While the best-known American version of Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht’s Threepenny Opera is the 1954 Off-Broadway production with Lotte Lenya, the definitive performance was put on in 1976 by the New York Shakespeare Festival.
The 1954 version was tremendously watered-down, both lyrically and musically. The instrumentation had been changed from Weill’s 1920s-jazz small band style to a much more conventional theater orchestra, and the timing was “fixed” — whereas in the original production, the lines were sung off-beat from the music (a deliberate decision by Brecht and Weill), the American show had everything fit perfectly. And Mark Blitzstein’s translation was largely bowdlerized: “Ballad of Sexual Obsession” became “Ballad of Dependency”, for instance. (Other English recordings are just too classical, taking the “Opera” part too seriously, or are simply abominations.)
When the famous theatrical producer Joe Papp revived the show twenty years later, he made a point to be as faithful to the original as possible. He used a much better translation and restored song verses that had never been published (one about “the ghastly fire in Soho” in “Mac the Knife” and a disturbing one about Jenny’s forced abortion in the “Ballad of Immoral Earnings”). The show also went back to the original orchestration, even ordering a custom-built acoustic Hawaiian guitar (as only electric ones were available at the time of production).
The cast was top-notch, featuring a young Ellen Greene (best-known for her later performance as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors) as Jenny and Raul Julia playing a charismatic, rascally, menacing Macheath — the best performance of that character that ever has been or ever will be.
The cast recording was issued by Columbia in 1977 and, naturally, has never been reissued on CD. It featured some highly-informative liner notes by Papp and Stanley Silverman (from which I cribbed much of the information for this post), which included a good, concise description of Threepenny’s revolutionary appeal:
… From that moment in 1928 when the banjo entered playing lowdown jazz in “Ballad of Mac the Knife”, following a sophisticated neo-classical overture, the course of music history was ineluctably altered.
Update January 22, 2007: MP3s removed per request of BMG Classical.
- Ballad of Mac the Knife
- Peachum’s Morning Hymn
- “No They Can’t” Song
- Wedding Song for the Less Well-Off
- Cannon Song
- Barbara Song
- First Threepenny Finale: Concerning the Insecurity of the Human State
- Polly’s Lied
- Ballad of Sexual Obsession
- Pirate Jenny
- Ballad of Immoral Earnings
- Ballad of Gracious Living
- Jealousy Duet
- Second Threepenny Finale: What Keeps Mankind Alive?