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"Consistently surprising, eminently rewarding and endlessly fascinating,
New Line's Threepenny Opera was the show that set a new standard for St. Louis musical theater."

– Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times, Best of St. Louis 2015


"The Threepenny Opera
is the oldest show New Line Theatre has ever staged.

It might also be the hottest, the sharpest and the best."

– Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 

"New Line Theatre's near-perfect production of The Threepenny Opera."

– Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

"Fresh, vital and deliciously subversive" – Mark Bretz, Ladue News

"A wicked good time." – Tina Farmer, KDHX

"Sinister and sizzling . . .New Line Theatre gives us this stage noir classic with all its wickedness intact.
It's a pitch-black masterpiece that sucks you in with its nightmarish charms."
– Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

"This 1928 show, one of the highlights of the German Weimar period,
seems to have snapped out of hopelessness and morphed into
the first rebellious musical of the 'post-Ferguson' era."
– Richard Green, TalkinBroadway

THREEPENNY

 

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread;
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear,
So there's not a trace of red.

On the sidewalk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life;
Someone sneaking 'round the corner;
Is the someone Mack the Knife?

From a tugboat by the river,
A cement bag's dropping down;
The cement's just for the weight, dear;
Bet ya Mackie's back in town!
          — The Threepenny Opera

Before there was Urinetown, before Cabaret or Sweeney Todd, there was this dark, comic masterpieces of the art form, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's world-famous musical comedy thriller, THE THREEPENNY OPERA (which is not actually an opera), in the famous translation by composer-lyricist Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock). This is the show that launched the pop standard, “Mack the Knife,” with a haunting jazz score, acid harmonies, wickedly clever lyrics, and very questionable morals. This is the musical that inspired many shows New Line has produced over the years, including Cabaret, Urinetown, Bat Boy, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and so many other modern musicals.

New Line closed its 24th season with this ferociously funny morality tale about social and economic brutality, about redemption for the irredeemable, about devotion to the undeserving, about justice in the service of the unjust. Originally opening in Berlin in 1928, the show later became the first mega-hit off Broadway in the 1950s, running over 2,700 performances. It’s now one of the most revived musicals around the world, having been translated into eighteen languages and performed more than 10,000 times.

The story centers on the vicious career criminal Capt. MacHeath ("Mack the Knife") who plans to marry the (possibly) innocent Polly, daughter to Mr. Peachum, the King of the Beggars, with the help of Mack’s friend Tiger Brown, the Chief of Police, who's own daughter Lucy may also be married to Mack. Peachum threatens to organize London’s beggars to ruin Queen Victoria’s coronation unless Tiger Brown arrests and hangs MacHeath. Lots of double-crosses, skullduggery, and plots twists later, only Queen Victoria herself could save him.

The New Line cast included Todd Schaefer as Capt. Macheath; Zachary Allen Farmer as Mr. Peachum; Sarah Porter as Mrs. Peachum; Cherlynn Alvarez as Polly; Christopher "Zany" Clark as Tiger Brown; Christina Rios as Lucy Brown; Nikki Glenn as Jenny Diver; and Reynaldo Arceno, Brian Claussen, Kent Coffel, Jeremy Hyatt, Todd Micali, Kimi Short, Margeau Baue Steinau, Luke Steingruby, and Larissa White. Scott Miller directed the show, with music direction by Jeffrey Richard Carter, scenic design by Rob Lippert, costume design by Sarah Porter, lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl, and sound design by Benjamin Rosemann.

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of a 2008 production, “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, the show is all but irresistible.” The New York Post called the show “striking, sardonic, original, humorous and always interesting.” The New York Times wrote, “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.” Cue called it “sordid and beautiful.”

Stage director Brian Kulick says about the show, "America didn't fully understand Brecht's black humor until Vietnam and Watergate, and in a way we've caught up with his humor. It was always there, but we couldn't hear it. His ironic, one might say cynical, outlook just didn't fit with a Rodgers and Hammerstein world. And now, post all these horrible things that have happened in the twentieth century, we've learned how to laugh the way Brecht laughed."

Back in the 1920s, John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera had been revived in London for a run of more than three and a half years, then reworked and presented in Austria. Soon after in Berlin, Bertolt Brecht, the controversial genius playwright and director, co-wrote with Elizabeth Hauptmann a new, contemporary, more socio-political, more satirically savage updating of the show called The Threepenny Opera, with a ground-breaking, German jazz-influenced score by Kurt Weill. It was such a hit, additional companies soon opened in Vienna, Budapest, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. Aggressive, unrelenting, and frequently hilarious in its social commentary, The Threepenny Opera was a political satire for a new age and for a Germany on the brink of fascism and Nazism. Hitler decided that Threepenny was an attack on wholesome German family values and it was banned. In Hitler’s Museum of Degenerate Art (no kidding), one room played songs from Threepenny on an endless loop so that wholesome Germans could be outraged by them. But so many people came to listen to the great songs that the exhibit was hastily closed down.

Threepenny came to New York in 1933 but ran only 12 performances on Broadway. It did better in Paris in 1937, in London in 1940, and in Milan in 1956. But in 1954, in a new English translation by Marc Blitzstein, after Brecht’s death, the show became the first monster hit off Broadway. The new Threepenny opened at the Theatre de Lys off Broadway, ultimately running a total of 2,706 performances over six years, causing a sea change in the approach to serious musical theatre in America, having an impact on Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, Kander and Ebb, and other future giants of the art form, bringing Brecht's ideas into mainstream American theatre.

 

 

 

Want to explore more? We recommend:

The original cast album of the Marc Blitzstein adaptation of Threepenny

The 1931 German film version, starring Lotte Lenya, the original stage Polly; and the 1990 movie version with Raul Julia, Roger Daltry, and Richard Harris

An excellent book, analyzing the show and its many different versions, Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera (Cambridge Opera Handbooks)

Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Novel

The new book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, by Pamela Katz, about Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and the three women who worked with them to create Threepenny and other great works

The Stage Grok podcast interview with Paula Hanssen, Webster University professor, about Brecht and Threepenny

"The Making of New Line's THREEPENNY," a talk-back with the New Line design and production team

Ethan Mordden's book, Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, about Threepenny's composer and star

The book Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway, by Foster Hirsch; and also Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform, by Stephen Hinton

An interesting article about translating Threepenny, "Brechtian Papp," from Commentary magazine in the mid-1970s; also the lyrics to "Mack the Knife" in three different translations; and details on the various translations and versions of Threepenny

The great documentary Theater of War, about Brecht and a production of his play Mother Courage (starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, directed by George C. Wolfe)

The book Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal, about the real-life inspirations for the characters in Threepenny

The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music