The Village’s original, Off-Broadway baby


By Michael Clive

Two cheers for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s promising revival of the “Threepenny Opera” which opens on April 20th at Studio 54. Let’s reserve that final cheer until we’ve had a chance to see how things go. But in the meantime, Downtown theater loyalists will await this Uptown opening with all the proud, proprietary interest of a parent whose child is starring in the school play.

“Threepenny” is our original Off-Broadway baby. Dating from 1928, “Die Dreigroschenoper” is the ur-collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It swept pre-war Europe and went to Moscow, but on Broadway in 1933 it stopped dead in its tracks, closing after a dozen performances. Theater historians cite Americans’ Depression-era taste for escapism rather than class commentary, but an ungainly translation also obscured the original German’s acidic, ironic wit.

In good times and bad, the burdens of translation seem to be its curse. Weill worked comfortably with Broadway’s most prominent lyricists after fleeing here from Nazi Germany in 1933, yet “Threepenny” seemed somehow resistant to American English. His widow, the electrifying singer-actor Lotte Lenya said she was convinced it was untranslatable until Marc Blitzstein provided the adaptation that changed everything.

In 1954, four years after Weill’s death, Blitzstein’s version opened at the Theatre de Lys — now the Lucille Lortel Theatre , on Christopher Street — with Lenya in the cast along with a bevy of future television and Broadway stars. Its smashing six-year run became one of New York’s most cherished theater legends, creating our enduring image of Off-Broadway: rebellious yet mature, bohemian yet classical. It also confirmed New York’s acceptance of the Brecht-Weill masterpiece.

More than 50 years after that historic opening, and more than 40 after Blitzstein’s tragic early death, his translation of “Threepenny” has won new listeners through the remastered, reissued recording of the 1954 cast. It also lives on through numberless high school and college productions. But theatrical producers have unjustly relegated it to a ghetto of quaintness — another artifact of West Village 1950s lore. Astonishingly, this trend began with a West Village favorite son: Joe Papp, whose 1976 New York Shakespeare Festival production replaced Blitzstein’s translation and moved to Broadway with the redoubtable Raoul Julia as Macheath and the girlish Ellen Greene flopping around in Lenya’s grown-up shoes.

Now, when it comes to gratuitous updating, “Threepenny” is anything but fragile. Its theatrical impact depends upon self-consciously revealing its disparate origins: John Gay’s London, Queen Victoria’s London, Berlin between the wars, and the modern day. Jarring anachronisms don’t ruin the dramatic illusion, because there is no illusion to maintain. You are here, onstage. The actors have invaded the audience. The fourth wall is gone. Still — replace Blitzstein?

Papp’s production coincided with Ralph Manheim and John Willett’s preparation of scholarly Brecht translations authorized by the playwright’s estate. After commissioning them for his performance edition, Papp wrote the now-infamous program notes that only he could have rammed into print, contending Blitzstein’s version lacked rawness and failed to capture the essence of the original. Part of his critique was simply mistaken: though some sexually explicit lyrics were bowdlerized for the recording, even the cleaned-up versions reveal the truth with a wink. Part of it is seemingly demented, attacking the Blitzstein’s lyrics as too singable.

Perhaps Papp didn’t recognize the uncanny matching of wit for wit and irony for irony or the filth, raunch, and reeking cynicism that Blitzstein miraculously captured. Somehow, each devilish German double entendre finds an English equivalent. Alongside this version, the Manheim-Willett is scrupulously accurate, literal and dull. What Papp seems to have meant by “rawness” is the word “shit,” which was frequently spoken in his production. It still had some shock value on Broadway in 1976. Today, even an obscure columnist in a community newspaper can use it all he wants. As for singability — well, Joe had no worries on that score.

The Roundabout revival will feature a new translation by another intellectual hero (an oxymoron, yes, but let it go): Wallace Shawn. Like Blitzstein, Shawn has an experienced hand and ear with opera librettos that he wrote for staging, not studying. Though I’ll miss Blitzstein, I can’t want to hear Shawn’s take on “Threepenny.” I’m rooting for him, for Brecht and Weill, and for Off-Broadway theatrical history. I want to shout out that third cheer.

Michael Clive writes on the performing arts, cultural trends and the media, and is creative consultant to the PBS series “Live From Lincoln Center.” This is his first column on classical music and opera for The Villager.