The Threepenny Opera

Performance history

The Threepenny Opera was first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin in 1928. Despite an initially poor reception, it became a great success, playing 400 times in the next two years. The performance was a springboard for one of the best known interpreters of Brecht and Weill's work, Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill.

At the end of WWII the first theater performance in Berlin was a rough production of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Wolf Von Eckardt described the 1945 performance where audience members climbed over ruins and passed through a tunnel to reach the open-air auditorium deprived of its ceiling. In addition to the smell of dead bodies trapped beneath the rubble, Eckardt recollects the actors themselves were "haggard, starved, [and] in genuine rags. Many of the actors ... had only just been released from concentration camp. They sang not well, but free."[6]

In the United Kingdom, it took some time for the first fully staged performance to be given (9 February 1956, under Berthold Goldschmidt). There was a concert version in 1933, and there was a semi-staged performance on 28 July 1938. In between, on 8 February 1935 Edward Clark conducted the first British broadcast of the work. It received scathing reviews from Ernest Newman and other critics.[7] But the most savage criticism came from Weill himself, who described it privately as "... the worst performance imaginable ... the whole thing was completely misunderstood". But his criticisms seem to have been for the concept of the piece as a Germanised version of The Beggar's Opera, rather than for Clark's conducting of it, of which Weill made no mention.[8][9][10]

The Threepenny Opera has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. A French version produced by Gaston Baty and written by Nicole Steinhof and André Mauprey was presented in October 1930 at the Théâtre Montparnasse. It was rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous; (quatre sous, or four pennies being the idiomatically equivalent French expression for Threepenny and, by implication, cut-price, cheap). Georg Wilhelm Pabst produced a German film version in 1931 called Die 3-Groschen-Oper, and the French version of his film was again rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous.

It has been translated into English several times. One was published by Marc Blitzstein in the 1950s and first staged under Leonard Bernstein's baton at Brandeis University in 1952. It was later used on Broadway. Other translations include the standard critical edition by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (1976), one by noted Irish playwright and translator Frank McGuinness (1992), and another by Jeremy Sams for a production at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1994.

New York and regional

At least six Broadway and Off-Broadway productions have been mounted in New York.

  • The first, adapted into English by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky and staged by Francesco Von Mendelssohn, featured Robert Chisholm as Macheath. It opened on Broadway at the Empire Theatre, on April 13, 1933, and closed after 12 performances. The brevity of the run has been attributed to the stylistic gap between the Weill-Brecht work and the typical Broadway musical during a busy and vintage period in Broadway history.
  • In 1956, Lotte Lenya won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny in Blitzstein's somewhat softened version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village for a total of 2,707 performances, beginning with an interrupted 96-performance run in 1954 and resuming in 1955. Blitzstein had translated the work into English; Lenya, Weill's wife since the 1920s, had sung both Jenny and Polly earlier in Germany. The production showed that musicals could be profitable Off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format.[11] This production is also notable for having Edward Asner (as Mr Peachum), Charlotte Rae as Mrs Peachum, Bea Arthur (as Lucy), Jerry Orbach (as PC Smith, the Street Singer and Mack), John Astin (as Readymoney Matt/Matt of the Mint) and Jerry Stiller (as Crookfinger Jake) as members of the cast during its run.
  • A nine-month run in 1976 had a new translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett for the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, with Raúl Juliá as Macheath, Blair Brown as Lucy, and Ellen Greene as Jenny. The cast album from this production was re-issued in compact disc in 2009.
  • A 1989 Broadway production, billed as 3 Penny Opera, translated by Michael Feingold starred Sting as Macheath. Its cast also featured Georgia Brown as Mrs Peachum, Maureen McGovern as Polly, Kim Criswell as Lucy, KT Sullivan as Suky Tawdry and Ethyl Eichelberger as the Street Singer. Sting famously grew a thin moustache for the role, and when it closed after 65 performances he shaved it off onstage with a straight razor.
  • Liberally adapted by playwright Wallace Shawn, the work was brought back to Broadway[12] by the Roundabout Theatre Company in March 2006 with Alan Cumming playing Macheath, Nellie McKay as Polly, Cyndi Lauper as Jenny, Jim Dale as Mr Peachum, Ana Gasteyer as Mrs Peachum, Carlos Leon as Filch, Adam Alexi-Malle as Jacob and Brian Charles Rooney as a male Lucy. Included in the cast were drag performers. The director was Scott Elliott, the choreographer Aszure Barton, and, while not adored by the critics, the production was nominated for the "Best Musical Revival" Tony award. Jim Dale was also Tony-nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The run ended on June 25, 2006.
  • The Brooklyn Academy of Music presented a production directed by Robert Wilson and featuring the Berliner Ensemble for only a few performances in October 2011. The play was presented in German with English supertitles using the 1976 translation by John Willett. The cast included Stefan Kurt as Macheath, Stefanie Stappenbeck as Polly and Angela Winkler as Jenny. The Village Voice gave the production a savage review, writing:

    [T]he work is not actively political as many of Brecht's later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers – part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. ... Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people. His gelid staging and pallid, quasi-abstract recollections of Expressionist-era design suggested that the writers might have been trying to perpetrate an artsified remake of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. ... [T]he music was trashily handled, and, in general, rottenly sung ... [although the] actors seemed capable and knowing, snatching eagerly at the brief moments of life allowed them. Too few such moments came to save the evening from Wilson's embalming fluid; much of the middle class, sensibly, fled at intermission.[13]

Regional productions include one at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Massachusetts, in June and July 2003. Directed by Peter Hunt, the musical starred Jesse L. Martin as Mack, Melissa Errico as Polly, David Schramm as Peachum, Karen Ziemba as Lucy Brown and Betty Buckley as Jenny. The production received favorable reviews.[14][15][16]

West End (London)

  • Empire Theatre, 13 April 1933.
  • Royal Court Theatre, 9 February 1956.
  • Prince of Wales Theatre and Piccadilly Theatre, 1972
  • Donmar Warehouse, 1994. With a new lyric translation by Jeremy Sams. This version was recorded onto CD with Tom Hollander as Macheath and Sharon Small as Jenny.
  • Nick Dear's adaptation for the Royal National Theatre, called The Villains' Opera, 2002


  • A 1988 Argentina production, starring: Victor Laplace as Mack, Susana Rinaldi as Jenny, Laura Liss as Polly
  • A 2004 Argentina production, opened in August. Cast: Diego Peretti, Alejandra Radano, Guillermo Angelelli, María Roji, Muriel Santa Ana, Walter Santana, Alejandra Perlusky, Gustavo Monje, Laura Silva, Jorge Nolasco


  • A Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne and Victorian Opera (Melbourne) co-production of The Threepenny Opera was presented in Melbourne between 28 May and 17 June 2010 and again in Sydney by the Sydney Theatre Company in September 2011. The version was restaged by director Michael Kantor. With Daniela Duspara as Jenny. The text was by Raimondo Cortese; lyrics by Jeremy Sams. The conductor was Richard Gill. Set designs were by Peter Corrigan; costume design by Anna Cordingley; lighting design by Paul Jackson and the choreographer was Kate Denborough.[17][18] In Sydney, the production was also part of the Berlin Sydney festival, in association with the exhibition The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910–3 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


  • A 1983 and 1999 Teater Koma production, titled Opera Ikan Asin (The Salted Fish Opera), starring: Nano Riantiarno as Mekhit/Mat Piso (Mack), Ratna Riantiarno as Amalia Picum (Celia Peachum), Budi Ros as Natasasmita Picum (Mr. Peachum), Sari Madjid as Yeyen (Jenny), Sriyatun Arifin as Poli (Polly), Daisy Kojansow as Lusi Kartamarma (Lucy), and O'han Adiputra as Kartamarma si Macan Coklat (Tiger Brown).


  • The first italian production, titled L’Opera da tre soldi and directed by Giorgio Strehler, premiered at Piccolo Teatro of Milan on 27 February 1956 at the presence of the author, Bertolt Brecht. The cast included: Tino Carraro (Mackie), Mario Carotenuto (Peachum), Marina Bonfigli (Polly), Milly (Jenny), Enzo Tarascio (Chief of the Police). The conductor was Bruno Maderna. Set designs were by Luciano Damiani and Teo Otto; costume design by Ezio Frigerio.[19] A new production, again directed by Giorgio Strehler at Piccolo Teatro of Milan, premiered on 14 February 1973 starring Domenico Modugno (Mackie Messer), Gianrico Tedeschi (Peachum), Giulia Lazzarini (Polly), Milva (Jenny delle Spelonche), Gianni Agus (Tiger Brown). Set and costume designs were by Ezio Frigerio. [20]

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