A Night at the Opera


If rumors circulating through the Berlin theatre community were to be trusted, the premiere of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) at the opulent Schiffbauerdamm Theatre in 1931 was guaranteed to be a disaster. Even the show’ s producer, Josef Aufricht, was so certain he had a flop on his hands that he began desperately searching for a replacement show before dress rehearsals were even over. 


In his defense, Aufricht’s concern was not without merit. From initial conception all the way through its final dress rehearsal, the development of The Threepenny Opera was filled with in-fighting, bickering, walkouts, threats, and endless rewrites. When the curtain rose on opening night, everything pointed to this premiere being the end of Bertolt Brecht’s fledgling playwriting career rather than the beginning. 


The Beggar’s Opera (Re-Deux)


It was Aufricht, a former actor turned producer, who first approached Brecht about putting up a play at his recently purchased Schiffbauerdamm Theatre. At the time Brecht was working on an update of John Gray’s 1728 play The Beggar’s Opera, which his sometimes lover, sometimes collaborator Elizabeth Hauptmann had translated into German. Informed by the troubles Weiner Germany faced transitioning from  a Monarchy to a Democratic system with a Capitalist mark et, Brecht saw the piece as a satire of the bourgeoisie value system by highlighting how the beggars, thieves, and prostitutes in the play act like Capitalists, running their businesses for profit.


Aufricht loved the premise, but did not hide his reservations concerning Brecht’s choice of Kurt Weill as composer. He feared Weill, an “enfant terrible” of the atonal musical movement, would compose an incomprehensible score that would empty the house before the first intermission. He even went so far as to order his music director Theo Mackeben to locate the original Johann Christoph Pepusch score to The Beggar’s Opera just in case Weill’s music proved too grating on the ears.


Since Aufricht wanted the show to open his season, Brecht and Weill only had six weeks to finish the script, which they managed to accomplish during a retreat to the French Riviera. However, like any work-in-progress, the first day of rehearsal turned out to be just the beginning of the writing process rather than the end.


Disasters Abound


Endless rewrites are par for the course during rehearsals for any new play, and if problems with the text were the only obstacles that cropped up, the rehearsals might have been moderately pea ceful. Unfortunately, obstacles abounded on all fronts, creating a rehearsal process that eventually degenerated into absolute chaos.


The first signs of trouble came with the loss of key actors Carol Neher (Polly), who had to quit the show to be with her dying husband, and Peter Lorre (Mr. Peachum) who bailed out right on his colleague’s heels. If that weren’t enough, Brecht and Weill also had to contend with some inflated egos like those of Harold Paulsen (Mack) and Rose Valetti (Mrs. Peachum), both of whom vehemently protested being forced to sing some of the play’s more lewd songs.


Paulsen, in particular, proved a particularly tough actor to manage. At one point, he not only insisted that he should have a song to introduce the character of Mack during his first entrance, but he also suggested the song reference the sky blue tie he so desperately wanted to wear for the show. Brecht returned the next day with a song to satisfy Paulsen’s desires—sort of. Now known as the Ballad of Mack the Knife, which would later become an international pop hit, Brecht modeled the lyrics of this song after the Moritaten, a murder ballad sung by street singers at fairs detailing crimes of notorious arch criminals. But instead of giving the song to Paulsen, Brecht turned the tables on him, assigning it to Kurt Gerron, who was playing the Street Singer at the top of the play.


Everything came to a head during the final dress rehearsal, which stretched on until 5 am in the morning. The cast and crew had spent the entire evening tearing apart the Brothel scene, which still wasn’t coming together. By dawn, everyone save Weill was screaming at one another. But his chance would come when the program for the show came back from the printer and it was discovered that his wife Lotte Lenya, who was playing Jenny, had been omitted from the cast list. Weill went on a rampage, insisting she refuse to perform. Ironically, it was Lenya who calmed him down and reminded Weill there was no turning back. They had to perform the show, no matter its shape.


A Sound of Silence


During the course of the first act, it seemed as though what everyone feared would indeed transpire. The audience sat in complete silence…until after the rousing Mack / Tiger Brown duet: “The Army Song”. Suddenly, the seemingly catatonic audience erupted with applause. With that one number, the show changed course, becoming an overwhelming success. Although reviews were mixed the next day, Threepenny fever swept Berlin and Europe, leading to the mounting of over 10,000 productions of the show across the continent over the next few years, elevating both Brecht and Weill from the fringe to the stature of internationally acclaimed artists.