Bertolt Brecht (music, Kurt Weill)
Who’s the greater criminal – the bank-robber or the banker? This is the question posed by Brecht’s masterpiece of musical theatre, a Marxist critique of capitalism set to music and performed across the stages of the world. First staged in 1928, within 5 years there had been some 10,000 showings and translations into 18 languages; and within 5 years, too, Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were living in exile following the rise of Hitler.
In the London of Queen Victoria, street criminal Mack the Knife loves Polly Peachum; Peachum’s daddy – who’s gotten rich playing pimp to the city’s street-beggars – will have no part of it, and turns up the pressure on the cops to arrest Mack and have him hanged. Simple enough as far as a plot goes – the beauty is all in the lyrics and the music.
Ed Asner, Bea Arthur, Raul Julia, Sting, Cyndi Lauper – they’ve all hit the stage to perform the Threepenny Opera, and its songs have been widely recorded – most notably Mack the Knife, which became a jazz standard in the hands of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and countless more.
You can read the play; you can get a recording of the score and listen through. Both worth your time, perhaps. But what is important about Brecht is the way he fashioned theatre as social critique and theatrical performance as collective conversation. There ain’t many playwrights whose influence has been this widely felt, who impacted all aspects of theatre as broadly and as deeply as Bertolt Brecht. This is is theatre to be seen, to be shared, to be adapted to the politics of the time. And it’s always playing somewhere, so you’ve got no excuse not to check it out.