About the Work
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht based The Threepenny Opera (1928), one of the 20th-century's pivotal works of music theater, on the 1728 English satire The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. The story has as its central character Macheath, one of the London underworld's most notorious figures. Polly, possessor of the only shred of innocence in the entire cast, falls in love with Macheath and marries him in a stable surrounded by stolen goods and her groom's gang. In "Solomon's Song," Jenny sings of the vanity of wisdom, beauty, boldness, and passion- "Envy him who has got none!" she advises.
The Little Mahagonny, a "scenic cantata" that served as a try-out for Brecht and Weill's ambitious opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1927 29), takes as its setting a fictitious town in the American desert founded by fugitives from justice on the principles of greed, crime, pleasure, and licentiousness. Jenny, a prostitute, is among the first to find the new metropolis, and she introduces herself with the caustic "Alabama Song"-"Oh, show us the way to the next whiskey bar"-whose words were always in English.
Brecht and Weill hoped that they could duplicate the success of The Threepenny Opera with the propagandist "comedy with music" Happy End, but its premiere (September 2, 1929, in Berlin, with the young Peter Lorre cast as a sinister Oriental) was a fiasco. Though the piece has enjoyed little luck in the theater, Weill's fourteen songs for the production have occasionally been heard in concert. The plot, reminiscent of Damon Runyon's contemporaneous Guys and Dolls, concerns a female Salvation Army lieutenant who falls in love with a criminal. The ironic "happy end" is brought about when the gangsters and the Salvationists join in a commercial enterprise. Weill's score includes the torchy "Surabaya Johnny," which became a particular favorite of Marlene Dietrich.
As soon as the curtain rises on The Threepenny Opera, a Street Singer prepares the audience for its encounter with the villainous Macheath in "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer," which became Weill's greatest hit in America under the title "Mack the Knife."