Broadway Production (1933)
Novice producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran went to Berlin in January 1933 to obtain the U.S. stage rights from Felix Bloch Erben. They also met with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. While in Berlin, they hired Francesco von Mendelssohn to direct their Broadway production. Mendelssohn was the assistant to Erich Engel, who had directed the Berlin premiere.
The show was much anticipated by New York audiences. When generally (though not unanimously) positive reviews came out for the Philadelphia tryout, excerpts from the enthusiastic ones were printed in several New York newspapers.
The Broadway opening was originally scheduled for Monday, April 10, 1933, but was postponed till Thursday, April 13. At some point between the Philadelphia opening and the Broadway opening, the opening scene at Peachum's was cut. A Broadway preview on April 12 was by invitation only. The opening night audience included Fanny Brice, Billy Rose, Martin Beck, Howard Dietz and others.
The New York reviews were all over the place. Some were pans, some were wildly mixed but not likely to send many people to the box office, and a couple were rather favorable. Perhaps not too surprisingly, there were some critics who did not much like the show but recognized the quality of the score.
On the extremely negative side, Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune called it a "torpid affectation, sluggish, ghastly, and not nearly so dirty as advertised." Gilbert Gabriel of the New York American called it a "dreary enigma. . . . not funny enough, flashing enough, sharp enough to cut through its own attendant atmosphere of squalor, muss, and gloom."
Yet Gabriel praised the score highly, writing, "Its music is, by all odds and ears, the best thing about 'The 3-Penny Opera.' Mr. Weil [sic] has composed a collection of ballads, duets, and finales which are stormily insinuating, mocking, stinging, memorable for their curiously bold, macabre tunefulness. You have heard its equal in precious few operettas of our day." He did not, however, feel that the cast had been well chosen, nor that they were helped by the director. "The cast has able artists in it, but the wrong ones . . . up to their noddles in a calamitous piece of awfully arty misdirection."
The Newsweek critic found little to praise. He seemed especially put off by Rex Evan's "flamboyanlty effeminate" performance as Tiger Brown. As a sign of how little he liked, he found the Caspar Neher sets, as reproduced by Throckmorton, "the most interesting feature."
On the other hand, Lewis Nichols in the Times gave it a favorable if slightly odd review. He wrote:
"There bounded over the ancient and honorable stage of the Empire Theatre last evening as nice a collection of rascals as it could ever boast. . . . [A] gently mad evening in the theatre for those who like their spades in the usual nomenclature of the earnest. 'The 3-Penny Opera' has a splendid score, one that is interesting, pleasant and quite in the air of the early day sinners of London. . . . The cast for the opera has been chosen excellently, and Francesco von Mendelssohn has directed them gayly.
"On the whole, 'The 3-Penny Opera' is worth the seeing. There are moments now and then that seem pretty much like other moments. But for entertainment of an unusual variety, it is there with it scoundrels, its cheats, its ragamuffins and its thieves, all of them nicely held together for the occasion."
Robert Garland in the New York World Telegram perhaps seemed to get it more than anyone else, even though he complained of its humorlessness, which is perhaps puzzling given Nichols's response. Garland noted that the "first-night audience seemed determined not to like it in a big way." He called it "a rebel of an operetta, it walks boldly and bitterly through the autumn in which we all reside, kicking up the leaves and applying lighted matches where lighted matches are sure to do the greatest harm. The trouble is that it does not laugh as it is doing so. . . . You'll know what I mean when I say that 'The 3-Penny Opera' is as humorless as Hitler." Hmmm . . .
On Monday, April 17, an ad for the production ran in the New York Times. Garland was quoted most prominently, starting in all capitals with, "A THING TO SEE AND HEAR—personally, I like it . . . a rebel of an operetta . . . an unusual bold and bitter satire." Gabriel's praise for the score was also quoted. In addition, Richard Lockridge of The Sun was quoted thus: "Music is throughout unusual and arresting, fresh and enticing . . . it has been ingeniously set and costumed, and with an eye to novelty."
Despite the slightly contradictory enthusiasms expressed by Nichols and Garland, the ad, and the praise for the music even by those who didn't like much else, the production closed after 12 performances, clearly having aroused a minimum of interest from New Yorkers.
(For some of the information in this note, we are indebted in part to Kim H. Kowalke's "'The Threepenny Opera' in America," reprinted in Stephen Hinton's Cambridge Opera Handbook on The Threepenny Opera.)