History: The Making Of...

The Making of Threepenny Opera

Kurt Weill on the Riviera, 1928
Kurt Weill, 1928

Early in 1928, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were both regarded as “enfants terribles” in the world of Weimar culture. They had one obscure collaboration under their belt, Weill’s setting of five of Brecht’s poems about an imaginary city called Mahagonny, and they were already hard at work on the full-length Mahagonny opera, which would cause a scandal and lead to Nazi riots in 1930. But Brecht was also toying with the famous Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, from 1728, which had been revived in London in 1920 and run for years. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s assistant and collaborator, introduced him to the piece and translated the English libretto into German.

Elisabeth Hauptmann
Elisabeth Hauptmann, 1929

Ernst Josef Aufricht, a young actor who became a producer when he inherited a big chunk of money, acquired the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm early in 1928 and was looking for a show. He found Brecht in Schlichter’s, a famous theater hangout in Berlin, and asked if he had any possibilities. Finally the conversation came around to the Beggar’s Opera. Aufricht was hooked. When he heard Kurt Weill was writing the score, however, he balked–Weill was considered a difficult avant-garde composer of opera at that time, and Aufricht feared that audiences would stay away. He went as far as to order his music director to locate the original Beggar’s Opera music, just in case. His fears were not laid to rest until Weill played several songs for him, at which point he and his staff agreed that the music would have at least as much audience appeal as the script.

The show took about six months to adapt from Gay’s piece, although most of the work was done on the French Riviera in May and June. Brecht drew on other sources besides the Beggar’s Opera. One is the Bible, which is quoted frequently, especially in the first scene, where Mr. Peachum talks about arousing sympathy for his beggars. Other sources include the great French medieval poet, François Villon, and Rudyard Kipling. (In fact, Brecht had to pay a portion of his royalties to the translator of Villon when it was discovered that some song lyrics were taken nearly verbatim from the German edition.) Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti recalls that during rehearsals, Brecht always had a circle of people around him tossing out suggestions and ideas, some of which wound up in the show--including the title itself, which is generally credited to Brecht’s fellow playwright Lion Feuchtwanger.

A portion of the original 1928 playbill for Threepenny Opera

Rehearsals were chaotic, with cast changes galore and numerous disagreements among the creative team. After a dress rehearsal that dragged on until 5:00 a.m. (songs were still being cut and added!), everyone involved agreed that the show would flop. Even with a brand-new song, “Mack the Knife,” added to the score at the last minute, disaster loomed. As the crowning blow, the opening-night programs came back from the printer without Lotte Lenya’s name, causing the normally unflappable Weill to throw a tantrum and try to prevent Lenya from going on. This an hour or two before the curtain went up.

This is the portion of the original Threepenny playbill that inadvertantly omitted Lotte Lenya's name.

August 31, 1928. Accounts of the premiere agree that the audience sat in stony silence through most of the first act, until Mack and Tiger Brown’s duet “Kanonen-Song” (The Army Song). For whatever reason, that rip-roaring number broke the ice, and the suddenly frenzied crowd demanded an encore then and there. From that point on, the show was assured of success, despite the fact that many critics didn’t know what to make of it. Now that night has passed into legend as the cultural high-water mark of the Weimar Republic, just as Threepenny has come to represent the entire era. And so, of course, everyone then in Berlin later insisted they had been there. Lenya said it best: “People who had scornfully passed up that opening night began to lie about it, to claim to have been there, primed for a sure-fire sensation!”

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