The work is not actively political as many of Brecht's later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers – part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. ... Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people. His gelid staging and pallid, quasi-abstract recollections of Expressionist-era design suggested that the writers might have been trying to perpetrate an artsified remake of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. ... The music was trashily handled, and, in general, rottenly sung ... [although the] actors seemed capable and knowing, snatching eagerly at the brief moments of life allowed them. Too few such moments came to save the evening from Wilson's embalming fluid; much of the middle class, sensibly, fled at intermission.
1 Dreigroschenoper (Die) (L'Opéra de quat'sous) peut-être considéré comme un Top musical
The Threepenny Opera was first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin in 1928. Despite an initially poor reception, it became a great success, playing 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.
In the United Kingdom, it took some time for the first fully staged performance to be given (9 February 1956, under Berthold Goldschmidt). There was a concert version in 1933, and there was a semi-staged performance on 28 July 1938. In between, on 8 February 1935 Edward Clark conducted the first British broadcast of the work. It received scathing reviews from Ernest Newman and other critics. But the most savage criticism came from Weill himself, who described it privately as "... the worst performance imaginable ... the whole thing was completely misunderstood". But his criticisms seem to have been for the concept of the piece as a Germanised version of The Beggar's Opera, rather than for Clark's conducting of it, of which Weill made no mention.
The Threepenny Opera has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. A French version produced by Gaston Baty and written by Nicole Steinhof and André Mauprey was presented in October of 1930 at the Théâtre Montparnasse. It was rendered 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 produced a German film version in 1931 called Die 3-Groschen-Oper, and the French version of his film was again rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous.
It has been translated into English several times. One was published by Marc 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 the standard critical edition by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (1976), one by noted Irish playwright and translator Frank McGuinness (1992), and another by Jeremy Sams for a production at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1994.
At least six Broadway and Off-Broadway productions have been mounted in New York.
• 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 Broadway at the Empire Theatre, 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. The production showed that musicals could be profitable Off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format. This production is also notable for having Edward Asner (as Mr Peachum), Charlotte Rae as Mrs Peachum, Bea Arthur (as Lucy), Jerry Orbach (as PC Smith, the Street Singer and Mack), John Astin (as Readymoney Matt/Matt of the Mint) and Jerry Stiller (as Crookfinger Jake) as members of the cast during its run.
• A nine-month run in 1976 had a new translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett for the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, with Raúl Juliá as Macheath, Blair Brown as Lucy, and Ellen Greene as Jenny. The cast album from this production was re-issued in compact disc in 2009.
• A 1989 Broadway production, billed as 3 Penny Opera, translated by Michael Feingold starred Sting as Macheath. Its cast also featured Georgia Brown as Mrs Peachum, Maureen McGovern as Polly, Kim Criswell as Lucy, KT Sullivan as Suky Tawdry 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, Adam Alexi-Malle as Jacob and Brian Charles Rooney as a male Lucy. Included in the cast were drag performers. 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.
• The Brooklyn Academy of Music presented a production directed by Robert Wilson and featuring the Berliner Ensemble for only a few performances in October 2011. The play was presented in German with English supertitles using the 1976 translation by John Willett. The cast included Stefan Kurt as Macheath, Stefanie Stappenbeck as Polly and Angela Winkler as Jenny. The Village Voice gave the production a savage review, writing:
West End (London)
• Empire Theatre, 13 April 1933.
• Royal Court Theatre, 9 February 1956.
• Prince of Wales Theatre and Piccadilly Theatre, 1972
• Donmar Warehouse, 1994. With a new lyric translation by Jeremy Sams. This version was recorded onto CD with Tom Hollander as Macheath and Sharon Small as Jenny.
• Die Moritat von Mackie Messer ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife" – Ausrufer – Street singer)
• Morgenchoral des Peachum (Peachum's Morning Choral – Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
• Anstatt dass-Song (Instead of Song – Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
• Hochzeits-Lied (Wedding Song – Four Gangsters)
• Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny – Polly)[N 1]
• Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song – Macheath, Brown)
• Liebeslied (Love Song – Polly, Macheath)
• Barbarasong (Barbara Song – Polly)[N 2]
• I. Dreigroschenfinale (First Threepenny Finale – Polly, Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
• Melodram (Melodrama – Macheath)
• Polly's Lied (Polly's Song – Polly)
• Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency – Mrs Peachum)
• Zuhälterballade (Pimp's Ballad or Tango Ballad – Jenny, Macheath)
• Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life – Macheath)
• Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet – Lucy, Polly)
• Arie der Lucy (Aria of Lucy – Lucy)
• Dreigroschenfinale (Second Threepenny Finale – Macheath, Mrs Peachum, Chorus)
• Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens (Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling – Peachum)
• Reminiszenz (Reminiscence)
• Salomonsong (Solomon Song – Jenny)
• Ruf aus der Gruft (Call from the Grave – Macheath)
• Grabschrift (Grave Inscription – Macheath)
• Gang zum Galgen (Walk to Gallows – Peachum)
• Dreigroschenfinale (Third Threepenny Finale – Brown, Mrs Peachum, Peachum, Macheath, Polly, Chorus)
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