In Signature’s ‘Threepenny Opera,’ old themes find a new relevance and a new look


(L to R): Erin Driscoll as Polly Peachum, Natascia Diaz as Jenny and Mitchell Jarvis as Macheath, the trio stars in the production Three Penny Opera at The Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia on April 15, 2014. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

To the tune of “Mack the Knife”:

Brecht’s “Threepenny” has

Songs with teeth, dear

Of those London

Thugs and thieves

And the gang at

Signature Theatre

Wears this menace

On their sleeves

Forget sleeves: When the visually updated 1928 “Threepenny Opera” begins performances Tuesday at Signature Theatre, some of the cast members will even sport tattoos. (The ink is impermanent, but you get the thrust.)

The famously brutal “Threepenny” is a rare chestnut for Signature, where “old musical” usually means something like “Company” or “Miss Saigon.” Yet “Threepenny’s” impudent spirit is evergreen; the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill show is the jolly saga of the gangster Macheath — “Mack the Knife” — and an underworld of prostitutes, back-stabbers and throat-slitters that have always been stand-ins for the ruling class.

“I think it’s obvious,” says director Matthew Gardiner about the relevance of “Threepenny.” He cites the recent Occupy movements and President Obama’s emphasis on wealth disparity: “That gap continues to grow.”

“Mack the Knife” is what most people know of “Threepenny,” especially the endlessly recycled recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin and more. The swinging Vegas versions of the song bear almost no resemblance to the merry but deeply cynical show, which is also playing in New York with F. Murray Abraham as the crime-ring leader named Peachum.

“The most terrifying thing about this,” Gardiner says, “is that so many people have said, ‘ “Threepenny” — that’s perfect. Somebody needs to be doing that.’ ”

But those cheerleaders typically add a kicker that gets a gallows laugh from costume designer Frank Labovitz and music director Gabriel Mangiante as they discuss their show. The twist from the well-wishers: “I’ve never seen a production that works.”

“Thanks so much,” Gardiner deadpans. “No pressure.”

The history

The “Threepenny” music is all Weill’s, and the book and lyrics are credited to Brecht, who would become a titanic figure in 20th century drama for “Mother Courage” and other works. But Brecht stole material and credit from Elisabeth Hauptmann and other collaborators, according to John Fuegi’s 1994 “Brecht and Co.”

“None of the various ‘parents’ could have produced the work without the others,” Fuegi writes.

The indisputable godfather of “Threepenny” is John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera.” Gay wrote it just a few years after a devastating financial crisis, a nasty bit of irrational political and investment exuberance known as the South Sea Bubble.

The bubble wiped Gay out. “The Beggar’s Opera,” a swaggering sendup of political corruption that made bigshots of cutthroats, made him wealthy again.

The London smash was also a satire of the new fad for Italian opera, as Gay took preexisting popular tunes and set new lyrics to them. (The Shakespeare Theatre Company produced “Beggar’s Opera” in 1989.) But primarily, it took dead aim at the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Walpole made a display of joining in the merriment when he attended the show, but he got the last laugh. Gay’s sequel, “Polly” — about one of Macheath’s lovers as she becomes a pirate — was suppressed. The climate of satire and outrage that produced “The Beggar’s Opera” led to the Licensing Act of 1737, the British stage censorship that remained in force until 1968.

The translation

For Gardiner, the first issue was which English translation to use. He chose the version that premiered in 1994 at London’s Donmar Warehouse, with a book by Robert David MacDonald and lyrics by Jeremy Sams.

“It was the most contemporary,” says Gardiner, whose polished staging of the moderately shocking two-character drama “Tender Napalm” is currently running on the smaller of Signature’s two stages. “It didn’t feel like a watered-down musical theater version of Brecht.”

The current New York production, directed by Martha Clarke, uses the standard 1954 Broadway adaptation by Marc Blitzstein (“The Cradle Will Rock”). Wallace Shawn wrote a 2006 version at Studio 54 that starred Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper and Nellie McKay and featured costumes by Isaac Mizrahi; descriptions make that show sound exceptionally louche. A well-known production at the Public Theatre in 1976 with Raul Julia was translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett.

The MacDonald-Sams version conspicuously drops brand names — Fabergé, Selfridges, Target. Sams casts “Mack the Knife” as “The Flick Knife Song” (after Macheath’s weapon of choice), and throughout the show, the lyrics cut close to the bone.

“Mackie’s not back in town,” Gardiner says, dismissing the familiar big, jazzy finish to the finger-popping versions of “Mack the Knife.” He quotes the ending of the Sams lyric:

“He’s a rapist and a sadist

“And they haven’t caught him yet.”

The look

Misha Kachman’s set at Signature features the word “LIFE” in giant blocks on the stage, “Liberty” in graffiti on a wall, and “Pursuit of happiness” painted across the stage floor.

“It has a stock ticker running through it, and graffiti all over the walls,” Gardiner says. “The floor is a worn-down version of the Union Jack.”

Labovitz says, “There’s a reference to the scar on Mack’s neck, so that became a jumping-off point.” Audiences will notice signs of bruising and maybe broken noses on actors, in addition to the tattoos.

Gardiner is setting the action in the present, so Labovitz worked with a combination of traditional fashions and street styles, emphasizing a mode known as “chav.”

“It’s a lower-class street style that’s rooted in a kind of old-school hip-hop look,” Labovitz explains. “Designer sportswear and things like that, with a strong focus on brand names and labels.”

The approach meant creating some costumes from scratch, but also shopping for Adidas pants and Burberry baseball caps. Labovitz is putting a red fox-hunting jacket on one of the prostitutes.

“We ended up playing into the idea of capitalism, and the have-nots who are trying to show off what they DO have,” Labovitz says. “There’s a kind of violence to it, and a countercultural aspect.”

The music

“Cherished,” “unique,” “beloved,” and “iconic” are words that musical director Mangiante uses for Kurt Weill’s score, along with “distorted German oompah band.” “Threepenny” is hardly known for its showstoppers, but it’s popular with cabaret singers for dusky numbers such as “Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song.”

Mangiante hauls out two complicated books from the Weill estate mandating the musical specifics.

“What they sent me,” Mangiante says, “includes things like a drummer who is also a trumpet player, and a guitarist who also plays cello and bandoneon.” He grins a little helplessly: “While those players may have existed in Berlin in 1928, they do not exist in Washington, D.C., in 2014.”

But he is a loyalist, and his eight musicians will stick close to tradition. Mangiante describes the Weill style:

“It’s very wind-heavy; there are basically no strings. There’s a lot of banjo. There’s extensive use of the harmonium, or the barrel organ, and the bandoneon, the modified Brazilian concertina thing. It’s a European sound of the early 20th century, a time when they were assimilating a lot of different cultures in Paris and in Berlin, dragging over jazz and other influences.”

Mangiante wants this to ring true with “Threepenny” buffs who may arrive with Weill’s songs already in their ears.

“I think giving them that anchor is worthwhile,” Mangiante says. “Some familiarity for people who are coming in with expectations is not a bad thing.”

The Threepenny Opera

Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill. English translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams. April 22-June 1 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Shirlington. Tickets $40-$104, subject to change. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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