Threepenny thoughts

I went to the first show of Soup Can Theatre’s presentation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera at the Monarch Tavern yesterday.  It was an interesting take.  Three performers took all the roles in a much shortened concert version.  Quite a few numbers were cut and the dialogue was replaced by a very compressed spoken linking narrative.  This was a fund raiser and I think it’s fair to say that there was probably minimal if any rehearsal involved which showed in a presentation that had some nice individual touches but not a lot of cohesion.


I liked Scott Garland’s ability to switch between Macheath and a very plummy British Peachum at the drop, or rather change, of a hat.  I liked his singing; strong and confident, bordering on operatic.  Christian Jeffries managed the even trickier switches involved in being by turns Mrs. Peachum, Tiger Brown, Lucy and Jenny.  The singing here more obviously Broadway inflected.  Sarah Thorpe was a crisply drawn portrait Polly with some nice acting touches though perhaps not the ideal voice for the one role in the piece that needs some sweetness.  Great work at the piano  from Suzan Kim and narration from Pratik Gandhi.

The problems stemmed from the piece not making up its mind between Brecht’s original and Blitzstein’s adaptation.  The text used was Blitzstein’s which, I’ll be honest, I hate.  We’ll come back to that.  The narration though kept the piece firmly in London in 1837.  So there was an uncomfortable blend of 1920s German satire of Victorian London and 1950’s American schmaltz.  It was even present in small details like the plummily British Peachum being married to the very Noo Yoik Mrs. Peachum.

Let’s look at why this is a problem in a bit more depth.  The original is a biting satire designed to be presented with an opera singer as Polly and the other roles, more or less, in the abrasive cabaret style of 1920s Berlin.  Blitzstein bowdlerizes the piece for 1950s Broadway.  For what this means musically try listening to The Ballad of Mack the Knife as sung on the 1931 Pabst film and then listen to Bobby Darrin or Frank Sinatra singing Blitzstein’s version; gritty Berlin street singer vs lounge lizard.  Or look directly at the lyrics.  There’s a very faithful Willett/Mannheim English translation that maintains the spirit of Brecht’s original (and is the one I’m more familiar with).  This let’s us compare the refrain from the Kanonensong without having to do our own translation.

Here’s Brecht:

Soldaten wohnen auf den Kanonen von Cap bis Couch Behar.
Wenn es mal regnete und es begegnete
Ihnen ‘ne neue Rasse, ‘ne braune oder blasse,
Dann machen sie vielleicht daraus ihr Beefsteak Tartar

and here’s the very faithful Willett/Mannheim:

The troops live under the cannon’s thunder
From Sind to Cooch Behar.
Moving from place to place
When they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
Whose skin is black or yellow
They quick as winking chop them into Beefsteak tartar!

And here’s Blitzstein:

Let’s all go barmy, live off the Army
See the world we never saw
If we get feeling down we wander into town
And if the population should greet us with indignation
We chop’ em to bits because we like our hamburgers raw

So in this last the references to British imperialism are gone as is the racial element and even the violence is toned down a bit.  Maybe the piece can work if the “Disneyfication” is carried through consistently but without consistency it’s just jarring in exactly the wrong way.  The Blitzstein is also, surprisingly, a bit awkward to sing.

Having said all that I’m glad I saw the show.  I enjoyed it and it did make me think anew about a piece I’ve probably rather taken for granted since I first saw it forty years ago.  And I want to see Soup Can do more cabaret and more shows at the Monarch which probably has the best beer of any of the venues I’ve seen used in Toronto.

2 thoughts on “Threepenny thoughts

  1. The UK National Theatre is doing The Threepenny Opera, and I believe the encore broadcast is this Saturday, if you get them where you are… they don’t come out on dvd (at least, not in the last five years of NT live) so it’s worth seeing at the cinema. Be interested to hear your take on it if you do see it!

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