History in America

The Threepenny Opera Off Broadway (1954-1961)

The Warm-Up

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

The first Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis University in June 1952 was Leonard Bernstein’s brainchild. It featured performances and symposia on classical music (Aaron Copland), jazz (Miles Davis, Max Roach), dance (Merce Cunningham), poetry (William Carlos Williams), and theater. Bernstein’s close friendship with Marc Blitzstein gave him an obvious incentive to feature a concert performance of Blitzstein’s new English version of The Threepenny Opera on June 14, 1952. Lotte Lenya (Jenny) and Jo Sullivan (Polly) played the roles they would take when the show opened off-Broadway in 1954, while Bernstein himself conducted.

Report on the concert:

“This work has never really been a success when attempts have been made to transplant it to this country. . . . The Blitzstein text is a glorious success, and should win a wide American audence for The Threepenny Opera if anything can. . . . He has managed to give the plot and characters a spontaneous, vernacular quality . . . The song lyrics border on the miraculous. . . . Those who know the German original better than I do marvelled at the constant felicity of the parallels between it and Blitzstein’s version.”

―Cecil Smith, Musical America, July 1952

On August 18, 1952, Leonard Bernstein wrote to Lenya:

“You thank me! 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.”

In the Beginning . . .

From left: Lenya, Merrill, Sullivan, Rae, Lishner
From left: Lenya, Merrill, Sullivan, Rae, Lishner

The Threepenny Opera opened at the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, March 10, 1954 and played for 96 performances. Another show had already been booked into the theater, forcing the run to end. The opening night cast included Bea Arthur (Lucy), John Astin (Readymoney Matt), Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Leon Lishner (Mr. Peachum), Scott Merrill (Mack), Gerald Price (Streetsinger), Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Peachum), and Jo Sullivan (Polly). Pretty good for an unheralded show in an unknown theater on a grubby Greenwich Village street.

The Artistic Team

Wedding scene
Wedding scene

Lotte Lenya:
“Marc Blitzstein has come closest to capturing the power of Brecht’s book and lyrics. He has kept the slang and the sting. . . . Every time Broadway has approached me about Kurt’s opera, they have wanted to change it. They wanted an all-Negro cast or a different locale, or some other gimmick. I have always turned them down, and so did Kurt.”

―quoted in Emory Lewis, “Musicals Off Beat,” Cue, April 3, 1954

Marc Blitzstein:
“I regard my role as that of a relayer, a middleman; I have simply made negotiable to our American audiences an opera I have adored since my Berlin student days. All translations–all, I say–are bound to be failures; one must be content to settle for that which fails least.”

―“Prize Dreigroschen,” Saturday Review, October 25, 1958

Carmen Capalbo, director:
I guess I'm the only director who ever had to do a singing audition to get a directing job . . . So I went over to the piano, Blitzstein sat down, he turned over the first page . . . and there is "Mack the Knife." And he said, "Let's see if we can find a key for you." And I just looked quickly over the lyrics, and we found a key, and I sang "Mack the Knife" over his shoulder, cold. And then we did a couple of others, and then I think we did the "Army Song." At the end of that, Lenya said, "Where did you learn to sing like that?" I said, "From you." She said to Marc, "That's the man to do Threepenny Opera."

First page of 1954 program
First page of 1954 program

Scott Merrill, Macheath, 1954-57:
Lenya said, “You’re not having fun with the part. It’s a fun part!” When I went back the second time, I created this wonderful sassy walk, and when I first did it it felt right, and I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong about Mack! He’s a big camp! Anyhow, I went back and did the show that night, and I think everybody in the cast came to me and said, “What happened?!” Carmen saw me maybe about a week later and said, “I don’t know who you’ve been talking to buddy, but you sure got it right now!”

The Critics

“Marc Blitzstein’s translation of the Brecht text is, to my mind, the finest thing of its kind in existence. He has got the spirit of the play and and rendered it powerfully, colloquially, compactly. And his English versions of the songs are so apt prosodically, fit their music so perfectly, that one can scarcely believe them to be translations at all.”

―Virgil Thomson, “Two Shows,” New York Herald Tribune, March 21, 1954

“The combination of Kurt Weill’s music wedded to Marc Blitzstein’s unadorned but penetrating translation of Brecht’s original text, makes it an irresistible stage piece. . . . Lotte Lenya’s Jenny, the most consistently brilliant portrayal of the evening, makes Threepenny Opera a must for any adventurous theatergoer.”

―Harriett Johnson, “Don’t Miss Threepenny Opera,” New York Post, May 17, 1954

“The Blitzstein adaptation strikes us as being pretentious and forced. Instead of rapier wit, it offers humor with a bludgeon. . . . Blitzstein has left the Weill score intact. It offers tinkly tunes, cleverly orchestrated for an ensemble of eight pieces. In our opinion, Weill was a fine arranger, though often less than original as a composer.”

―Robert Coleman, “Threepenny Opera Falls Flat on Its Face,” Daily Mirror, March 21, 1954

“Everything seems labored and awkward instead of sprightly and bright. The miracle is that the inherent superiority of the material survives all hazards.”

―Harold Clurman, “Theater,” The Nation, March 27, 1954

The Cast Recording

Far left: Carmen Capalbo and Stanley Chase, center: Lotte Lenya, Marc Blitzstein, Marga Richter, right: Ed Cole
Far left: Carmen Capalbo and Stanley Chase, center: Lotte Lenya, Marc Blitzstein, Marga Richter, right: Ed Cole

Most of the opening-night cast of Threepenny sang on the recording made by MGM in April 1954, the first ever off-Broadway cast recording. The principal exception was Martin Wolfson instead of Leon Lishner as Mr. Peachum. (Wolfson was already in the cast by the time the recording was made.) The recording was an instant hit and went on to sell well over half a million copies. It’s still available as a CD reissue from Decca Broadway.

Original MGM record jacket
Original MGM record jacket

Some songs were shortened due to time constraints, and squeamish executives forced Blitzstein to revise lyrics at the recording session, because some songs were deemed too explicit. Mostly this meant simply changing a word here and there: “chippy” became “cutie” (“Solomon Song”) and “Get off your ass” became “Get on your feet” (“Call from the Grave”). But in a few cases entire stanzas had to be dropped, as in “Mack the Knife,” or rewritten. Here is an example from “Tango Ballad”:

original (heard in the theater)
A sailor would appear; I got out of bed,
Went out and had a beer, he crawled in instead.
And when he paid his bill, back in bed I’d climb,
And say: Good-night my friend, thank you, any time.

revised (heard on the recording)
The milkman rang the bell; I got out of bed,
I opened up her purse, gave him what he said.
I’d have a glass of milk, back in bed I’d climb.
You understand she was out working all this time.

The Longest Run

A year and four months after Threepenny closed in 1954, pressure from the press and public caused the Theater de Lys (which had since been taken over by Lucille Lortel) to bring back Threepenny, which reopened September 20, 1955, with largely the same cast. The show did not close until December 17, 1961–at the time a record-setting run for a musical in New York. Over 750,000 spectators saw it, and over 700 actors took part. Among them: Edward Asner, Jerry Orbach, Estelle Parsons, Jerry Stiller, Katherine Sergava. Lenya left the cast for good in the spring of 1956, but that had no effect on the production’s momentum.

The Artistic Team

Scott Merrill (Macheath) and Bea Arthur (Lucy Brown)
Scott Merrill (Macheath) and Bea Arthur (Lucy Brown)

Bertolt Brecht to Marc Blitzstein (undated letter):
“Ich halte Ihre Bearbeitung der Dreigroschenoper für grossartig und schätze Sie sehr.” (I consider your adaptation of Threepenny magnificent and think highly of you.)

Stanley Chase, producer:
“Messrs. Capalbo and Chase, at twenty-eight one of the youngest producing teams around, had several offers to bring Threepenny uptown to Broadway, but ‘it’s the kind of production that needs a small theater off the beaten track,’ Mr. Chase said.”

―quoted in Judith Crist, “‘Threepenny Opera’ Reopening Tuesday,” New York Herald Tribune, September 18, 1955

Gerald Price, who played Mack several times:
“You see, there are so many mean and vicious lines that in order to get any entertainment value one plays Mack with a certain tongue in cheek air. When you play it that way the show has lightness. If you bear down on the heavy words and play them for their full meaning then the play becomes ugly.”

―quoted in Don Ross, “An Off-Broadway Record,” New York Herald Tribune, July 3, 1960

: Scott Merrill as Macheath
Scott Merrill as Macheath

The critics

“The production is superb. It vividly expresses the casual, squalid hugger-mugger of the fable.”

―Brooks Atkinson, “Songs and Cynicism,” New York Times, March 11, 1956

“There are two shows, really, at the Theater de Lys. One has a cast of twenty ebullient and engaging actors and actresses, at least two of whom (Jane Connell, Tige Andrews) operate on a higher, considerably sharper level than the norm. The other show has a cast of one, and her name is Lotte Lenya.”

―Jerry Tallmer, “Catching up with the Season,” Village Voice, October 26, 1955

“The various Pollys have used up 14 dressing gowns and 28 pairs of shoes. Jenny has gone through 20 costumes and Mack the Knife has worn out 20 canes, 35 derbies and 22 pairs of shoes. . . . Producer Capalbo said he dreaded to see an uptown producer turn up at the de Lys because such a visit invariably meant another raid on his cast.”

―Charles McHarry, “The Threepenny Opera that Made $2.5 Million,” Sunday News, July 31, 1960

Trivia

Jo Sullivan as Polly
Jo Sullivan as Polly
Lenya’s Tony Award medal
Lenya’s Tony Award medal
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