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."
Mark Blitzstein at the piano.
Just prior to Weill's death, Blitzstein shared with him a translation of the song "Pirate Jenny," which Lenya introduced in Germany back in 1928. Liking what he heard, Weill encouraged Blitzstein to do the whole show. Two years later, Threepenny was performed in concert in June 1952 at Leonard Bernstein's inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis University, conducted by Bernstein, narrated by Blitzstein, and featuring Lenya once again as Jenny. Cecil Smith, in the publication Musical America, wrote of this concert version: “This work has never really been a success when attempts have been made to transplant it to this country ... The Blitzstein text is a glorious success, and should win a wide American audience for this Threepenny Opera if anything can ... He has managed to give the plot and characters a spontaneous, vernacular quality ... The song lyrics border on the miraculous ... Those who know the German original better than I do marveled at the constant felicity of the parallels between it and Blitzstein’s version.”
The concert, as well as the subsequent Off-Broadway production, were both directed by Carmen Capalbo, who up until that point had been an actor. The story (in his own words) of how he got the directing gig is amazing, assuming it's true.
"I guess I'm the only director who ever had to do a singing audition to get a directing job ... So I went over to the piano, Blitzstein sat down, he turned over the first page ... and there is 'Mack the Knife.' And he said, 'Let's see if we can find a key for you.' And I just looked quickly over the lyrics, and we found a key, and I sang 'Mack the Knife' over his shoulder, cold. And then we did a couple of others, and then I think we did the 'Army Song.' At the end of that, Lenya said, 'Where did you learn to sing like that?' I said, 'From you.' She said to Marc, 'That's the man to do Threepenny Opera.'"
Like I said, simply too good a story not to believe it happened like that.
With the concert version leading the way to the Off-Broadway production, rave reviews and great business followed. Unfortunately, the show was forced to leave the De Lys after 96 performances in the spring of 1954 due to the booking of a previously scheduled show (obviously this was before Ms. Lortel had taken ownership of the theatre). Happily, after its return there in September of 1955, it remained ensconced on Christopher Street until 1961. Original cast members included such future stars as Beatrice Arthur, John Astin, Paul Dooley, Charlotte Rae and Jo Sullivan, with distinguished replacements that included Ed Asner, Jane Connell, Jerry Orbach and Jerry Stiller. The final count over the seven years of its run came to over seven hundred actors.
Photo taken at some point between 1954 and 1961 during Threepenny's historic Off-Broadway run. Interesting to note that Brecht's name doesn't appear (not that the marquee offered much room).
Upon its closing after a record 2,611 performances (longer than Oklahoma!,
which was then Broadway's longest running musical), the New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of Threepenny Opera that “it resists virtue admirably. As a theatre work, [it] is a triumph of style." That it has endured these many decades is testament to all the creative artists who gave it life. Long may it play.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.