The Threepenny Opera
) is a revolutionary work of musical theatre
, by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht
and composer Kurt Weill
, in collaboration with translator Elisabeth Hauptmann
and set designer Caspar Neher
, adapted from an 18th century English ballad opera
, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
. Premiering on August 31
, at Berlin
's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm
, Die Dreigroschenoper
offers a socialist
critique of the capitalist
Set in a marginally anachronistic Victorian London, the play focuses on the stories of the working class, rather than those liable to attend fashionable upper-crust operas. The protagonist, in the original opera as well as the Brecht/Weill adaptation, is Macheath, an elegant highwayman for Gay and an amoral, anti-heroic criminal for Brecht/Weill. In an acknowledgement of the earlier work, Weill sets his opening number, Morgenchoral des Peachum, to the music used by composer Pepusch in Gay's original.
Macheath (Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife) marries Polly Peachum. This displeases her father, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have Macheath hanged. But his moves are hindered by the fact that the chief of police, Tiger Brown, is Macheath's childhood friend. Still, Peachum exerts his influence and eventually gets Macheath arrested and sentenced to hang. Moments before the execution, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, Brecht sends in a hard-riding messenger from the "Queen" (the chronology is deliberately muddied) to pardon Macheath and grant him a baronetcy.
The play directly challenges the audience by breaching the "fourth wall" with what Brecht called Verfremdungseffekt, or the "alienation effect." For example, slogans are projected on the back wall and the characters sometimes carry picket signs, or stand at times with their backs to the audience. The play challenges conventional notions of property as well as those of theatre. It asks the central and highly political question, "Who is the bigger criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?"
Die Dreigroschenoper is an early example of the modern musical comedy genre. Its score is deeply influenced by jazz and mandates a fifteen-piece jazz combo. Its opening and closing lament, "Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer," was written just before the Berlin premiere, when actor Harald Paulsen (Macheath) threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction; this creative emergency resulted in what would become the work's most popular song, later translated into English by Marc Blitzstein as "Mack the Knife" and now a standard which has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé and countless others. "Pirate Jenny", originating from the first act, has been famously covered by singer and activist Nina Simone on 1964's Nina Simone in Concert. She gave the song a grim civil rights undertone, with the ship 'the black freighter' symbolizing the coming black revolution.
||Premiere cast - 31 August 1928 |
| Macheath ("Mackie Messer"/"Mack the Knife") - London's greatest and most notorious criminal
|| Harald Paulsen |
| Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum - The "Beggar's Friend". Controller of all the beggars in London, he conspires to have Mack hanged
|| Erich Ponto |
| Celia Peachum - Peachum's wife, who helps him run the business
|| Rosa Valetti |
| Polly Peachum - The Peachums' daughter. After knowing Mack for only five days, she agrees to marry him
|| Roma Bahn |
| Jackie "Tiger" Brown - Police Chief of London and Mack's best friend from their army days
|| Kurt Gerron |
| Lucy Brown - Tiger Brown's daughter. Also claims to be married to Mack
|| Kate Kühl |
| Jenny - A prostitute who was romantically involved with Mack in the past. She is bribed to turn Mack in to the police. Nickamed "Ginny Jenny" or "Low-Dive Jenny"
|| Lotte Lenya |
| Filch, The misfit young man who approaches the Peachums in hopes of beggar-training.
|| Naphtali Lehrmann |
| The Street Singer, Sings 'The Ballad of Mack the Knife' in the opening scene
|| Kurt Gerron |
The act commences in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the boss of London's beggars, where Peachum outfits and trains the beggars in return for a slice of their takings from begging. In the first scene, the extent of Peachum's iniquity is immediately exposed. Filch, a new beggar, is obliged to bribe his way into the profession and agree to pay over to Peachum 50 percent of whatever he made; the previous day he had been severely beaten up for begging up within the area of jurisdiction of Peachum's protection racket. As a depiction of exploitational capitalism, in a world where even beggars, individuals at the most exposed and lowest of human ebbs, are constrained to pay protection, it sets out to paint an unflattering picture.
After finishing with the new man, Peachum becomes aware that his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night. Peachum, who sees his daughter as his own private property, concludes that she has become involved with Macheath. This does not suit Peachum at all, and he becomes determined to thwart this relationship and destroy Macheath.
The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath himself is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly gets up and sings "Pirate Jenny," a revenge fantasy in which she is a pirate queen and orders the execution of her bosses and customers. The gang becomes nervous when the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, arrives, but it's all part of the act; Brown had served with Mack in England's colonial wars and had intervened on numerous occasions to prevent the arrest of Macheath over the years. The old friends duet in the "Cannon Song" ("Army Song"). In the next scene, Polly returns home and defiantly announces that she has married Macheath by singing the "Barbara Song." She stands fast against her parents' anger, but she inadvertently reveals Brown's connections to Macheath which they subsequently use to their advantage.
Polly warns Macheath that her father will try to have him arrested. He is finally persuaded that Peachum has enough influence to do it and makes arrangements to leave London, explaining the details of his bandit "business" to Polly so she can manage it in his absence. Before he leaves town, he stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing the "Pimp's Ballad" ("Tango Ballad") about their days together, but Macheath doesn't know Mrs. Peachum has bribed Jenny to turn him in. Despite Brown's apologies, there's nothing he can do, and Macheath is dragged away to jail. After he sings the "Ballad of the Easy Life," another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown's daughter) and Polly show up at the same time, setting the stage for a nasty argument that builds to the "Jealousy Duet." After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath's escape. When Mr. Peachum finds out, he confronts Brown and threatens him, telling him that he will unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria's
coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Brown his job.
Jenny comes to the Peachums' shop to demand her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs. Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry's house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr. Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown's only option is to arrest Macheath and have him executed. In the next scene, Macheath is back in jail and desperately trying to raise a sufficient bribe to get out again, even as the gallows are being assembled. Soon it becomes clear that neither Polly nor the gang members can raise any money, and Macheath prepares to die. Then a sudden reversal: a messenger on horseback arrives to announce that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen and granted a castle and pension. The cast then sings the Finale, which ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly.
- Nr 1 Ouverture
- 2 Moritat vom Mackie Messer ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife" - Ausrufer - Street singer)
Erster Akt (First Act)
- Nr.3 Morgenchoral des Peachum (Peachum's Morning Choral - Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
- 4 Anstatt dass-Song (Instead of Song - Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
- 5 Hochzeits-Lied (Wedding Song - Four Gangsters)
- 6 Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny - Polly *)
- 7 Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song - Macheath, Brown)
- 8 Liebeslied (Love Song - Polly, Macheath)
- 9 Barbarasong (Barbara Song - Polly)†
- 10 I. Dreigroschenfinale (First Threepenny Finale - Polly, Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
Zweiter Akt (Second Act)
- Nr.11 Melodram (Melodrama - Macheath)
- 11a Polly's Lied (Polly's Song - Polly)
- 12 Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency - Mrs Peachum)
- 13 Zuhälterballade (Pimp's Ballad - Jenny, Macheath)
- 14 Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life - Macheath)
- 15 Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet - Lucy, Polly)
- 15b Arie der Lucy (Aria of Lucy - Lucy)
- 16 II. Dreigroschenfinale (Second Threepenny Finale - Macheath, Mrs Peachum, Chorus)
Dritter Akt (Third Act)
- Nr.17 Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens (Song of the Insufficiency of human Struggling - Peachum)
- 17a Reminiszenz (Reminiscence)
- 18 Salomonsong (Solomon Song - Jenny)
- 19 Ruf aus der Gruft (Call From the Grave - Macheath)
- 20 Grabschrift (Grave Inscription - Macheath)
- 20a Gang zum Galgen (Walk to Gallows - Peachum)
- 21 III. Dreigroschenfinale (Third Threepenny Finale - Brown, Mrs Peachum, Peachum, Macheath, Polly, Chorus)
* In many productions, "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny") is sung by the character of Jenny. In the original, it is sung by Polly during the wedding scene, but is sometimes moved to the Second Act and given to Jenny. In the 1956 off-Broadway production starring Lotte Lenya, Polly sang a version of the "Bilbao Song" from Brecht's and Weill's Happy End in the first act wedding scene. Sometimes (i.e. in 1989 recording) it's sung by Polly in the first act and by Jenny in the second act between song 13 and 14 according to the list above.
† In the Marc Blitztein adaptation, this song was moved to the second act and sung by the character of Lucy.
The Threepenny Opera was first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin in 1928, and, after an initially poor reception, went on to run 400 times in the next two years. (The performance was a springboard for one of the best known interpreters of Brecht and Weill's work, Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill.)
The work subsequently became a huge success, being translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. It was translated into French as L'Opéra de quat'sous; (quatre sous, or four pennies being the idiomatically equivalent French expression for Threepenny and, by implication, cut-price, cheap). Georg Wilhelm Pabst's French version of his film also used this title. Die Dreigroschenoper has been translated into English several times. One was published by Blitzstein in the 1950s and first staged under Leonard Bernstein's baton at Brandeis University in 1952. It was later used on Broadway. Other translations include those by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (1979), by noted Irish playwright and translator Frank McGuinness (1992), and by Jeremy Sams for a production at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1994.
Broadway (New York)
At least seven productions have been mounted in New York, on and off Broadway.
- The first, adapted into English by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky and staged by Francesco Von Mendelssohn, featured Robert Chisholm as Macheath. It opened on April 13, 1933, and closed after 12 performances. The brevity of the run has been attributed to the stylistic gap between the Weill-Brecht work and the typical Broadway musical during a busy and vintage period in Broadway history.
- In 1956, Lotte Lenya won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny in Blitzstein's somewhat softened version of The Threepenny Opera, which played off-Broadway at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village for a total of 2,707 performances. Blitzstein had translated the work into English; Lenya, Weill's wife since the 1920s, had sung both Jenny and Polly earlier in Germany. Jenny's (originally Polly's) ballad, dreaming of quitting her work as a barmaid to lead a pirate assault on the city, is well known: And the ship with eight sails, and with 50 cannons, will fire on the city (Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln und mit fünfzig Kanonen wird beschießen die Stadt). The production was important in New York's musical theatre history, as it showed that musicals could be profitable off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format.
- A nine-month run in 1976 at the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, with Raúl Juliá as Macheath, Blair Brown as Lucy, and Ellen Greene as Jenny. The cast album from this production was available as a vinyl, but never in compact disc format.
- A 1989 Broadway production, billed as 3 Penny Opera, featured Sting as Macheath. Its cast also boasted Georgia Brown as Mrs. Peachum, Maureen McGovern as Polly, Kim Criswell as Lucy, and Ethyl Eichelberger as the Street Singer. Sting famously grew a thin moustache for the role, and when it closed after 65 performances he shaved it off onstage with a straight razor.
- Liberally adapted by playwright Wallace Shawn, the work was brought back to Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company in March 2006 with Alan Cumming playing Macheath, Nellie McKay as Polly, Cyndi Lauper as Jenny, Jim Dale as Mr. Peachum, Ana Gasteyer as Mrs. Peachum, Carlos Leon as Filch, Christopher Innvar as Tiger Brown, Adam Alexi-Malle as Jacob and Brian Charles Rooney as a male Lucy. Included in the cast were New York drag performers Hattie Hathaway (Brian Butterick), Edie (Christopher Kenney), Flotilla DeBarge (Kevin Rennard), and performance artist David Cale. The director was Scott Elliott, the choreographer Aszure Barton, and, while not adored by the critics, the production was nominated for the "Best Musical Revival" Tony award. Jim Dale was also Tony-nominated, for Best Supporting Actor. The run ended on June 25, 2006.
- A 2006 New York International Fringe Festival adaptation utilized stylistic and character elements of The Threepenny Opera under the title Imminent, Indeed (or, if you prefer, Polly Peachum's Peculiar Penchant for Plosives). It was written and directed by Bryn Manion in association with Aisling Arts .
Recordings are in German, unless otherwise specified.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1930, on Telefunken. Incomplete. Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Erika Helmke (Polly), Willi Trenk-Trebitsch (Macheath), Kurt Gerron (Moritatensänger; Brown), and Erich Ponto (Peachum). Lewis Ruth Band, conducted by Theo Mackeben.
- The Threepenny Opera, 1954, on Decca Broadway 012-159-463-2. In English. Lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. The 1950s Broadway cast, starring Jo Sullivan (as Polly), Lotte Lenya (as Jenny), Charlotte Rae (Mrs Peachum), Scott Merrill (Macheath), Gerald Price (Street Singer), and Martin Wolfson (Peachum). Beatrice Arthur sings Lucy, normally a small role, here assigned an extra number. Complete recording of the score, without spoken dialogues. Conducted by Matlowsky.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1955, on Vanguard 8057, with Anny Felbermayer, Hedy Fassler, Jenny Miller, Rosette Anday, Helge Roswaenge, Alfred Jerger, Kurt Preger and Liane. Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by F. Charles Adler.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1958, on CBS MK 42637. Lenya, who also supervised the production, Kóczián, Hesterburg, Schellow, Neuss, and Willi Trenk-Trebitsch, Arndt Chorus, Sender Freies Berlin Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. Complete recording of the score, without spoken dialogues.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1966, conducted by Rennert on Philips. With Huebner, Teichmann, Mey, Korte, Brammer, and Kutschera.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1968, on Polydor 00289 4428349 (2 CDs). Conducted by James Last. The only recording up to the present, that contains the complete spoken dialogues.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1989, on Decca 820 940-2. René Kollo (Macheath), Mario Adorf (Peachum), Helga Dernesch (Mrs. Peachum), Ute Lemper (Polly), Milva (Jenny), Wolfgang Reichmann (Tiger-Brown), Susanne Tremper (Lucy), Rolf Boysen (Herold). RIAS Berlin Sinfonietta, John Mauceri. With a stronger accent on the music and singing. The ensemble should match the first one in vocal possibilities and opposes to more political interpretations, which turned to the spoken word (or "calling"). According to the textbook it is an aim of this recording to give back Kurt Weill his part in this work.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1990, on Decca 289 430 075-2. Ute Lemper, Milva, Helga Dernesch, René Kollo, Rolf Boysen, Mario Adorf. RIAS Berlin Sinfonietta, John Mauceri.
- The Threepenny Opera, 1994, on CDJAY 1244. In English. Donmar Warehouse (London) production. Translated by Robert David Macdonald (lyrics translated by Jeremy Sams). Conducted by Yershon. With Small, Hugo, Hall?, Hollander, Walter?, and Mannion-T.
- Die Dreigroschenoper, 1994, on Capriccio. Conducted by Jan Latham-König, with Ulrike Steinsky, Gabriele Ramm, Jane Henschel, Walter Raffeiner, Rolf Wollrad, and Peter Nikolaus Kante.
- Mackeben/Ponto/Valetti/Bahn/Paulsen/Lenya/Gerron, cast of German 1928 premiere
- Mackeben/Neher/Lenya/Gert/Forster/Busch/Rasp, cast of German version of 1931 Pabst movie.
- Mackeben/Florelle/Lion/de Matha/Préjean/Artaud/Modot, cast of French version of Pabst movie.
- Symonette/Myszak/Shoumanova/Herrmann-A/Jung/Kmentt/Becht, 1980s?, on Koch.
- Gruber-HK/MacDonald-S/Brauer/Hagen-N/Raabe/Holtz?/Gruber-HK, 1999, on RCA.
There have been at least four film versions. German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst
made a 1931 German- and French-language versions
simultaneously (a common practice in the early days of sound films). Another version was directed by Wolfgang Staudte
in West Germany
in 1962. Scenes with Sammy Davis, Jr.
were added for its American release. In 1990 an American version (renamed Mack the Knife
) was released, directed by Menahem Golan
, with Raúl Juliá
as Macheath and Roger Daltrey
as the Street Singer.
Pronunciation of the English title
The English-language title is pronounced differently in Great Britain
than in most English-speaking nations. The word "threepenny"
having been the name of a coin in Britain's pre-decimal currency, the musical's title in Britain reflects the various common pronunciations of that coin. Though the coin was discontinued in 1971 after the decimalization of sterling, the idiosyncratic British pronunciations of the show title continues. The three-syllable word "threepenny" is condensed when spoken into a two-syllable word - with the exact pronunciation varying from geographical region to region. The principal pronunciations are: "THROOP-nee" "THREPP-nee" or "THRUPP-nee".
- Hinton, S: Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera (Cambridge, 1990)
- Brockett, Oscar G. and Hildy, Franklin J, History of The Theatre, Allyn and Bacon, 2002 (9th Edition), ISBN 0-205-35878-0
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
- Haas, Michael and Uekermann, Gerd: Zu unserer Aufnahme, Booklet accompanying the 1989 recording, Decca Record Company Limited London, 820 940-2. Contains the complete text of the opera (in German).
pt: Ópera dos Três Vinténs