Composer Marc Blitzstein's nephew Stephen Davis has donated his 50% share of Blitzstein's musical and literary estate to the Kurt Weill Foundation. Effective January 1, 2012, the Foundation will administer Blitzstein's intellectual property, including his compositions, translations, and adaptations, in association with Blitzstein's other nephew, Christopher Davis. Blitzstein's papers, housed principally at the Wisconsin Historical Society, are not included in the gift. Stephen Davis, a retired attorney residing in Rhode Island, has been named an honorary trustee of the Foundation, joining luminaries Teresa Stratas and James Conlon in that role.
In accepting the gift at a December 19 reception in honor of Stephen Davis, Foundation president Kim H. Kowalke noted: "No other composer of Blitzstein's independent stature has been so inspired by the example of Kurt Weill or so crucial to the reception of Weill's work. We are deeply honored to accept this gift and the responsibility it carries to perpetuate this wonderful body of work."
As a composer, Blitzstein (1905-1964) is best known for Regina, an opera based on Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes and now his most frequently performed composition, and for his pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, which famously defied censorship by the Works Progress Administration in 1937 and inspired a 1999 film by Tim Robbins. Other major works include I've Got the Tune, No for an Answer, the Airborne Symphony, Reuben Reuben, and the Broadway musical Juno.
As contemporaries in the American musical theater, Weill and Blitzstein shared common interests in creating socially conscious, populist theater, fusing classical and popular musical idioms, and developing American opera. Not only did they share the same birthday, March 2 (1900 and 1905, respectively), but Weill's greatest success turned out also to be Blitzstein's: The Threepenny Opera. Blitzstein's English adaptation of Weill and Brecht's 1928 Dreigroschenoper catapulted the work into lasting prominence on U.S. stages and established "Mack the Knife" as one of the top popular songs of the 20th century.
According to Blitzstein, in January 1950 he telephoned Weill to tell him that he had made a translation of "Pirate Jenny" from Die Dreigroschenoper, and sang it over the phone to Weill and his wife, Lotte Lenya. Weill encouraged Blitzstein to translate the entire show, but never saw it come to fruition because of his premature death in April 1950. Blitzstein's English version was first performed in concert in June 1952 at Leonard Bernstein's inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis University, conducted by Bernstein, narrated by Blitzstein, and featuring Lenya as Jenny, the role she had created in the original Berlin production.
The resulting excitement led to a legendary off-Broadway stage production at the Theater de Lys, directed by Carmen Capalbo and featuring Scott Merrill, Lotte Lenya, Beatrice Arthur, and Jo Sullivan, among others. An instant hit, The Threepenny Opera ran from 1954 to 1961 for a total of 2,707 performances, setting the record as the longest-running musical in history up to that date and winning a special Tony Award in 1956. The MGM cast album sold in record-breaking numbers, and recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and Ella Fitzgerald, among countless others, sent "Mack the Knife" (Blitzstein's version of "Moritat von Mackie Messer") to the top of the charts.