation website (www.kwf.org) puts it in perspective:
"As contemporaries in the American musical theater, Weill and Blitzstein shared common interests in creating socially conscious, populist theater, fusing classical and popular musical idioms, and developing American opera. Not only did they share the same birthday, March 2 (1900 and 1905, respectively), but Weill's greatest success turned out also to be Blitzstein's: Threepenny Opera. Blitzstein's English adaptation catapulted the work into lasting prominence on U.S. stages and established "Mack the Knife" as one of the top popular songs of the 20th century."