The debut was plagued by problems. Hauptmann never finished the book of the musical, the play's opening debut saw cast member Helene Weigel reading from a Communist pamphlet on stage, and it was met with near-unanimous pans from the German press and deemed a total failure.
Nevertheless, the play saw several revivals, the first in Munich in 1956. Successive incarnations included a 1957 revival in Hamburg, a 1965 revival in London, a 1977 Broadway production staring Christopher Lloyd, Grayson Hall and Meryl Streep, and a 1983 revival in Frankfurt, a 1979 German film version, a 1984 revival by Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage (televised as part of the short-lived "America's Musical Theater" series on PBS) and a 2006 production by San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre from which a CD cast recording was made, using an English adaptation by Michael Feingold. That version has been performed in venues including New York and Baltimore.
A gang of criminals is hanging out in Bill's Beer Hall plotting their shakedown of a local pharmacist while waiting for their mysterious female boss named The Fly and her top tough guy Bill Cracker. Bill arrives with a homburg hat-- a trophy from Gorilla Baxley, a rival gang leader whom he has just "taken care of." The gang rejoices--Bill's Beer Hall will now be the center of crime in Chicago, as great as the original Bill's Beer Hall in Bilbao (THE BILBAO SONG) says the Professor which has since gotten very bourgeois and respectable. A cop drops off an old lady who passed out in the street who turns out to be The Fly in disguise. She tells them a big bank job is set for Christmas Eve--2 days away. The Fly is mad that Bill bumped off Baxley without her consent and signals the gang to kill him. The Fly leaves and the gang plots to finger Bill for killing the pharmacist they were planning to shake down. A Salvation Army band begins to play out on the street (LIEUTENANT'S OF THE LORD). Sister Lilian brings the band inside the bar (MARCH AHEAD), and begins to try to convert the gang. They try to assault her and Bill comes to her rescue. When the gang and the band leaves, Lilian stays behind with Bill and tries again to reach him singing THE SAILORS' TANGO. Brother Hannibal returns with the band and is shocked at Lilian's behaviour. The cops burst in and arrest Bill for the murder of the pharmacist in his shop where they found Bill's gun.
At the Canal Street Mission, Major Stone is questioning Lilian's actions. Lilian sings the part of the song where the sailors repent (THE SAILORS' TANGO REPRISE) and the police come to take Lilian's statement. She gives him the alibi -- she was alone with him in the bar when tho murder was committed. Brother Hannibal faints--the result of an old head injury--and the Major relieves Lilian of all her duties and tosses her out of the mission. The service begins (BROTHER GIVE YOURSELF A SHOVE) and Sisters Jane and Mary who are left to deliver Lilian's sermon fail miserably. Meanwhile back at Bill's Beerhall, the Governor, The Fly's new second in command tells BabyFace that The Fly had made a secret deal with Gorilla Baxley to take over his gang which is now off. He gives BabyFace advice on being tough (SONG OF THE BIG SHOT). Back at the Mission, Bill arrives at the end of the service (DON'T BE AFRAID) looking for Lilian. Sam from the gang is there and tells him Lilian is gone as Hannibal sings the final hymn (IN OUR CHILDHOOD'S BRIGHT ENDEAVOR). Lilian comes to the bar looking for Bill. Sam runs in saying Bill is out of jail and at the Mission looking for Lilian. The Governor gets his gun and goes to the Mission. Hannibal is singing THE LIQUOR DEALER'S DREAM. The Governor and Bill go out the door. There are sounds of a fight, a gun shot, and a splash. Bill runs in interrupting the last refrain. "Sing that last chorus again," he cries and jumps out the window just as Lilian comes through the front door.
Christmas Eve--Bill & the gang are preparing for the big bank job. The Professor is fiddling with some sort of two way radio and Sam is dressed as a woman. They joke with Sam who sings THE MANDALAY SONG. The Fly's voice comes over the radio and gives the gang their instructions. Bill will be in charge of grabbing the money. As the gang leaves, Lilian enters. She is disappointed Bill has gone back to his life of crime (SURABAYA JOHNNY). Bill cries at her song but says he say he's still tough (BIG SHOT REPRISE). The Fly comes in disguised as a newsboy. Bill recognises her and realises he's almost missed the hold up. He runs gut and Lilian storms out behind him. The gang returns but Bill is nowhere to be found. The Fly puts the hit out on him again. "Take care of him tonight and leave worrying about the money till tomorrow" (THE BALLAD OF THE LILY OF HELL). Lilian returns to the Mission and so does Bill. The Major wants nothing to do with either of them. Th gang rushes in. Bill shows them he has the money. A cop comes in and the gang offers up the false alibis The Fly had given them. But the cop is there to question Bill about the disappearance of The Governor. The door flies open and The Governor walks in (BIG SHOT REPRISE 2). He had only hit his head falling into a shallow part of the canal. Everyone is innocent so the cop leaves. Now The Fly comes in, gun drawn. Hannibal shouts "Sadie!" --he is her long lost husband (IN OUR CHILDHOOD REPRISE). She gives him the loot which he turns over to the Major. The Major gives Lilian her job back. The Fly steps forward and says the two groups should unite to fight for the poor against the injustices of the rich EPILOGUE: HOSANNA ROCKEFELLER). A drunken Santa Claus appears at an upstairs window and the whole group reprise THE BILBAO SONG.
Prologue - The Company
Bill’s Beer Hall, December 22
“The Bilbao Song” - The Governor, Baby Face, Bill & The Gang
“Lieutenants of the Lord” - Lillian, The Army & The Fold
“March Ahead” - The Army & The Fold
“The Sailors’ Tango” - Lillian
The Salvation Army Mission, Canal Street, and the Beer Hall, December 23
“The Sailors’ Tango” (Reprise) - Lillian
“Brother, Give Yourself a Shove” - The Army & The Fold
“Song of the Big Shot” - The Governor
“Don’t Be Afraid” - Jane, The Army & The Fold
“In Our Childhood’s Bright Endeavor” - Hannibal
“The Liquor Dealer’s Dream” - Hannibal, The Governor, Jane, The Army & The Fold
''' ACT III
Scene 1: The Beer Hall, December 24
“The Mandalay Song” - Sam & The Gang
“Surabaya Johnny” - Lillian
“Song of the Big Shot” (Reprise) - Bill
“Ballad of the Lily of Hell” - The Fly
Scene 2: The Mission, later that night
“Song of the Big Shot” (Reprise) - The Governor & Bill
“In Our Childhood’s Bright Endeavor” (Reprise) - Hannibal & The Fly
"Epilogue: Hosanna Rockefeller" - The Company
“The Bilbao Song” (Reprise) - The Company
The phrase "robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one" derives from this play.