The Threepenny Opera: Not So Perpendicular
The Roundabout's new production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera is by far the most shocking and innovative theatre event of this, the 1967-68 Broadway season. Men using cocaine! Women in S&M gear! Genitals exposed! Filthy language! Inexplicable make-up and hairstyles! No curtain calls! Broadway audiences are forced to face the immorality they themselves practice in their everyday lives! Yes, dear readers, this 1967-68 Broadway season will go down in history as the year director Scott Elliott and playwright Wallace Shawn reinvented one of the stage's great classics in a production that speaks in a manner so contemporary, so brutally honest about the world we live in right now, that… What? Excuse me? This is 2006? Oh… Well then, I guess this production is kinda sad, isn't it? I mean, we've gotten to the point where Mick Jagger is considered family-friendly entertainment for halftime at the Super Bowl. Is Alan Cumming kissing a guy really supposed to make us do anything other than yawn?
Let's start again, shall we?
I've heard it said that good theatre has the power to transport you to another place. While sitting through Act II of the Roundabout's current production of The Threepenny Opera, fighting the urge to transport myself across the street for a very large martini at Dillon's, I did indeed find myself, in a very good way, transported.
It all started when the cross-dressing Brian Charles Rooney, quite deliciously playing Mack the Knife's jilted lover Lucy Brown, whips his character up into such an overblown dramatic frenzy that Medea would have offered up her last Xanax, and hits some impressive soprano diva tones in "Lucy's Aria", a number often omitted from the show. Soon after, he's paid a visit by Mackie's new bride, Polly Peachum (or maybe she's now known as Polly Knife), played by Nellie McKay with a voice sounding like a bottle of extra virgin Judy Garland, sporting a wig of long golden tresses and a white full length dress that both look like hand-me-downs from Lucia di Lammermoor. Watching these two dramatically square pegs playing out in all seriousness a delectably over-the-top situation where Lucy tries to poison her rival sent my mind racing to a glorious little basement theatre at number One Sheridan Square, where Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatre Company would habitually glorify the American outcast.
I have no idea if Ludlam ever thought of writing his own translation of The Threepenny Opera before his tragically young death at age 44, but I bet it would be a good fit, what with his style of glamorous camp that paralleled Brecht and Weill's overtly theatrical musical morality dramas.
But for now we have the production inhabiting Studio 54, and quite frankly there's absolutely nothing wrong with it that couldn't be fixed by simply using a different translation and replacing the director. Really, that's all that's necessary. Because even though nearly every artistic choice in this production lacks a certain justification as a legitimate interpretation of the original piece, the execution of said choices are rather well done.
Brecht and Weill based their musical on John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera, a satire that suggested a comparison between Prime Minister Robert Walpole and celebrated criminal Jonathan Wild, a man who ran an underground network of London thieves while giving the appearance of being the country's leading crime fighter. Gay's main character was the gentlemanly thief, Macheath, a dashing rogue with impeccable manners. Though Mackie still had the look of a gentleman in Brecht's original adaptation, he's graduated to murderer, arsonist and rapist. Crime is a business in The Threepenny Opera which retains Gay's London setting, and you can't tell the honest people from the crooks without a scorecard.
The 1933 Broadway premiere of The Threepenny Opera, with a translation by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky that explicitly and matter-of-factly described acts of violence and gross indifference to human suffering, closed after twelve performances. It wasn't until Marc Blitzstein's 1954 translation artfully softened (some would say "watered down") the book and lyrics that Threepenny became a hit Off-Broadway. (The title of this column comes from a Blitzstein lyric describing a woman's inability to keep a man from walking all over her.) Subsequent Broadway revivals, with translations by collaborators Ralph Manheim and John Willett (1976) and Michael Feingold (1989), edged closer to the rawness of Brecht's original German text.
Wallace Shawn's adaptation is serviceable, offering little of interest that Brecht didn't supply nearly eighty years ago. Its dominating feature is a stream of curse words that add nothing in the way of insight or shock value. It's like hearing a five-year-old child mindlessly repeating a naughty word he just learned because he likes watching the way grown-ups react when he says it. Embarrassing, yes, but nothing to get excited over.
I'm sure Scott Elliot has something he's trying to say when he stages Mr. and Mrs. Peachum's scenes with the pair sitting on high chairs like they're morning talk show hosts. Or when the actors apply vertical make-up lines across their eyes for no apparent reason. Or in his big "In your face!" moment when a chorus line dressed in t-shirts sporting modern day corporate logos listlessly crosses the stage. And if whatever he's saying has anything to do with what Brecht and Weill were saying, well, I think we're in need of some director's notes in the Playbill to clue us in.
Yes, I know… earlier this season I praised John Doyle's production of Sweeney Todd and defended his abstract choices. But he set his production in an insane asylum and Elliot sets this one… um… on a stage, I think.
The very charismatic Alan Cumming isn't the least bit believable as the cold-hearted cutthroat, Macheath. But I wouldn't blame the actor. He's doing that sexy/androgyny thing that he does so well and I'm assuming this was the performance he was hired to give. The same applies to Ana Gasteyer as a Long Islandfied Mrs. Peachum. Although she displays impressive lungpower in her songs, her normally fine lyric phrasing has been replaced by a technique that seems to regard "loud" and "louder" as primary emotions.
Jim Dale, thankfully, is allowed to punch up Mr. Peachum with his generous talent for music hall showmanship. With the role of the street singer eliminated, Cyndi Lauper, as Jenny, leads the ensemble in the opening, known to most as "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" (the reprise at the show's end has been cut) and glimmers in a captivatingly simple interpretation of "Solomon Song".
Rooney's Lucy is quite the scream and the actor establishes some real empathy in his limited amount of stage time. McKay seems trapped in a highly mannered interpretation that is initially very amusing until her repeated eccentricities grow tiresome. She does show a charming quirkiness and a confident presence that I'd love to see better utilized in future Broadway productions.
Even without a Threepenny revival, the influence of Brecht and Weill's work can be seen on Broadway today. Look at the "criminal as beloved celebrity" story of Chicago, which was originally mounted by Bob Fosse with a detached Brectian tone. Consider Sweeney Todd's theme of "man devouring man" echoing the sentiments expressed in Threepenny's Act I finale.
And even in a failed production of The Threepenny Opera, there is much to admire in Brecht's enticing story and characters and Weill's magnificent music and original orchestrations. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many newcomers to Threepenny have themselves a fine time at Studio 54. As for me, I'll stay perpendicular.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Ana Gasteyer, Nellie McKay and Jim Dale
Center: Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Alan Cumming, Nellie McKay and Cyndi Lauper
Bottom: Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper