The Threepenny Opera

Theatre de Lys Revival (1954)

Trivia & History

The production closed after 95 performances due to another booking at the theatre. It re-opened almost 16 months later and played for 6 years. The performance total for this run is sometimes given as 96, but 95 seems to be correct.

For this production, "Pirate Jenny" was moved to the second act for Lotte Lenya to sing. Polly (Jo Sullivan) was given "Bide-a-Wee in Soho" during the stable scene to give her something to sing in its place. Even as replacements came into the cast for both roles, "Pirate Jenny" remained Jenny's song, while "The Bide-a-Wee in Soho" remained for the various actresses who played Polly.

Rehearsals began on February 8, 1954.

At the time of its closing, the show had racked up 2,707 performances between both runs. It was the longest-running musical in history at that time, not overtaken until 1966 when The Fantasticks broke the record. It was seen by approximately 750,000 people (being crammed into the 299-seat theatre). And it grossed $3M dollars when it's original production cost was just shy of $9000 (put up by 23 investors). $9000 was considered lavish for an off-Broadway production at the time.

Leading up to the production, Blitzstein and Lenya had rejected offers from major producers such as Billy Rose, Roger L. Stevens and others for a Broadway production of Blitzstein's translation. All of the producers had wanted to rewrite and rescore the show. Rose had suggested that Gay's ending be restored. He thought that Blitzstein should take more liberties with Brecht's text, feeling that Carmen Jones (Oscar Hammerstein's rewrite of Carmen) could serve as a good example.

After more than a year of waiting for an acceptable offer, Blitzstein and Lenya decided to give the rights to the Phoenix Theatre. However, the Phoenix pulled out of the deal.

Stanley Chase and Carmen Capalbo, two young employees in the Story Department of CBS Television, saw a review of the Brandeis concert. Interested, they contacted Blitzstein. They had never produced anything but were very interested in the ecstatic reviews of the concert.

In October 1953, they went to Blitzstein's apartment and he sang the entire score for them. A second meeting included Lenya and her second husband, George Davis. At this meeting, Lenya and Blitzstein sent a copy of the script with Chase and Capalbo so that they could tell them what needed to be changed (as a test to avoid what previous offers had suggested). Later they came back saying that they wanted to do it as it was.

Chase and Capalbo had already reserved the Theatre de Lys for a production of Camus' State of Seige with Marlon Brando. Instead, they planned a limited run of The Threepenny Opera.

Lenya (who was 55 at the time) was extremely resistant to playing Jenny feeling that she was too old for the role. At the urging of her husband, George Davis, she agreed with the caveat that the producers could replace her during rehearsal if they wanted. She went on to win a Tony for her performance.

Capalbo and Chase tried to keep the already large budget under control by doing much of the work themselves. They worked close to 18 hours a day. Capalbo later said, "We did everything ourselves, built props, sewed costumes [that they purchased in thrift shops], did publicity, fell into bed exhausted and got stuck with pins from the night's work on the costumes. We had no office, couldn't afford on, no regular phone. Most of the money was raised from a phone booth in Cromwell's Drugstore."

Blitzstein made quite a few changes to his adaptation in preparation for the off-Broadway production. Originally, he had planned to set the production in New York in the 1870s (during Boss Tweed's time). But he reverted it back to Victorian England (although he had thought of New Orleans, Philadelphia and San Francisco as other possibilities for settings). He changed lyrics throughout, including extensive revisions to "Ballad of the Easy Life", "Call from the Grave" and "Solomon Song". Because of her personal connection with the song, Lenya was to keep "Pirate Jenny", however that left a hole in Act One Scene Two for Polly to sing at the wedding. So he set new lyrics to Happy End's "Bilboa Song" and called it "Bide-a-Wee in Soho" (this song was included in the London production but was dropped when Lenya left and is not available in the rental materials for the show to avoid copyright problems).

Further changes were made during rehearsal to accomodate the cast, in particular Beatrice Arthur's low voice. She sang the "Barbara Song" one octave lower than what Weill had written. The "Jealousy Duet" had a new arrangement (it had been intended for two sopranos). "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" was put back in. A lower harmony was added to the "Love Duet" for Macheath. "Solomon Song" was transposed down even further than at the Brandeis Concert for Lenya. Blitzstein also rewrote several of Macheath's lines to accomodate Scott Merrill's baritone.

In the orchestration, Blitzstein reduced the doublings in the original to standard ones covered by the guidelines set by the American Federation of Musicians, reassigning the parts of the missing instruments. He also increased the orchestra from 7 to 8.

For the script, he made several cuts in the dialogue to tighten. He reinstated Gay's original opening of the brothel scene. And he reordered several passages.

Because the cast was made up of newcomers, they were willing to work for off-Broadway minimum salaries: $5 per week for rehearsals and, for performances, a sliding scale with $25 per week assured.

The production had scheduled two preview performances, on Sunday, March 7 and Monday, March 8, 1954, with the opening to occur on Tuesday, March 9. (A Monday preview was scheduled even though the show was set to play the common Tuesday through Sunday Off-Broadway schedule.)

When the first preview ran a half-hour overlong, the opening was delayed by one night to permit the production team and cast a chance to rehearse cuts. 

As far as we can tell, the scheduled Monday preview was played, but no performance at all was given on Tuesday.

(According to some accounts, the first preview ran four hours, but if contemporary accounts that say it ran a half hour overtime are correct, then it probably lasted three-and-a-half hours.)

Decades later Lenya said in at least one interview that the reviews were not good, but Lewis Funke's review in the New York Times was largely favorable. Funke declared the score "one of the authentic contemporary masterpieces. It is full of beauty, of humor, of compassion, and what Mr. Blitzstein has done is to retain that score while putting the text into English. It is a remarkable contribution. ... [W]hat he has done is to provide words that fit the music, words that retain the bite, the savage satire, the overwhelming bitterness underlying this work from its original forbear, John Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera.'"

He went on to declare the company "young, full of vigor and goodwill. Vocally, it is entirely satisfactory. Dramatically, its performance is somewhat rough along the edges and there is evidence of inexperience. From time to time it is difficult to avoid being aware of a lack of bite and style. But this only indicates how much lurks in this opera." He then went to praise the performances of most of the principals, specifically citing the performances of Lotte Lenya, Charlotte Rae, Jo Sullivan, Beatrice Arthur and Scott Merrill.

In his final paragraph, he declared the work itself "indestructible. Its commentary on human beings and life retains a persistent vitiality. To hear it rendered clear and comprehensible is an added pleasure."

In the Sunday Times a week-and-a-half later (March 21, 1954), Brooks Atkinson also wrote most favorably about the work and the production, starting by declaring that it was "commonly recognized that 'The Threepenny Opera' is a classic." He went on to write that "Marc Blitzstein has made an excellent English adaptation of the book and written pithy lyrics that can be sung idiomatically. .... [T]he songs are full of gusto and humor, the orchestra is light and charming, and, despite inequalities in the acting, the performance captures the acid drollery of the story. The whole thing has the spontaneity of an improvised theatre cartoon. ... The songs are fresh, flexible, melodic and varied." He went on to praise the performances of Lenya, Leon Lishner, Rae, Sullivan, Arthur and Gerald Price, but found Scott Merrill's performance "a little too heavy."

The production was soon playing to packed houses.

Blitzstein was asked by Capalbo to stay away from rehearsals.

There was concern amongst the cast that McCarthyites would picket the theatre due to the decidedly leftist bent of the message of the show. Cast members also worried that the FBI might close the show.

The show was forced to close because the Theatre de Lys was booked by another production and then through the next season (the next production closed in one night). Although there were offers from Broadway producers to move the production to Broadway, that would mean redesigning and restaging the show, sacrificing its intimacy. 

During the original run at the de Lys, a possible move to the Barbizon-Plaza Theatre was announced, but it was then announced by co-producer Capalbo that such a move when the warm was about to start could be "financially dangerous." (New York Times, May 6, 1954) Capalbo said that the production might tour the "subway circuit" (theatres in the other boroughs of New York) and perhaps also outside New York City during the summer, and that another possibility was that he would bring the production back to New York for four weeks in the fall before embarking on an extensive national tour.

In the end, Capalbo and his co-producer, Stanley Chase, opted to put the production into storage and reopen it when the Theatre de Lys became available again.

New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson was so enamored with the show that he ended his reviews of every flop during the 1954-55 seasons with "Bring back The Threepenny Opera!"

Charlotte Rae left four weeks into the run for a major supporting role in The Pajama Game, from which she was fired during rehearsals. She is nonetheless heard on the cast recording of this production, made several weeks after she had left. Jo Sullivan had also left the production by the time of the cast recording sessions, but she also returned for the recording.

Copyright ©2021
Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy | Contact Us