History in America

The Threepenny Opera in America

Brothel scene from act II
Brothel scene from act II

New York, 1933, Empire Theatre (Broadway)

Director: Francesco von Mendelssohn
Conductor: Macklin Marrow
English version: Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky
Stars: Robert Chisholm (Mack), Steffi Duna (Polly), Rex Weber (Mr. Peachum). Burgess Meredith played a small role as Crooked Finger Jack.
Length of run: ca. 2 weeks (12 performances)


Notes: First U.S. production, two years before Weill settled in the U.S., and a big disappointment. Neither Weill nor Brecht was present at rehearsals. No copy of the script is known to exist, but reviewers generally objected to its heavy-handedness and lack of humor. Percy Hammond: "The 3-Penny Opera at the Empire is just a torpid affectation, sluggish, ghastly and not nearly so dirty as advertised" (NY Herald-Tribune). Perhaps Gilbert Gabriel summed up the critical consensus best, calling the show "a dreary enigma." But the music got a better reception: the New York Times called it "a splendid score" and Robert Benchley praised "the haunting score of Kurt Weill."

 

Lenya as Jenny
Lenya as Jenny

New York, 1954, 1955-1961, Theater de Lys (off-Broadway)

Director: Carmen Capalbo
Conductor: Samuel Matlowsky
English version: Marc Blitzstein
Stars (opening night): Scott Merrill (Mack), Jo Sullivan (Polly), Leon Lishner (Mr. Peachum), Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Peachum), Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Bea Arthur (Lucy Brown), John Astin (Readymoney Matt) Stars (later casts): Jerry Orbach (Mack, Street Singer), Ed Asner (Mr. Peachum), Estelle Parsons (Coaxer), Jerry Stiller (Crookfinger Jake)
Length of run: ca. 6-1/2 years (2,707 total performances)
cast recording: MGM 3121 (LP), CD reissue available on Decca Broadway 012 159 463-2

Notes: Opened about four years after Weill's death, and made his works with Brecht widely known in the U.S. The run was split into two parts: 96 performances in the spring of 1954, after which a previously scheduled show was installed in the theater, with the remaining performances in a consecutive run beginning September 20, 1955. A small-scale production that ran on youth and enthusiasm-many successful actors got their start in the show, and Lenya's career acquired new life. By the end of the run in 1961, the show had set a record for consecutive performances of a musical (beating out Oklahoma!) and had used over 700 actors. Famed critic Brooks Atkinson summed up the reason for its success: "The Threepenny Opera resists virtue admirably," he wrote, and "as a theatre work, The Threepenny Opera is a triumph of style."

 

Raul Julia (Mack) with Ellen Greene (Jenny)
Raul Julia (Mack) with
Ellen Greene (Jenny)

New York, 1976-77, New York Shakespeare Festival

Director: Richard Foreman
Conductor
: Stanley Silverman
English version: Ralph Manheim and John Willett
Stars
: Raul Julia (Mack), Caroline Kava (Polly), C.K. Alexander (Mr. Peachum), Elizabeth Wilson (Mrs. Peachum). Blair Brown played Lucy Brown.
Length of run
: ca. 9 months (307 performances)
Cast recording
: Sony Masterworks Broadway 51520

Notes: A milestone in American theater, although Lenya did not like the production. Manheim's and Willett's translation promised fidelity to Brecht's original German, to correct Blitzstein's softening of the text. The production, one of Richard Foreman's first ventures outside of his own Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, helped make Raul Julia a household name. The long run made the show available to a new generation of New Yorkers fifteen years after the Theater de Lys run ended. A couple of brief quotes indicate the schizophrenic reception: Clive Barnes: "the most interesting and original thing that Joe Papp (of the NYSF) has produced since he set up shop at the Vivian Beaumont three years ago." John Simon: "I cannot begin to list all the injuries done to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's masterpiece."

 

Georgia Brown, Maureen McGovern, Alvin Epstein
Georgia Brown, Maureen
McGovern, Alvin Epstein

New York, 1989, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (Broadway)

Director: John Dexter
Conductor
: Julius Rudel
English version
: Michael Feingold
Stars
: Sting (Mack), Maureen McGovern (Polly), Alvin Epstein (Mr. Peachum), Georgia Brown (Mrs. Peachum)
Length of run: ca. 2 months (65 performances)

Notes
: A star-crossed production complete with cross-over stars. With solid musical theater professionals backing up Sting and Maureen McGovern, the show seemed destined for success. Feingold's translation and Rudel's musical direction assured faithful renderings of both words and music. But it was an expensive flop-the "Three Million Penny Opera" in one headline. The stars and the director seemed unable to work together successfully (Dexter was ill throughout rehearsals and died soon after the show closed), and the staging never jelled. Sting has not tried his hand at theater since. As Variety put it: "What seemed like a surefire concept in theory- rock star does Brecht-Weill classic with classy English director of many hits-misses the brass ring in execution."

 

Philip Casnoff, Bebe Neuwirth
Philip Casnoff,
Bebe Neuwirth

San Francisco, 1999, American Conservatory Theatre

Director: Carey Perloff
Conductor: Peter Maleitzke
English version
: Michael Feingold
Stars: Philip Casnoff (Mack), Anika Noni Rose (Polly), Steven Anthony Jones (Mr. Peachum), Nancy Dussault (Mrs. Peachum), Bebe Neuwirth (Jenny)
Length of run: ca. 1 month

Notes: One of the few major productions in the Bay Area. Broadway, film, and TV star Bebe Neuwirth was joined by Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose and opera and musical star Lisa Vroman as Lucy. The production as a whole was warmly greeted by the press. USA Today congratulated the ACT for capturing the authors’ intentions by staging the show as “a political fable rather than a well-considered character study.”

 


Melissa Errico

2003, Williamstown, Williamstown Theatre Festival

Director: Peter Hunt
Conductor
: James Sampliner
English version: Marc Blitzstein
Stars
: Jesse L. Martin (Mack), Melissa Errico (Polly), David Schramm (Mr. Peachum), Randy Graff (Mrs. Peachum), Betty Buckley (Jenny), Karen Ziemba (Lucy Brown)
Length of run: ca. 2 weeks

Notes: An incredible cast, with an unforgettable group of women (three Tony Awards and seven nominations among them) matched by television and theater veterans Jesse L. Martin and David Schramm. Director Hunt drew on his experience from two previous Williamstown productions to lead the cast. The New York Times: "The great fun in watching this 'Threepenny' is seeing its leading players meet the challenge implicit in Weill's brilliantly fractured, dissonant score."

 

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