History in Europe

The Threepenny Opera in Europe

Curtain from the 1928 production
Set design by Caspar Neher

Berlin, 1928, Theater am Schiffbauerdamm

Director: Erich Engel
: Theo Mackeben
: Harald Paulsen (Mack), Roma Bahn (Polly), Erich Ponto (Mr. Peachum), Rosa Valetti (Mrs. Peachum), Lotte Lenya (Jenny)
Length of run
: over 2 years
Cast recording
: No original cast recording. Lotte Lenya, Erich Ponto, and Kurt Gerron from the original cast, along with several other singers, recorded about half of the score in December 1930 (available on several CD reissues, including Telefunken Legacy 0927 42663 2).

Notes: One of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in the history of theater. After a disastrous rehearsal period, everyone involved thought the show was doomed. Producer Ernst Josef Aufricht had already started trying to find another play for his theater the day before Threepenny opened. But the audiences couldn't get enough, and within a week the show was the talk of Berlin. Count Harry Kessler noted, "It is the show of the season, always sold out." Threepenny-fever swept Berlin-one entrepreneur went so far as to open a club (the Dreigroschenkeller) named after the show-Germany, and Europe. The show saw an amazing 130 productions on the Continent over the next four years.


Brothel scene from act II
Renée St. Cyr, Raymond Rouleau, Suzy Solidor

Paris, 1937, Théâtre de L'Etoile

Director: Francesco von Mendelssohn
Conductor: Selmar Meyrowitz
French version
: André Mauprey, Nina Tallon Stars: Raymond Rouleau (Mack), Renée St. Cyr (Polly), René Bergeron (Mr. Peachum), Yvette Guilbert (Mrs. Peachum), Suzy Solidor (Jenny)
Length of run
: ca. 1 month

: Aufricht tried to recapture the glory of 1928 in front of a much less sympathetic audience. The cast was very strong, and Weill took the unusual step of composing two additional numbers for Yvette Guilbert as Mrs. Peachum, but apparently she never sang them (he also instructed Aufricht to make the staging "as French as possible"). One of the last performances in Europe before World War II.


Brothel scene from act II
Brecht with Giorgio Strehler

Milan, 1956, Piccolo Teatro

Director: Giorgio Strehler
: Bruno Maderna
Italian version
: Emilio Castellani
: Tino Carraro (Mack), Marina Bonfigli (Polly), Mario Carotenuto (Mr. Peachum)
Length of run: ?

Notes: One of the most influential post-war productions. In the last months of his life, Brecht visited Milan to see the show and was profoundly impressed, giving Strehler his enthusiastic blessing. This staging made the show known in Italy--Luciano Berio, among others, cited its influence--but it created new performance traditions worldwide. Strehler went on to direct other important productions of Threepenny, in Milan, 1973 and in Paris, 1986.


Brothel scene from act II
Daphne Anderson, Bill Owen, Georgia Brown

London, 1956, Royal Court Theatre

Director: Sam Wanamaker
Conductor: Berthold Goldschmidt
English version: Marc Blitzstein
: Bill Owen (Mack), Daphne Anderson (Polly), Eric Pohlmann (Mr. Peachum), Maria Remusat (Jenny). Folk singer Ewan MacColl sang "Mack the Knife" as the Street Singer.
Length of run
: ca. 4 months

Notes: Blitzstein's American version of Threepenny got its first overseas exposure in the London production, where it was adapted further, in that the show was set in the early 20th century rather than in the 19th. Two great names from pre-war Berlin, Berthold Goldschmidt (conductor) and Caspar Neher (designer) worked on this production. England had fiercely resisted Threepenny in the 1920's and 30's-why did they need a jazzed-up Beggar's Opera when they were happy with the original?-and this production marked the beginning of a great thaw among British theatergoers.


Brothel scene from act II
Program cover

1960, Berlin, Berliner Ensemble (Theater am Schiffbauerdamm)

Director: Erich Engel
: Hans-Dieter Hosalla
: Wolf Kaiser (Mack), Angelica Domröse (Polly), Peter Kalisch (Mr. Peachum)
Length of run
: ca. 300 performances

: A return to the scene of the crime. When Brecht returned to Germany in 1949, he formed what became one of the world's leading acting companies, the Berliner Ensemble. They first performed Threepenny in 1960, four years after Brecht's death, with the director of the world premiere, Erich Engel, once again at the helm. Engel credited Strehler's 1956 production for providing ideas for his own revival. Since the Berliner Ensemble was located in East Germany, Engel cheerfully pointed up his version of the theme of the show: the infection of all human relations with capitalism, making this the first Cold War production of the show. The Berliner Ensemble brought its production to London's Old Vic Theatre in 1965.


Brothel scene from act II
Brothel scene (Tim Curry at right)

1986, London, National Theatre

Director: Peter Wood
: Dominic Muldowney
English version: Robert David MacDonald
Stars: Tim Curry (Mack), Sally Dexter (Polly), Stephen Moore (Mr. Peachum)
Length of run
: ca. 6 weeks

Notes: Peter Wood, of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed this opulent production. Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show) supplied the Macheath. The critics admired the music and praised Dominic Muldowney for getting an authentic Weimar sound out of the orchestra, but the production proved less popular. Rodney Milnes despaired of the director's concept, accusing him of having made Threepenny into "a quaint little musical comedy."


Brothel scene from act II
Hans Falár

1987, Berlin, Theater des Westens

Director: Günter Krämer
: Peter Keuschnig
: Martin Reinke (Mack), Therese Dürrenberger (Polly), Hans Falár (Mr. Peachum), Ingrid Caven (Jenny).
Length of run: ca. 2 months

: The production coincided with Berlin's 750th anniversary, fittingly, since Threepenny played such a dramatic role in Berlin's history. Krämer opened the show with a brawl between Communists and Nazis, a clear reference to Berlin of the 1920's. The set was startling: a steep staircase taking up the entire stage allowed for staging effects impossible with a more conventional design. An innovative and popular production.


Brothel scene from act II
Act III Finale

1994, Frankfurt, Städtische Bühnen

Director: Hans Hollmann
Conductor: HK Gruber
: Friedrich-Karl Praetorius (Mack), Katherina Lange (Polly), Jürgen Holtz (Mr. Peachum)
Length of run
: ca. 20 performances

: In this production, Weill champion HK Gruber led the Ensemble Modern in a performance of Weill's complete original score, the first time it had been heard in Germany in many years. He included even "Lucy's Aria," a coloratura parody cut from the world premiere and rarely performed since. Critics' eyes were caught by the coffins encircling the stage-each coffin opened to reveal a member of the orchestra. This production was broadcast on German television (3sat).


Brothel scene from act II
Mack (Tom Hollander) in jail

1994-95, London, Donmar Warehouse

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
: Gary Yershon
English version: Robert David MacDonald (book), Jeremy Sams (lyrics)
Stars: Tom Hollander (Mack), Sharon Small (Polly), Tom Mannion (Mr. Peachum), Tara Hugo (Jenny)
Length of run: ca. 3 months
Cast recording
: JAY Records CDJAY 1244

Notes: A relentlessly modern Threepenny. Director Lloyd set the scene in 2001 (supposedly the time of Prince William's coronation), and the production team shot the show through with contemporary references-even handing out to the audience a fake tabloid with the headline, "Police Close in on Mack the Knife." Although the production got a mixed reception, it was particularly notable for offering the premiere performance of master translator Jeremy Sams's lyric translations, and for Tara Hugo's Jenny-Variety credited her with "seizing by the throat the Brecht-Weill source."


Stefanie Stappenbeck and Ulrich Tukur
Stefanie Stappenbeck
and Ulrich Tukur

2004, Hamburg, St. Pauli Theater

Director: Ulrich Waller
Conductor: Matthias Stötzel
: Ulrich Tukur (Mack), Stefanie Stappenbeck (Polly), Christian Redl (Mr. Peachum), Eva Mattes (Mrs. Peachum)
Length of run
: ca. 1 month, plus revivals

Notes: Several of Germany's leading actors highlighted this production at the St. Pauli Theater, appropriately located near Hamburg's famous Reeperbahn (red-light district). In a musical innovation, Mack's gangsters were transformed into a band, the "Rhythm Boys." This production demonstrated that Threepenny is no museum piece-today's actors and directors continue to reinterpret the work in light of modern conditions, and it lives on, fresh and powerful as ever.


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