A new 12-CD set titled Leonard Bernstein: Historical Recordings 1946-1961 contains an unexpected gem, an archival recording of the very first performance (in concert) of Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation of Die Dreigroschenoper at Brandeis University, 14 June 1952. Blitzstein's version, which made the work popular in the U.S. and U.K. and has been performed thousands of times, would soon break all the records for long-running musicals and establish off-Broadway theater as a cultural force in the U.S.
Bernstein was a close friend of Blitzstein, and he used the first Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis to showcase the new adaptation. The participants in the three-day festival read like a who's who of influential musicians, dancers, theater artists, and critics. The Threepenny Opera cast included Lotte Lenya and Jo Sullivan, both of whom appeared in the stage premiere in 1954; Blitzstein himself narrated, and Bernstein conducted. One could hardly ask for a more auspicious tryout.
The recording reveals some preliminary versions of lyrics that will intrigue philologists, one example being a line from "Mack the Knife": "Have you noted Mackie's loaded," later replaced by "And Macheath spends like a sailor." Perhaps more interesting for those steeped in the original off-Broadway cast recording (1954), the new recording presents something much closer to Blitzstein's original conception. The "Tango-Ballad," bowdlerized on the cast recording, is preserved here in its original form. Lenya's "Pirate Jenny," her first performance anywhere of an English version, will not disappoint. After the performance, Bernstein wrote a note to Lenya:
I should be out there spreading roses at your feet for all you did for us at the Brandeis Festival. And it is you who have done the great service to Kurt's music, by being the archangel of a performance that could not have existed but for you. Genug. You’re a genius.
The complete recording, a little over an hour, has been issued by West Hill Radio Archives (WHRA-6048) as the eighth disc of eleven (the liner notes are included as a PDF file on the twelfth CD). The set includes radio broadcasts and rehearsals in addition to previously unreleased live performances, and will form an essential part of any Bernstein lover's collection. Weill fans will be overjoyed to have a chance at last to hear this essential historical performance of The Threepenny Opera.
Page on West Hill Radio Archives site
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Originally posted: 2 July 2013
Last updated: 3 July 2013