ON THE RECORD: The Threepenny Opera, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac and "Alphabet City Cycle"

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08 Jun 2009

This week we listen to the 1976 Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, the Off-Broadway musical The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, and the unconventional but arresting "Alphabet City Cycle."

Every time I see or hear another English-language Threepenny Opera, my preference for Marc Blitzstein's 1954 adaptation is renewed. There are those who gripe that Blitzstein cleaned up the language and sentiments of Brecht, and there might well be something in that. But Blitzstein knew how to write song-lyrics in English. Kurt Weill's music is highly musical and remains remarkably vibrant, 80 years after he wrote it. Blitzstein, a peer and competitor best known for his own brand of adventurous theatre music, wrote an English-language lyric of "Pirate Jenny" as an exercise in 1949. Weill liked it — surprisingly? — enough to allow Blitzstein to prepare a whole new Threepenny.

Weill died from a heart attack soon thereafter, but Blitzstein continued work on his adaptation, which would prove to be a phenomenal, Off-Broadway success. Blitzstein, unlike various others who have tried to translate Threepenny into English, was an accomplished lyricist; the words have been adapted to fit the music and the language, rather than slavishly retaining the Brechtian images (and there are a lot of them). Thus, in Blitzstein's adaptation, the songs sound like songs; to me, the other versions sound word-heavy and — well, translated. Which is not, I expect, what they sounded like in Germany in 1928.

Broadway has seen several non-Blitzstein versions of Threepenny Opera, with a clause apparently written into the contract that they must make things more outspoken and more lousy with each attempt. Well I don't suppose that it is written into the contract; it only seems that way. The first of the post-Blitzstein Threepennys was not lousy, in fact. The original cast album of Joe Papp's 1976 production, which has finally made it to CD, is a fine recording. No, it does not have the Blitzstein lyrics; it has a new set by Ralph Manheim and John Willett, over-stacked with 1970-era vulgarities and profanities. Even so, this long out-of-print version is welcome. My one complaint with this reissue, available on disc from ArkivMusic and on-line, is that they have omitted the usual "title page" credits. I have scoured the 16-page booklet but cannot find the names of the translators; the director, Richard Foreman; the producer, Joseph Papp (with Bernard Gersten); or actual credits for Weill and Brecht. Neither is Stanley Silverman, the apparent hero of this recording, identified as musical director (although he contributes a liner note).

This came from the period when Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival tried to make a go of the Vivian Beaumont/Mitzi Newhouse complex, which had been vacated by the utopian Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. Papp and Co. moved in back in 1973, giving up after an ill-fated Andrei Serban Agamemnon in 1977. It wasn't until 1985 that the proper mix of art and entertainment was formulated by the same Mr. Gersten with Gregory Mosher, under the name Lincoln Center Theater.

Getting back to Threepenny: No, they don't use Blitzstein's lyrics. For me, The Threepenny Opera simply doesn't seem like The Threepenny Opera without "Mack the Knife" and that shark who bites with the gleaming-white pearly teeth. Even so, Mr. Silverman gives Weill's orchestrations full value, retaining and accentuating the exotic colors that the composer purposely used (led by that Hawaiian guitar). Raul Julia makes an intriguing Macheath; he is supported by Caroline Kaca (Polly), Ellen Greene (Jenny), Blair Brown (Lucy) and David Sabin and Elizabeth Wilson as the pilfering Peachums. Other than Mr. Julia, though, I confess a preference to Lotte Lenya, Jo Sullivan, Bea Arthur and the others on the cast album of the Blitzstein adaptation. That album [Decca Broadway 012 159 463] is one that any fan of the show should have; but this 1976 version does give us a far more vibrant take on the music thanks to Mr. Silverman and his band.


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