“Food is the first thing, morals follow on.” The Pet Shop Boys used that line in their 1993 song “Can You Forgive Her,” and they got it from The Threepenny Opera. Premiered in Berlin in 1928, 3P is an iconic work, the creation of composer Kurt Weill and poet/dramatist Bertolt Brecht, and opens a two-weekend run at CCM as part of its Kurt Weill festival, sponsored by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc.
No good guys, no corn fields, mystical villages or big production numbers. The characters are criminals, whores, corrupt officials and establishment types who easily juggle bourgeois morality and hypocrisy. Brecht’s acidic, often brutally vivid lyrics and Weill’s edgy cabaret musical settings are the perfect combination for this amorality tale that combines satire of opera and capitalist society with theatrical innovation.
It almost didn’t happen.
Brecht had a commission for a theater’s opening in Berlin. “Brecht’s assistant and lover, Elisabeth Hauptmann, knew of a successful London revival of John Gay’s ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, and she translated it for Brecht, who insisted on Kurt Weill joining the team,” recalls bruce mcclung, professor of musicology at CCM and a Kurt Weill authority.
The impresario balked; Weill hadn’t composed popular music, so he made him audition. Weill got the job and completed the score in less than eight weeks. “Mack the Knife” was added at the last minute, because the actor playing Mackie insisted on an opening song — now a classic.
“It’s a catalog of Macheath’s notorious deeds, something that Sondheim borrowed for the opening of Sweeney Todd,” notes mcclung.
3P was a sensation, running for more than 2,000 performances in Berlin and transforming Weill into a popular composer.
Macheath’s underworld is London on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation. His lowlife associates include corrupt police chief Tiger Brown, his daughter Lucy, Mack’s ex-lover, the prostitute Jenny Diver, the Peachums, who control London’s beggar business, and their daughter Polly, whom Macheath marries.
“They’re all pretty selfish,” says CCM professor of opera Robin Guarino, who directs the production.
Fearing their beggars’ scam will go south if Macheath gets involved, the Peachums scheme to get him hanged. At the last moment, Macheath is reprieved, thanks to Queen Victoria’s coronation proclamation pardoning those sentenced to death. Not only that, Macheath is named a baron.
Guarino makes her debut directing musical theater for CCM, and she says it’s not a stretch. “Weill’s music was my mantra and life blood growing up as a young artist. With 3P, I get to direct the spoken word and songs. It’s ridiculous fun.”
3P is not your average night at a musical. Brecht’s scenario is a prime example of epic theatre, a technique he used to distance audiences from what they watched onstage.
“There was no suspension of disbelief for Brecht,” mcclung says. “He wanted the audience to think and to be aware that they were watching a play.”
It’s incredibly challenging, says music director Roger Grodsky. “The students are grappling with Brecht’s ideas about alienation and what it means. We’re not used to being symbolic. It’s much more presentational than we’re used to: You’re playing a part but you’re also doing a part.”
And then there’s the score. Grodsky describes it as having an “unexpected jaggedness, and at the same time, it’s very melodic.”
“It’s not like singing Oklahoma!” he says. “It’s much more declamatory. It’s rhythmically challenging and the melodies don’t always go where you think they should.”
“The most interesting thing to explore with musical theater students — and this material demands it — is singing with their legit voices,” Guarino says, adding that what poses the biggest challenge in this case is that the material “isn’t always pretty, because the characters aren’t pretty and they definitely aren’t nice.”
Grodsky adds that trying to create a valid character arc is nigh impossible in this work. “The songs aren’t integrated into the script in what we think is a normal way. Every time a performer tries to think of the character’s motivation, it doesn’t work.”
Weill’s music reflects Weimar Germany’s fascination with American dance idioms and what Germans thought of as Jazz, “which was white Jazz as played by Paul Whiteman,” mcclung says. “Weill didn’t use American popular song form: He wrote strophic melodies that keep repeating, like in ‘Mack the Knife.’ What makes it interesting is the orchestration.”
3P is one of the best musical theater scores ever written, intensely melodic, tinged with irony and an ambiguity straight out of contemporary songwriting. Grodsky insists that Weill’s music counters Brecht’s best efforts.
“No matter what you do as far as alienation effects, when people sing, there’s an emotional response. And Weill’s music is so great. It’s 40 minutes of the most beautiful music ever, written for the most disgusting people.”
The action plays out on a set by Tony-award designer John Arnone, who uses the original 1928 stage designs by Caspar Neher. The band will be onstage and in costume. In keeping with performance tradition, the songs are introduced with title cards, in this case, projections. “Mack the Knife” is the first musical number, and from there audiences can expect “to be caught off guard, to laugh at the unexpected and to think,” Guarino says.
She plans to maintain Brecht’s scenario of an anachronistic London. “For me, it strengthens the piece.” And the great strength of the piece is the music: quirky, fascinating and unforgettable.
Grodsky agrees: “For several weeks, students have been telling me, ‘I can’t get this melody out of my head.’ ”
THE THREEPENNY OPERA runs Feb. 28-March 3 and March 7-10 at CCM’s Patricia Corbett Theater. Mature subject matter. Tickets: 513-556-4163.