A friend of mine who used to work at Half Price Books knew this was a good record and recommended it to me. Before hearing this, my only point of reference on Brecht’s Three Penny Opera was a cast recording from the 50’s featuring Kurt Weil’s wife Lotta Leyna who also performed in the original.
Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, is a play with music and part of Brecht’s “epic theater”. Adapted from John Gay’s 18th century Beggar’s Opera, Brecht tells the story of Macheath, one of the 20th century’s earliest anti-heroes, through a socialist perspective of capitalism. Performed in Germany in 1928, it has been translated and performed throughout the world and is one of Brecht’s most popular works.
The first US production was in 1933 at the Empire Theater on Broadway. Running two weeks at 12 performances, it was a disappointment. Neither Weill or Brecht were involved in rehearsals. An off-Broadway version in 1955, translated by Marc Blitzstein and staring Weill’s widow Lotta Lenya as Low Dive Jenny, was a massive success, running 6-1/2 years and 2707 shows. At the time, it beat out Oklahoma for consecutive performance of a musical. The album mentioned in the first paragraph was taken from this run. In contrast, this album was taken from the next major US production, 1976’s New York Shakespeare Festival’ adaption, translated by Ralph Manheimm and John Willet. It has been described as a “milestone in American Theater”. Some critics,however, including Lenya were less enthused with the final result. The production ran for 9 months and 307 performances.
Perhaps the most famous song from the play is the opening “Die Moritat” or simply “Mack the Knife”. Oddly enough, this song was written as an after thought on the fly when the actor playing Macheath, Harald Paulsen, demanded an introductory song for his character. It has become a jazz/pop standard in the US thanks in part to Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin. When Armstrong recorded his version, Lotta Lenya was present in the studio. Armstrong added her name to the song when listing floozies in Macheath’s stable. It should be noted though that traditionally, the song sounds more like the version below, which is done by Roger Daltery of the Who.
Webpage on all things Threepenny Opera
The second most famous song from the production would be “Seeraberjenny” or “Pirate Jenny”. It is a revenge fantasy song sung by Low Dive Jenny in which she plots the overthrow of the customers who look down on her. Lenya performed excellent versions of this song both in German and in English. My favorite version of this song, however, was down by Nina Simone.
This album’s production made a star out of Raul Julia, who played Macheath. It also starred Ellen Greene, of Little Shop of Horrors fame. Below is a clip of Julia in a 1989 movie adaptation that sticks closer to the Blitzstein version. I should have noted this but this is also where the Daltrey clip comes from.
The translation on this album is the real star in my mind. Whereas Blitzstein softened up the text for 1950’s America, this version is more gritty and more true to Brecht’s original vision. It also has mild profanity. I know that is cheap thrills but I like it. My favorite song on the album has to be “Jealousy Duet”, which is shown below in the 1950’s version as a point of comparison. Note that this features Future Golden Girl, Bea Arthur.
For samples, I went with what I felt showcased the difference between the two translations. First off is “The Cannon Song” also known as “The Army Song”. It is a song between Macheath and his old army buddy Tiger Brown, who is now chief of police. I greatly prefer this version to the one shown above. Also as a sample, I went with “Jealousy Duet” which is my favorite song on the album. It is sung by Polly and Lucy outside Macheath’s cell. Again, compare the MP3 to the video clip above and tell me otherwise. Please note that this MP3 does have mild profanity. Finally, I went with “Ballad of Gracious Living” to showcase Julia’s talent.
This is a top rated album. I should give credit to the other performers on the MP3’s. Tiger Brown is played by David Sabin. Polly is played by Caroline Kava. Lucy is played by Blair Brown.