Alan Cumming in the new Threepenny Opera, whose run at the old Theater de Lys on Christopher Street popularized it for American audiences.
The Villages original, Off-Broadway baby
By Michael Clive
Two cheers for the Roundabout Theatre Companys promising revival of the Threepenny Opera which opens on April 20th at Studio 54. Lets reserve that final cheer until weve had a chance to see how things go. But in the meantime, Downtown theater loyalists will await this Uptown opening with all the proud, proprietary interest of a parent whose child is starring in the school play.
Threepenny is our original Off-Broadway baby. Dating from 1928, Die Dreigroschenoper is the ur-collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It swept pre-war Europe and went to Moscow, but on Broadway in 1933 it stopped dead in its tracks, closing after a dozen performances. Theater historians cite Americans Depression-era taste for escapism rather than class commentary, but an ungainly translation also obscured the original Germans acidic, ironic wit.
In good times and bad, the burdens of translation seem to be its curse. Weill worked comfortably with Broadways most prominent lyricists after fleeing here from Nazi Germany in 1933, yet Threepenny seemed somehow resistant to American English. His widow, the electrifying singer-actor Lotte Lenya said she was convinced it was untranslatable until Marc Blitzstein provided the adaptation that changed everything.
In 1954, four years after Weills death, Blitzsteins version opened at the Theatre de Lys now the Lucille Lortel Theatre , on Christopher Street with Lenya in the cast along with a bevy of future television and Broadway stars. Its smashing six-year run became one of New Yorks most cherished theater legends, creating our enduring image of Off-Broadway: rebellious yet mature, bohemian yet classical. It also confirmed New Yorks acceptance of the Brecht-Weill masterpiece.
More than 50 years after that historic opening, and more than 40 after Blitzsteins tragic early death, his translation of Threepenny has won new listeners through the remastered, reissued recording of the 1954 cast. It also lives on through numberless high school and college productions. But theatrical producers have unjustly relegated it to a ghetto of quaintness another artifact of West Village 1950s lore. Astonishingly, this trend began with a West Village favorite son: Joe Papp, whose 1976 New York Shakespeare Festival production replaced Blitzsteins translation and moved to Broadway with the redoubtable Raoul Julia as Macheath and the girlish Ellen Greene flopping around in Lenyas grown-up shoes.
Now, when it comes to gratuitous updating, Threepenny is anything but fragile. Its theatrical impact depends upon self-consciously revealing its disparate origins: John Gays London, Queen Victorias London, Berlin between the wars, and the modern day. Jarring anachronisms dont ruin the dramatic illusion, because there is no illusion to maintain. You are here, onstage. The actors have invaded the audience. The fourth wall is gone. Still replace Blitzstein?
Papps production coincided with Ralph Manheim and John Willetts preparation of scholarly Brecht translations authorized by the playwrights estate. After commissioning them for his performance edition, Papp wrote the now-infamous program notes that only he could have rammed into print, contending Blitzsteins version lacked rawness and failed to capture the essence of the original. Part of his critique was simply mistaken: though some sexually explicit lyrics were bowdlerized for the recording, even the cleaned-up versions reveal the truth with a wink. Part of it is seemingly demented, attacking the Blitzsteins lyrics as too singable.
Perhaps Papp didnt recognize the uncanny matching of wit for wit and irony for irony or the filth, raunch, and reeking cynicism that Blitzstein miraculously captured. Somehow, each devilish German double entendre finds an English equivalent. Alongside this version, the Manheim-Willett is scrupulously accurate, literal and dull. What Papp seems to have meant by rawness is the word shit, which was frequently spoken in his production. It still had some shock value on Broadway in 1976. Today, even an obscure columnist in a community newspaper can use it all he wants. As for singability well, Joe had no worries on that score.
The Roundabout revival will feature a new translation by another intellectual hero (an oxymoron, yes, but let it go): Wallace Shawn. Like Blitzstein, Shawn has an experienced hand and ear with opera librettos that he wrote for staging, not studying. Though Ill miss Blitzstein, I cant want to hear Shawns take on Threepenny. Im rooting for him, for Brecht and Weill, and for Off-Broadway theatrical history. I want to shout out that third cheer.
Michael Clive writes on the performing arts, cultural trends and the media, and is creative consultant to the PBS series Live From Lincoln Center. This is his first column on classical music and opera for The Villager.