Marc Blitzstein Introduces his Adaptation of The Threepenny Opera
Recorded at Brandeis University, 1952
Lenya as Jenny performing the Blitzstein translation on American television in 1966
Excerpt sung by Lotte Lenya, 1954
Scott Merrill (Macheath) and Lotte Lenya (Jenny) in The Threepenny Opera; Theater de Lys, New York, 1954
Scott Merrill (Macheath), Jo Sullivan Loesser (Polly), and Lotte Lenya (Jenny); Theater de Lys, New York, 1954
Marquee for the Off-Broadway production at Theatre de Lys, 1954
Bea Arthur (Lucy), Scott Merrill (Macheath), Jo Sullivan Loesser (Polly); Theater de Lys, 1954
Off-Broadway production poster at the Theater de Lys, 1954 | Design: David Stone Martin
Lotte Lenya (Jenny) and Scott Merrill (Macheath), 1954
After the , the Street Singer comes onstage with a barrel organ and sings of the crimes of the notorious bandit and womanizer Macheath, Mack the Knife (). The setting is a fair in Soho (London), just before Queen Victoria’s coronation.
Act I begins in the shop of Jonathan Peachum (), who controls London’s beggars, equipping and training them in return for a cut of their “earnings.” He enrolls a new beggar with the help of his wife, after which they notice that their grown daughter Polly did not come home the previous night (). The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath is about to marry Polly, as soon as his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings (). No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly does it herself (). The gang gets nervous when Chief of Police Tiger Brown arrives, but Brown turns out to be an old army buddy of Mack’s () who has prevented him from being arrested all these years. Everyone else exits and Mack and Polly celebrate their love (). Then Polly returns home and defiantly announces her marriage, as her parents urge her to get a divorce and Mrs. Peachum resolves to bribe Mack’s favorite prostitutes (). Polly reveals Mack’s ties to Brown, which gives Mr. and Mrs. Peachum an idea about how to snare Mack, and the trio meditates on the world’s corruption ().
Polly tells Mack that her father will have him arrested. He makes arrangements to leave London, explaining his bandit “business” to Polly so she can manage it in his absence, and he departs ( and ). Polly takes over the gang decisively as Mrs. Peachum bribes Jenny, Mack’s old lover, to turn him in (“Ballad of Dependency” reprise). On the way out of London, Mack stops at his favorite brothel to visit Jenny (). Brown arrives and apologetically arrests Mack, who goes to jail. He bribes the guard to remove his handcuffs (); then his girlfriend, Lucy–Brown’s daughter–arrives and declares her love (). Polly arrives, and she and Lucy quarrel (). After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Mack’s escape. When Mr. Peachum finds out, he threatens Brown and forces him to send the police after Mack. The action stops for another meditation on the unpleasant human condition ().
Jenny comes to the Peachums’ shop to demand her bribe money, which Mrs. Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Mack is at Suky Tawdry’s house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr. Peachum can stop them (). To placate Peachum, Brown’s only option is to arrest Mack and have him executed. Jenny mourns Mack’s plight (). In the next scene, Mack is back in jail (). He begs the gang to raise a sufficient bribe, but they cannot ( part 2). A parade of visitors–Brown, Jenny, Peachum, and Polly–enters as Mack prepares to die (). Then a sudden reversal: A messenger on horseback arrives to announce that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen and granted a castle and pension (). The Street Singer delivers the coda ( reprise).
"A distinguished and delightful work of art, striking, sardonic, original, humorous and always interesting."
New York Post, 1954
"A tour de force. Sometimes Weill writes with sangfroid, with the insolence, indifference and tired routine of any jazz hack. But you are not listening to shop-made jazz. You are listening to a master of his craft, saying in his score all sorts of things . . . with world weariness, compassion and despair, in a tonal dialect which includes some fetching tunes and some apt dissonance. . . . This opera, singspiel, what you will . . . may well last as long as its eighteenth-century predecessors."
New York Times, 1954
"This sordid and beautiful vaudeville of life in a Victorian London slum, set to Kurt Weill's alternating strident and plaintive music-hall melodies, does not date."
"The Threepenny Opera resists virtue admirably."
New York Times, 1956
"Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's seminal 1928 critique of capitalism, self-interest and the bourgeoisie suits . . . the tone of these troubled times . . . the kind of theater that shakes up an audience."
Chicago Daily Herald, 2008
"With Brecht's cuttingly satirical look at the meaning of morality in a society populated by gangsters, beggars, prostitutes and corrupt cops, and Weill's edgy, opera-meets-cabaret score . . . this show was all but irresistible."
Chicago Sun-Times, 2008
"What a treat! . . . Some of the wittiest, catchiest, most caustic odes . . . ever to grace a musical comedy . . . . There are pop-out lines (for instance, a blatant equation of bankers with criminals) that could have been written yesterday. But the undying contradiction of Threepenny Opera is that it bites the hand of the politically blasé bourgeoise while also tickling it."
Seattle Times, 2011
"An absolute triumph . . . . A completely engaging if not always nice evening of musical theater."
Broadway World, 2011
"The Threepenny Opera is one of those rare examples of the transformation of a great theatrical work from one era into a successful work of a later era. . . . Brecht's social and economic preachment remains stingingly relevant to our time."