This year marks the anniversaries of two key events in the history of musical theater: the world premiere of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in Berlin on August 31, 1928, and the birth of Leonard Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918.
Bernstein’s 90th is commemorated in a beautifully illustrated coffee-table book, Leonard Bernstein: American Original, published in July in conjunction with New York’s citywide celebration of the great composer/conductor. The tagline for the New York event—Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds—is drawn from a lyric in his operetta Candide, which can be seen now in a revival by Porchlight Music Theatre. Meanwhile, the Hypocrites, pictured above, are performing Threepenny in the English adaptation penned by Bernstein’s friend and fellow composer, Marc Blitzstein.
There are interesting links between Bernstein, Blitzstein, Candide, and Threepenny. As a Harvard senior in 1939, Bernstein organized a student production of Blitzstein’s Brechtian musical The Cradle Will Rock—which had gained notoriety two years earlier when the New Deal program that funded its development, the Federal Theatre Project, attempted to cancel its New York premiere in response to Republican attacks on arts funding. In 1952, Bernstein—by then an internationally known conductor—led a concert performance of the Weill-Brecht-Blitzstein Threepenny at Brandeis University. (Also featured: the premiere of Bernstein’s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, which Evanston’s Next Theatre revived last February.) The Brandeis performance paved the way for a full-blown off-Broadway production—the first professional New York staging of Threepenny since 1933, when it flopped on Broadway in a different translation. Blitzstein’s version opened in 1954 at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) and ran for seven years. Of the several English versions of Threepenny floating around—including a recent effort by Wallace Shawn, for a poorly received 2006 Broadway revival—Blitzstein’s is probably the least faithful to Brecht’s original lyrics. But it’s the most idiomatically American, and the most singable—not surprising, since Blitzstein was primarily a composer.
Threepenny received its professional Chicago premiere in 1953 at the Playwrights Theatre Club, forerunner of the Compass Players and Second City. Directed by Paul Sills, with musical direction by Sheldon Patinkin, the production employed a translation by Brecht scholar Eric Bentley. The cast included Barbara Harris, Zohra Lampert, and Ed Asner, who portrayed Mr. Peachum—a role he would later play again off-Broadway. Playwrights’ staging was preceded here in 1948 by a student production at Northwestern University, featuring Paul Lynde, Claude Akins, and Charlotte Rae Lubotsky as Mrs. Peachum. A few years later, after dropping her last name and moving to New York, Rae reprised her role in the original cast of Blitzstein’s adaptation.
The Blitzstein adaptation was first presented in Chicago in 1963, when a touring version of the off-Broadway show played at the old Civic Theatre adjacent to the Civic Opera House. (The space is now used for rehearsals by the Lyric Opera.) The star of the touring company was tenor Robert Rounseville, who’d created the title role in Bernstein’s Candide seven years earlier. Bernstein began writing Candide around the time Threepenny opened off-Broadway. His collaborators included Lillian Hellman, whose drama The Little Foxes was the basis for Blitzstein’s 1949 opera Regina. In adapting Voltaire’s satire, Bernstein and Hellman highlighted the gap between rhetoric and reality, focusing on the abuse of power by political and religious authorities. One of the show’s principal targets—the Inquisition—served as a metaphor for the erosion of the separation of church and state in Cold War America. Candide opened on Broadway in 1956, two years after Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Though the original production was a flop, Candide became a cult favorite on the basis of its score. A 1967 concert version at Grant Park starred the great Gilbert and Sullivan comedian Martyn Green under the direction of—there’s that name again—Sheldon Patinkin. In 1968, Patinkin directed another concert version at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, with a cast headed by Alan Arkin and Madeline Kahn. The occasion: Bernstein’s 50th birthday. (Later, director Harold Prince commissioned a new script of Candide from Hugh Wheeler, and it’s that version that Porchlight is now presenting.)
Both Bernstein and Blitzstein were inspired by Weill, artistically and politically. All three composers sought to develop a musical style that fused classical, modernist, and jazz idioms to create a popular, politically charged brand of musical theater. Perhaps the most successful incarnation of that vision was Bernstein’s West Side Story, which opened a year after the failure of Candide. And Candide, The Cradle Will Rock, and Threepenny are regularly revived at venues around the world. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard the Weill-Brecht-Blitzstein “Mack the Knife”?