Book & Original German Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
Music by Kurt Weill
English Lyrics by Marc Blitzstein (or Manheim/Willett, or another translation)
adapted from The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay

INFO:

Opened at Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin    August 31, 1928, with 130 productions throughout Germany within 4 years!    1954 Theater de Lys (Off-Broadway)   2,707 performances
Original Director: Bertolt Brecht
Original Producer: Ernst Josef Aufricht
Original Leads: Macheath: Harold Paulson    Jenny: Lotte Lenya
Cast Size: Male: 3    Female: 4    Ensemble: Around 6-?, divided evenly  Total Cast Size: 13-However large you wish to make it.
Orchestra: 7 (Weill’s own orchestrations, 7 musicians play 23 instruments) Today, it usually takes 11-13 players. Can be done with piano/bass/drums,and a synth or two – but it’s much better with Weill’s orchestrations.
Published Script: Many versions. Marc Blitzstein’s translation: You’ll probably need to contact the R&H Library for a perusal copy. Manheim/Willett Translation: Penguin Books ISBN 0143105167 There are at least 4 separate English translations.
Production Rights: Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatricals
Recordings: Many! The Off-Broadway 1954 (the first-ever Off-Broadway cast recording!) with Lotte Lenya, Bea Arthur, Charlotte Rae, Jo Sullivan Loesser (Frank Loesser’s wife) is a classic. Loved Raul Julia in it, in 1976, with Blair Brown, Ellen Greene. There are numerous recordings in German, of course, and other languages.
Film: Three films have been made. The first, in German directed by Pabst in 1931 is fascinating, but hard to watch as it has deteriorated, and hard to find. Brecht disliked it, too. In ’62 German version was done, and when released in the U.S., Sammy Davis, Jr. was somehow added to it! In 1989, an all-star English-language cast version was produced under Menachem Golen, with Raul Julia, Richard Harris, Julie Walters and others. Interesting, worth a look.
Other shows by the authors: The Rise And Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Happy End.  Weill without Brecht: Berlin To Broadway With Kurt Weill, Johnny Johnson, Knickerbocker Holiday, Love Life, Lady In The Dark, One Touch Of Venus, Street Scene, Lost In The Stars

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

First, let’s clarify a key point. The Threepenny Opera is NOT an opera, it is a musical comedy. It lampoons (makes fun of) classic opera, but it also has an extensive, well-developed book. Opera is traditionally “sung-through”, meaning everything is sung, including what would normally be better presented as dialogue. (Sung dialogue is called “recitative.” Modern sung-through pieces include Jesus Christ, Superstar, Evita, Phantom Of The Opera, Sweeney Todd, and pretty much Rent. Yet we do consider these to be musicals, not operas.) Threepenny is perhaps half sung, half spoken. It’s a musical, so don’t be scared off by the “opera” part of its title. Nor is is all that hard to sing, for the most part, though the music is unique. Some of the women’s ranges are rangy, for those parts you will want some trained voices. That is true of nearly every musical. But listen to the various recordings, especially with the sensational Lotte Lenya, and you’ll see that the voices in the show are not required to be operatic. Musical, yes. Operatic, no.

Threepenny is a relatively small-sized musical. Its cast size is elastic, and it will work with as few as around 13, or as many as 100. It does take place in multiple locations, but lends itself easily to a unit set, and could even be done on a bare stage thanks to Brecht’s approach to the story. (Placards introduce each scene and its location. Much as Shakespeare’s plays occupy many locations, all on a bare stage, Threepenny is admirably suited to a simple and even bare stage approach.) The period the play takes place in England in 1837…or today, or anytime you wish to place the story, preferably when some one person ran government. (You might substitute Queen Victoria’s name for a modern leader.) So costuming difficulties and expense will be dictated by your director’s approach to the show. This can be one of the more easily produced musicals, or it can be a technical challenge. It’s up to you-it will work, regardless, if you do a good job.

This is a very good show to consider if you find yourself in a political climate encouraging fascism, powerful government doing things to overwhelm private and personal rights in favor of “the national need.” Such times come at all-too regular intervals. It will work well for High Schools focused on the arts and with an audience with an open mind; Colleges; Little Theaters; Summer Stock (perfect); Semi-pro and professional theaters, especially those with limited wings or backstage area.

Be Warned:

The show is edgy. It is political. It is frank in its depiction of prostitution, murder and crime. (There’s no nudity, nor do we see any act of violence. These things are referred to in song and dialogue.) In fact, it revels in the lower nature of man. If your audience is highly conservative, or uncomfortable with plays that push the edge (even though written in 1928…), well, don’t do this show. Also, not a show for kids. I wouldn’t do this in most High Schools.

One thing – this show, being one of the most commonly done worldwide, may have had recent productions in your part of town. Find out if it has been done in the past few years, or is about to be done by other schools or companies, before selecting it.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: A unique rag-tag “Overture” (as only Weill would write) accosts the ear of the audience. We are in Soho, London, and Queen Victoria is about to celebrate her coronation. Enter the Street Singer, a denizen of the wrong side of the London tracks, to tell us all about the murdering womanizer, “The Ballad of Mack The Knife.” We go to the shop of Jonathan Peachum, master of beggars, the brain behind the lame and the halt throughout the streets of London. We see him rouse the troops to action (“MORNING ANTHEM”), and then prepare a new recruit to appear hopeless and needy, with his wife’s aid. Then the discussion turns to a more intimate one – their daughter, Polly, seems to have gone missing overnight. (“INSTEAD OF SONG”)

We go to an empty stable. And there is Polly! She is about to marry Macheath, the very murderer we just heard sung so cheerily about. The room fills with stolen goods from Mackie’s gang – gifts to the happy couple. (“WEDDING SONG”). They are not factually married as there are no vows…but that’s good enough for Polly, who then entertains Mack and his gang with “PIRATE JENNY.” Suddenly, the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown shows up! Rather than arrest everyone, he’s there to celebrate with Mackie, his old army pal. (“ARMY SONG”) And so we discover how Macheath has been permitted his illegal reign of terror all these years. Alone at last, the “newlyweds” share a sort of vow, one whih is certain to make the audience edgy. (“LOVE SONG”)

Polly makes her way home, where she brazenly informs her parents of her “marriage.” They insist she divorce Macheath, and her mother decides to force the issue through a business arrangement with Macheath’s favorite prostitute, knowing that sex is always man’s downfall. (“BALLAD OF DEPENDENCY”) In talking to Polly, her parents discover Macheath’s enduring relationship with Tiger Brown, which provides them another way to force a divorce. The family contemplate the lower nature of mankind. (“THE WORLD IS MEAN”)

ACT TWO: Polly warns Macheath that he’s going to be arrested. Having no choice, he turns his business over to Polly and flees London. (“MELODRAMA”, “POLLY’S SONG”) Polly turns into an exceptional leader of bandits and killers. Her mother approaches Jenny, Mack’s lover, and bribes her. Coincidentally, Macheath cannot seem to leave London without a visit to Jenny and his beloved brothel, where he and Jenny reminisce on their long and checkered relationship. (“TANGO BALLAD”) Brown shows up and, against his better angels, has Macheath arrested. Mackie cannot stand chains and briobes the guard to remove his. (“THE BALLAD OF THE EASY LIFE”) It is then that Brown’s daughter, Lucy, shows up and informs Mackie that she, too, is in love with him. (BARBARA SONG”) Sadly, Polly steps in on this private moment, and a great cat fight ensues. (“JEALOUSY DUET”) Polly leaves, and Lucy helps Macheath escape jail. Peachum discovers that Mackie has escaped, and blackmails Tiger Brown the catch him. They all stop the action to again consider how miserable it is to be who they are, where they are. (“HOW TO SURVIVE”, or “WHAT KEEPS A MAN ALIVE”)

ACT THREE (Yes, it’s in three acts, but can be done in two.) Jenny approaches Mrs. Peachum for her fee, but the lady refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Mackie is at another woman’s place, Suky Tawdry. Tiger Brown shows up to arrest Peachum (?!) and his beggars, and discovers that the beggars have been deployed to bring Mackie in, and there’s nothing he can do to stop them. (“USELESS SONG”) Now Brown does what he must – arrests Macheath in order to execute him. Jenny feels a twinge of guilt. (“SOLOMON SONG”)

In jail. Macheath curses the universe, and discovers that no one can help him. (“CALL FROM THE GRAVE”) he prepares to die, saying his last bitter and hate-filled farewell to those who care for him. (“DEATH MESSAGE”) And then, suddenly, the world turns on its head, as a “MOUNTED MESSENGER” arrives from the queen to announce the Macheath is pardoned (or “reprieved”), and granted a fortune. Happy ending, nice and tidy, announces the Street Singer, in a reprise of “Mack The Knife.”

RE ACT BREAKS: Almost no play or musical today allows two act breaks. It is thought to provide an audience to many opportunities to withdraw their interest from the show, even to leave the theater. With this in mind, you could play Acts I and II without break, and then place an Intermission.

That said, as Brecht WANTS to alienate his audience and keep them aware that they are watching a live theatrical show, you may wish to keep two intermissions…and then do a sort of show in the lobby or in the aisles of the theater. Get creative. Between Act I and Act II, have the London beggars comically doing their work on your audience, faking diseases and missing limbs. Have some of the London Prostitutes ply their ware in the Lobby. Hand out wanted posters for Macheath between Act II and Act III. Between acts, as Intermissions end, have these actors parade the audience back into their seats noisily. Perhaps provide the beggars and whores placards that say something like “And the audience returns to their seats…” Have a beggar at the door refuse entrance to critics unless they grease his palm. All of this will serve numerous purposes. 1) It will make the entire evening more fun. 2) It will keep the audience engaged even as they withdraw. 3) It will give your ensemble a little more to do. Over to you.

THE SONGS:

(Titles from the Blitzstein adaptation) Overture; The Ballad of Mack, The Knife; Morning Anthem; Instead-Of Song; Army Song (Cannon Song); Wedding Song; Love Song; Ballad of Sexual Dependency; The World Is Mean; Melodrama and Polly’s Song; Pirate Jenny; Tango Ballad; Ballad of the Easy Life; Barbara Song; Jealousy Duet; How To Survive; Useless Song; Solomon Song; Call From The Grave; Death Message; Finale; Mack The Knife (reprise)

Hits include Mack The Knife; Pirate Jenny; Barbara Song

MY OPINIONS:

As always, you are free to ignore or skip my opinions and rating.  Just don’t be surprised if you get a visit late one night from Macheath, and Pirate Jenny…

Easily one the greatest musicals ever written, and for me, the first truly great musical. Sorry, lovers of Showboat! Though there are things I admire about Kern and Hammerstein’s classic (authored a year earlier than Threepenny), and I recognize it’s important place in history, Threepenny is far more durable and alive. Long after companies stopped doing Showboat (which pretty much happened decades ago, with one notable production by Harold Prince serving as the exception), there has continued to be hundreds of productions of Threepenny each year, worldwide, as there is this year, 2013, over 80 years after Threepenny first saw the light of a stage. It has long since proven itself, and is one of, if not the most produced of all musicals. (I would think its competition for most productions is The Fantasticks, and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. All three shows share small, simple production values, great scores and books.)

I’m not claiming Threepenny is the best musical ever written. It’s probably too unusual to qualify for that title, though it certainly belongs in the discussion. Of course, “The Best” anything is usually a matter of opinion, and that is especially so in the area of the arts. You might absolutely hate Threepenny, depending on your taste, and depending on what you think a musical should look like, feel like, and accomplish. If you like a good love story with a rewarding, happy ending, lovers united, almost any other musical will provide…but not Threepenny. Threepenny Opera is anti-romantic, cynical, harsh, edgy…in short, perhaps the most contemporary musical, perfect for today’s outlook. But “the best” is a matter of bias, as is every rating (my star system) in this book.

So let’s start with my bias. I believe (my opinion) Kurt Weill was the greatest composer of the 20th century of any kind. I can think of no other composer who made the impact he did in classical and opera, and who then turned around and wrote musical theater works (many of them) that generated many hit songs and shows! His music is utterly unique and identifiable, yet always perfectly right for the character and the piece. He is, as one critic pointed out, a “musical dramatist” rather than just a songwriter. But his melodies, his use of classical form mixed with jazz, are infectious. And his constant demand that the very best writers (in whatever country he found himself) work in the musical theater altered forever the musical, elevating its standards and aspirations in ways no other theater artist can claim. You can be certain of this – no Kurt Weill, then no Stephen Sondheim. (I’m sure that Mr. Sondheim will hate that statement and disagree. It is, nonetheless, so.)

Brecht was perhaps the most formative and important theater force of the 20th century, not only for his many masterful, magnificently vital plays, but also as a great director and philosopher of the theater. I know people who really don’t like his works (such as Stephen Sondheim), but I could not disagree with them more. Yes, his work is generally stridently agitprop, but it’s also blissfully theatrical, alive, explosive in ways no other playwright can match.

These two great artists wrote Threepenny Opera as young men, and it represents all their passion and exuberance, matched by their unparallelled skills. (Among other things, Weill is really the only writer of musical theater who consistently orchestrated his own works, due to his classical experience. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber did orchestrate Jesus Christ, Superstar; Phantom of the Opera and Evita, also a remarkable achievement. And again, his background was classical.)

At the time, Threepenny was a not-so-subtle dig at the Nazi Party, which was at that time growing in power in Germany. It was a brutal, grim, hysterically funny comment on the “me first” philosophy that entitles fascists and thugs to do as they please, the people that Brecht despised. It was sufficiently successful and brutal that its two Jewish writers had to flee Nazi Germany to escape arrest, not too long after its premiere. Yet, as dark as it is (and it is still quite dark), few shows are funnier, livelier, or more entertaining. And no show of any sort has had a more successful history.

In short, my opinion-WHAT A SHOW!!! I can’t imagine a more fun, edgy evening of theater to watch, or to be a part of. And throughout its life, some of the greatest talent in the arts have involved themselves in Threepenny. No less than Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra in the first successful American presentation of the Blitzstein translation, and felt grateful for the opportunity. The most important critics (and composers) in the world generally raved about the show, finding it trend-setting and important. It is beloved world-wide.

There is an absolutely remarkable site all about The Threepenny Opera. If this show interests you, this is a must!

MY RATING: *** (An exceptional show, bordering on (if not) perfect, and one of my personal favorites.)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:
Weill’s music is not like anyone’s. He was one of the first and best composers to heavily utilize atonality. He mixed classical music forms with American jazz in ways no one else has matched. He is perhaps the most fluid composer in musical theater when it comes to poly tonal work, elastic keys and unusual intervals. And his melodies can be ravishingly beautiful. With any Weill piece, you will need a musical director who plays very well and who knows his stuff. You’ll need musicians who can double, most likely, and who are skilled.

Another thing about the songs – they have a unique and built-in tension you will not find in may shows outside of Weill’s. Take the lyric to “Mack The Knife.” It is dark, grim, bloody, a horrific if grimly amusing tale of a man without morals, who will do anything for gratification or a buck. Does Weill mate the lyric with an equally dark musical theme. Nope. He does something so much better – he contradicts the lyric with a bright, cheery, almost innocent and bubbly street song, redundant (so we will really listen to the lyric) and completely melodic. The music lifts the lyric into a sort of game, music vs. lyric, and they color the audience’s perception of each in the process. If the music is so cheery, perhaps the lyric is not as dark as we think, and we can digest it. If the lyric is so grim, perhaps the music is not as cheery as we originally thought, and we should be looking more carefully at the moment, the song. This approach is common in Threepenny, and creates a glorious tension.

Another thing about how the lyrics and music combine. The authors intentionally have open-ended lines in many of the lyrics, so that a musical line feels somehow uncomfortably unfinished, even as the melody seems almost to rest. Look at Blitzstein’s translation of Mack The Knife:

Oh, the shark HAS
Pretty teeth, dear.
And he shows THEM
pearly white.

Just a JackKNIFE
has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps IT
out of sight.

The end of lines 1,3,5 and 7 are incomplete, and require the line after to finish. This creates pressure and tension. The audience can’t just sit back and listen pleasantly, as they would most songs in most musicals. The very structure of the song in its combining of lyric to music forces the audience to sit forward and pay attention. This is intentional! It is a part of Brecht’s approach to musicals and theater, and rather than try to “smooth out” these jagged lines, the musical director needs to understand their purpose and actually emphasize them. This runs counter-intuitive to the kind of thing singers and Musical Directors usually do, and it is required for this particular show.  In other words, The Threepenny Opera makes its own rules, an approach which would probably sink any show written by other writers (except Blitzstein, see The Cradle Will Rock), and has done so with spectacular success.

Your singers will need to have interesting voices, and most of them do not need a lot of training. They must carry a tune well, harmonize decently. The voices to concern yourself with include:

Macheath – Lyric baritone with some high notes. An actor first, singer second, but must have a strong voice with true pitch. Sings quite a bit.

Peachum – Lyric baritone. Mature actor, in his 40s-50s. Should be able to “fake” a bit of an operatic feel, but really, not a very large range. A Musical Comedy character actor should be able to carry this. If he has some legit notes, that’s okay, too.

Polly-Soprano, more legit, a real voice.

Jenny – Well, you can go several ways with this character. Lotte Lenya was the original, and she is not much of a singer. But her voice was remarkably expressive and she could more than carry a tune. You could certainly go that route, or you could get a more trained alto. Must be a compelling voice and a strong actress.

Lucy – Again, this was played by Beatrice Arthur, a very low alto, and not a singer. You could go the strong actress route, or go more legit. She does a fair amount of signing.

Mrs. Peachum- Mature actress, strong, legit voice, mezzo soprano.

Tiger Brown – Lyric baritone, gruff, large, tough guy, big booming voice.

The Street Singer – He (or it could be a she) only sings Mack The Knife. I always picture a beat-up, homeless man with open, running sores, missing teeth, smiling and singing away. (I know that’s not the Bobby Darin/Louis Armstrong rendition. Those jazz greats did their take on the song, but it does not belong in the show.) A tenor or lyric baritone, usually, reedy, strong actor.

The ensemble (whores, gangsters) should look their parts and sing well. Get a good mix of vocal types.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:
Threepenny is not really a dance show. In fact, for the most part, soloists should stand their ground and deliver without a lot of movement. But there are numbers that will require movement bordering on dance, including Army Song (Cannon Song);The World Is Mean; Tango Ballad; Ballad of the Easy Life; Jealousy Duet and How To Survive. The movement needs to come from characterization rather than be “dance,” and the lyric should be where you find your inspiration, even if the pulse of each number is clearly musical. A Director who is comfortable with choreography light should be able to do the show without a Choreographer.

It is important that, whoever does the choreography, they work closely with the director. Both must understand Brecht and Weill’s intent. Brecht felt that there were three increasingly intense “levels” of “speech,” which he called speech, heightened speech (poetry and the like), and song. He felt that one should truly start where the other leaves off, that they are different, and that their difference should be emphasized rather than masked. If one was to adhere to Brecht’s design, numbers would start with a bang, announcing that they are songs and never trying to hide the fact that, far from realism, human beings in this piece will suddenly break into song. This is a very fun idea, and a director or choreographer could really make hay with it. How far can you go with this design? Hard to say. You will have gone too far if the audience doesn’t “get it,” if you lose them. But if the audience can be entered into this approach early in the show, preferably with the opening number (Mack The Knife), by having the artificiality of the moment noticeably emphasized, this is one key way Threepenny Opera could be made to feel unique and “live.”

One more note. Each act ends in a Mozartian finale (actually a spoof of Mozart’s finales). It might be fun to make a visual running gag of the three, positioning the actors the same way each time, perhaps in a tight group, lit at a low angle to appear ghoulish except when the Act III finale becomes “triumphant” at the end of the show. Then you can open up the lighting, open up the staging and spread the actors throughout the stage, and make it “glorious.” This will fit Brecht’s sense of satire, as they are pleading at the end that the guilty never be judged for their crimes, since the whole world is criminal.

CASTING CONCERNS:
Your actors MUST approach the material with tongue in cheek. The show is very funny, and it is NOT serious. (The Director and Choreographer must understand this.) It is satire. It is intended to get the audience laughing. (See vocal notes for casting above.)

Macheath – must be an adult male, probably 30′s. He has committed every crime imaginable, and somehow expects there to be no real consequences. Is he wrong? Well, not in the play, he’s not – at the end, there are no consequences, and what’s more, the criminal is raised to nearly royal privilege. Why not, argues Brecht? What are royals but the descendants of criminals and strong men? (Brecht’s opinion.) Mack the Knife must seem capable of great cruelty and destruction. But he takes all his own acts in stride, with an awful sort of calm and grace. He knows that the things he does are “bad,” but hey, a man must eat. Who is worse, asks Brecht through Macheath? The man who robs a bank, or the bank that robs the people? Today (2013), that question remains all-too timely. Macheath gets the women he wants, so he must appear appealing in a dark and frightening way. And when the world catches up to him, no man cries and sweats and begs more than Macheath. What he has done to others is completely unthinkable when others wish to return the favor, and he descends quickly into quivering fear and brutal fury. At the end, we see that he is not everything he pretends to be…at least, he is not merciless where his own skin is concerned. He expects (and receives) mercy. The actor must have quite a range of emotion.

Polly – in her late teens or early twenties, must be lovely if somewhat dissipated. We must believe she is a more-or-less virgin at the start, but quickly accept that she has a spine of utter steel as she takes over Mackie’s business. She must go from sweetness and light, to jealous rages and heartless business decisions. She is, in fact, a perfect mate for Macheath, if he could only but see it. She will need one of the most legit voices, as well, so this is a key and difficult role to cast.

Mr. Peachum – should be in some way commanding, as he has constructed and runs a business few other men could survive. Principally a comic role, a mature man (40′s-50′s), harried, brutal, feverishly intellectual, self-involved, aggressive.

Jenny – A whore, in her 20′s-30′s. Macheath’s favorite, so she must know something. Cutthroat, seemingly accepting that life is as it is while harboring a deep hatred of others.

Lucy – Daughter of the police chief, 20′s. In love with Macheath (they all are), perhaps less than beautiful, and so more easily manipulated by him. A larger, more “complete” girl, according to the lyric.

Mrs. Peachum- Much like her husband, similar age-range.

Tiger Brown – Chief of police, former army, a man of action who makes ties and attempts to keep them, but who will sacrifice even the closest friend to expedience. Perhaps in his early 40′s.

The Street Singer – He (or it could be a she) only sings Mack The Knife. I always picture a beat-up, homeless man (or woman) with open, running sores, missing teeth, smiling and singing happily away.

The ensemble (whores, gangsters) should look their parts and sing well. Get a good mix of vocal types.

SETS:
Brecht wants the audience to be ever aware that they are in a theater, watching a show. His shows engage in “anti-realism.” They are meant to scream out “I am theater.” So sets should look artificial. No attempt would be made to hide the fact that they are sets. In fact, their artificial nature could be emphasized by showing flat supports, sand bags, you name it. What’s more, signs can be marched in by actors, or flown it, and shown to the audience at the start of each scene, letting us know what we’re about to see- almost like the name of a chapter in a novel. Brecht encourages exactly this approach.

There are six locations indicated in the script: A Street, Soho; Peachum’s Beggar’s Outfit Shop; An Empty Stable: A Brothel in Wapping; Newgate Prison; Newgate Prison Death Cell. A couple of jail doors (bars) will suffice for the final two sets, and those can be walked on and even held by ensemble actors in place, visibly. That fits right in with Brecht’s intent/ A street can be represented by a single streetlamp. An empty stable is a box of wood. You get the idea. These sets can be made of almost nothing, which allows the set changes to be nearly instant (and choreographed into the action so it never stops). It also makes for an inexpensive show where sets are concerned, one that is relatively easy to execute. The Beggar’s Shop and the Brothel set should be kept representative and simple, as well. There is a lot here to argue for a bare stage approach with very limited set pieces either marches in by the cast or flown in, in each case visibly. Don’t hide your set changes, really use them, announce them. Brecht will approve.

By the way, think of some cool effect for Macheath’s gallows. Perhaps a lighting effect rather than a set piece.

COSTUMES:
The play is written to take place at a specific time and place in history, the coronation of Victoria, London. This will not be an easy period to shop for, so you may end up building many costumes. You will need to get certain things right, if you plan to stick to the period. (We’ll discuss that momentarily.) Hats, shoes, jackets, tatty dresses for the whores, boas or scarves, all that sort of stuff would need to be right. You can usually find this kind of thing at a large costume shop. If you plan shopping for them, good luck. Of all the design elements, if you stick to the period, costuming for this show will be the most difficult and expensive.

But why stick to the period? (Answer – It looks cool and generates an interesting atmosphere, and helps justify the intercession of the new Queen – if your production isn’t changing out Victoria for someone current. You can certainly dress your show for this period if you can, and if it’s determined that is the best creative route.) As with all the elements in a Brechtian production, anything you can do to remind the audience that they are watching a play is not only acceptable, but a good idea. So, modern dress? (Very cheap, easy to execute.) As if the actors were caught unprepared, perhaps ½ costumed in modern dress, but with accoutrements like hats, scarves and boas, jackets, things thrown on at the last minute? Or something even farther from a sense of the real? Clown costumes and make-up? Nazi period costuming (which might be truly fascinating), with Brown and the cops dressed as Nazi officers? Modern dress designed to fit a particular contemporary, fascist regime? Decisions along such lines will impact all the design elements, and should be coordinated through and with the director.

PROPS:
Crutches and other paraphernalia used by the coached beggars. Stolen items brought to Polly’s wedding. Period-correct weapons (the period to be determined, based on the discussions above). There will be a reasonable number of props, and your prop master may well be a busy man, but most of them should be able to be purchased or possibly rented. Not too much should need to be built. Again, the period in which the show is placed, as determined by the director, will also determine the look of many of your props, so coordinate.

LIGHTING:
The artificiality and overt theatricality of a Brechtian work should be emphasized, according to Brecht himself, by lowering the light batons until they are visible to the audience. The lighting can be filled with “effects,” noticeable, overt and unhidden. One such effect could be how you handle the finales, as discussed above. Another, Mackie’s gallows, as discussed above. The way you use a spotlight in a song like Barbara Song could be pointedly theatrical, slowly closing in on Barbara’s face (or Polly, singing Pirate Jenny), until on the last note, it cuts out, leaving us in darkness because the background lighting has also been faded out. This is a show where lighting could be very important, and very creative.

MAKE-UP:
Brecht thrives on constantly reminding the audience that they are in a theater, watching theater. So make-up does not need to, and it probably should not, look realistic. Again, this is an element whose creative approach will be determined by the director. There are many notes in sections above that will suggest make-up approaches, but the key, I believe, is to stay away from “realism.” Don’t be afraid to create some effects that are noticeable to the audience as make-up and as effects. Just work closely with the director.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):
Director, Music Director, Costume Designer, Set Designer, Macheath, Polly, Peachum.

MY THOUGHTS:
Threepenny is most unusual. Most highly successful shows are pretty much “written in stone,” as to the directorial approach you can take. Shows like My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, Hello, Dolly, Oklahoma, Phantom of the Opera and such do not provide much creative give…there are not many creative options available. The audience pretty much expects those dishes served up in their traditional mode. But not so Threepenny Opera, perhaps the most successful, the most often produced of all musicals. And perhaps, as is true of other oft-produced shows like The Fantasticks and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Threepenny’s remarkable flexibility is one of the secrets to its endurance. Certainly, it is flexible, and in fact, begs for directorial genius.

And certainly it is built to entertain in a big, startling way. Always remember as you put a production of Threepenny Opera together that Brecht believed the audience should smoke in the theater, talk back to the actors, and have themselves a rollicking good time. Yes, the show does communicate several messages in a rather powerful manner. But it must never fail to entertain first.  That said, it was a show written to protest the rise of the Nazi Party and fascism in Germany, authored by two men who would need to flee that country for their lives just a few years later.  Somehow, under that pressure, Weill and Brecht wrote a musical comedy, a masterpiece, and I would argue the first such.