Carmen Capalbo, Director of Famed Threepenny Opera, Dies at 84

Obituaries   Carmen Capalbo, Director of Famed Threepenny Opera, Dies at 84
Carmen Capalbo, who directed the historic Greenwich Village revival of The Threepenny Opera that changed that classic musical's modern fortunes and helped establish the Off-Broadway theatre world, died on March 14 in Manhattan. He was 84.

Mr. Capaldo — a slight man with a "Napoleon haircut and a Latin terpermanent," "outsize brown eyes always veiled by exhaustion" and "a languid manner concealing depths of fiery ambition," all according to the 1957 New York Times — also directed the premiere of Eugene O'Neill's play Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway.

Threepenny Opera long held the record for longest-running Off-Broadway show, until its standing was upset by The Fantasticks in 1966. The Brecht-Weill musical played for 2,611 performances, beginning on Sept. 20, 1955.

Mr. Capaldo was still in his 20s when he heard a concert version of the score, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He was so struck by the music, he decided to stage the show, using the new adaptation by Marc Blizstein that Bernstein had used, and managed to draft Brecht's widow, Lotte Lenya, to play Jenny, the role she had created in 1929. The musical opened at the Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) on March 10, 1954. Reviews were great, but it closed in three months, yielding to another show. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson then made the unusual move of campaigning for the production's return — and it did.

The show became the young Off-Broadway movement's first long-running hit. When pop star Bobby Darin made a No. 1 hit out of the score's "Mack the Knife," the show's fortunes were aided further. Lenya and co-star Scott Merill, who played Macheath, were nominated for Tony Awards (Off-Broadway productions were eligible for Tonys then). The production itself won a special Tony Award. The cast also included such future stars as Jane Connell and Bea Arthur.

Capaldo directed Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway in 1957. The director had actually written O'Neill's widow for permission to stage the play before Threepenny had made him a bankable director. The drama starred Cyril Cusack, Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone, and ran for 68 performances. His other Broadway credits, most of which he also produced, included Graham Greene's The Potting Shed and William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers, both in 1957 at the Bijou. Capaldo and his producing partner Stanley Chase lost the lease to the Bijou in 1958, owing to financial problems; only Potting Shed had earned a profit. The director endeavored to make lightening strike twice by bringing Brecht and Weill's lesser-known masterwork The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny to the New York stage. It took him a decade, as well as literally months of previews, to get the show mounted, and when it opened at the Anderson Theatre on Second Avenue, the reviews were terrible. The Times called it a "sad botch." It opened and closed in a week. Mr. Capaldo reportedly never fully recovered from the debacle.

From then on, planned productions surfaced and fizzled. They including a revival of Cole Porter's Nymph Errant, a rock musical based on Nelson Algren's novel "A Walk on the Wild Side," with music by Lou Reed, and a musical version of the novel "The Chosen." He left the latter after two days, citing "creative differences."

Carmen Charles Capalbo was born on Nov. 1, 1925, in Harrisburg, PA, where his Palermo-born grandfather owned a popular bakery. He began acting in a community theatre, and then in a local Sunday-morning show called "The Children's Playhouse." After serving in World War II, he attended the Yale School of Drama for a while, and then left to form a repertory company called the Spur, which produced four plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1946. In the early '50s, he was production stage manager on three Broadway show.

His marriage to dancer Patricia McBride ended in divorce. He is survived by his son Marco and daughter Carla.

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