The Legacy of The Threepenny Opera

October 12, 2010

By Sally Ollove, >advice dramaturg for The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera is the musical Cabaret wishes it could be. No need to reconstruct the decadence of Berlin in the 1920s, Threepenny opens a vein in the Weimar Republic and lets it bleed all over the stage. Written haphazardly in 1928 by an army of contributors helmed by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, >ailment the musical horrified critics, shocked audiences, and sold out every night. Threepenny was both a satire and a celebration of Weimar depravity. It was also a turning point in theatrical history: the first commercial success for theatrical innovator Brecht, and the piece that set avant-garde composer Kurt Weill on the path to musical divinity.

Adapted from a seventeenth century English operetta, Threepenny tells the tale of Mack the Knife, a rapist, crook, and killer who marries Polly Peachum, the daughter of the King of the Beggars despite fathering a baby with Lucy Brown, the daughter of a corrupt constable. Betrayed by his favorite whore and deceived by his wily mother-in-law, Mackie faces the gallows. The story wanders around London’s depraved underbelly, populated by crooked lawmen, slimy thieves, deceitful beggars, and vengeful prostitutes.

Brecht, with the help of translator Elizabeth Hauptmann, punched up the older text by adding a level of titillation rarely achieved on the stage. He accomplished this mostly by making insinuations explicit, introducing dirty words, and ridding characters of as much integrity as possible. Brecht ripped the cover off Berlin theatre to expose the true desires of his Weimar peers. He took a gamble and won: his use of low-brow humor and story-telling revolutionized twentieth century theatre.

Kurt Weill equaled the daring of his collaborator. Weill loved jazz and played an instrumental part in incorporating it into the modern musical. Like Brecht, he was a great synthesizer: the Threepenny score has music influenced by opera, jazz, 1920s avant-garde symphonies, cabaret, and even the original operetta. The music became an instant hit in Europe—the melodies inescapable for years. Famously, his song “Mack the Knife” became a jazz standard performed by everyone from Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald to Nick Cave and Michael Bublè.

Threepenny takes a seventeenth century romantic melodrama and turns it into a celebration of vice where everything is for sale—especially love. Society hums with criminal activity. Rather than check the illegal activity, the law enables it. The celebration of sin invites the audience to revel in a world where everything is covered in grime. Only when leaving does the audience realize the corruption they have endorsed. Nothing has changed since the musical’s premiere: human nature, Brecht and Weill prophesy, will always reduce to its most basic desires. A bitter pill, but the music lets it slide down with verve.

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