An adaptation of Elisabeth Hauptmann’s translation of John Gay’s 18th-century English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht’s work is described as a “play with music,” with music by Kurt Weill and insertion ballads by François Villon and Rudyard Kipling. The play is set in Victorian London and follows Macheath (or Mackie, aka “Mack the Knife), an amoral, criminal anti-hero. Macheath marries Polly Peachum, daughter of the man who controls the beggars of London, leading to multiple attempts to have Macheath arrested. The father eventually succeeds and Macheath’s fate sealed until, through deus ex machina, a last-minute pardon from Queen Victoria before his execution, and Macheath is awarded land and a title by the rescuing royal in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending.
But what does this German play have to do with Greenwich Village? In 1933, the first English language performance of the play appeared on Broadway. However, it closed after only 12 performances. In 1954, The Threepenny Opera opened again but this time at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) in Greenwich Village. The original cast for the play included Bea Arthur, John Astin, Lotte Lenya, Leon Lishner, Scott Merrill, Gerald Price, Charlotte Rae and Jo Sullivan. The play opened on March 10, 1954 and ran for 96 performances before being forced to close due to an incoming booking. It reopened again September 20, 1955, with largely the same cast and played until December 17, 1961, a then record-setting run for a musical in New York City. In 1956, Lotte Lenya won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny.
The Threepenny Opera’s success at the Lortel showed that musicals could be profitable Off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format. Because the show achieved success in one of the smaller, Off-Broadway theaters, it also demonstrates how the small theaters of the Village are great incubators for works, whether experimental or translations.
Louie Armstrong singing “Mack the Knife,” one of the most well-know songs from the play: