Basics: Introduction

Threepenny Opera: An Introduction

A milestone of 20th century musical theater, The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) rolls on unstoppably into the 21st. In their opera "by and for beggars," composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) transformed saccharine, old-fashioned opera and operetta forms, incorporating a sharp political perspective and the sound of 1920s Berlin dance bands and cabaret. Weill's acid harmonies and Brecht's biting texts created a revolutionary new musical theater that inspired such subsequent hits as Cabaret, Chicago, and Urinetown. The show's opening number, "Mack the Knife," became one of the top popular songs of the century.

Poster design by Ezio Toffolutti for the Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 1994.
Poster design by Ezio Toffolutti for the
Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 1994.

The opening night audience at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm didn't quite know what to expect when the curtain rose on The Threepenny Opera on August 31, 1928, but after the first few musical numbers they began to cheer and call for encores. The show was a brilliant hit, and Threepenny-fever spread throughout Europe, generating forty-six stage productions of the work in the first year after the Berlin premiere. In 1931, a film version directed by G.W. Pabst entitled Die 3-Groschenoper opened, making an international star of Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, who repeated her portrayal of Jenny Diver from the show's first production.

The Threepenny Opera had already been produced 130 times worldwide by 1933, before the rise of the Nazis forced Weill to flee to Paris in March of that year. He finally settled in America with Lenya in September 1935; Brecht escaped through Scandinavia, finally reaching the United States via Siberia in 1941. Both Weill and Brecht wanted a major production in the U.S. but were unable to make the necessary arrangements to their mutual satisfaction. The Nazis, of course, had banned all Weill's and Brecht's works from the German stage.

Although The Threepenny Opera reappeared in theaters in Germany and the United States right after the end of the war, the work's true renaissance did not get underway until a New York off-Broadway production at the Theater de Lys. Running from 1954 through 1961, the show had a total of 2,707 performances, at that time the longest running musical in history. The cast album sold in record-breaking numbers, and Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and Ella Fitzgerald, among countless others, made "Mack the Knife" into a standard.

Today, The Threepenny Opera is still entertaining audiences all over the world. The re-released recording from the 1954 revival is available on CD (Decca Broadway), along with a splendid BMG recording of the new critical edition of the score made in 1999; a dozen other recordings of the complete show are available in various languages. There are three cinematic versions of the work, made in 1931, 1963, and 1988. The most recent Broadway production opened in March 2006, and the Berliner Ensemble production that opened in September 2007 continues to enjoy great success all over Europe. Judging by the evidence, the music and story of The Threepenny Opera remain as irresistible to today's audiences as they were in 1928.

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