Friday, June 6, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Mackie's Back In Town

While visiting my DC Branch the other week, I caught up on a few of the items on the local boards, one of which was this chestnut:

Not your typical tuner, and admittedly one of my least favorite musicals of all time (if you can call this atonal bit of agitprop a musical), but I had several friends in the cast, and you know by now that my friends always give terrific performances in their shows, so I went.
These are the Peachums, whose family business runs the beggar trade in London.  The daughter, Polly, secretly marries Mack the Knife, which causes most of the conflict in 3Penny. I am usually bored out of my mind by these three, but in Signature's production, DC musical theatre heavyweights attacked the roles with verve and style.  Donna Migliaccio, Bobby Smith, and Erin Driscoll defied history and made the Peachums interesting to me.  I couldn't wait to see one or all of them return to the stage.
I believe I started to dislike this work back in my undergraduate days, when I saw my first Threepenny Opera (and frankly, swore never to see another one.  Obviously, I broke that pledge.). 
I never understood everyone's
attraction to Macheath, the central
character in 3Penny. All the women
wanted him, all the men wanted to
be him, even the cops were his
friends. He's a common thug. But
in Sig's production, Mitchell Jarvis
finally showed me Mackie's secret:
charm. This was the first Mack I've
seen who was charming. Now I get
I had just entered Cal State Northridge as a theatre major, and this was the very first show I saw on the department's Main Stage. 
I had one friend in the chorus of whores in the CSUN production, though I was to become good buddies with more of them as my time in college went on.  But this rendition of 3Penny was a crushing bore, and I walked out humming the costumes, not only because they were the best things about this production, but because you can't really hum any of the songs in the score anyway. Other than "Mack the Knife," there are no songs with melody in Three Penny Opera.
I was to encounter another Brecht Wreck years later, in graduate school, and this time, it was personal, as I appeared in it.  Perhaps it's lucky that I don't have any pictures of our production of Mother Courage, in which I was forced to play the role of the Chaplain (as an actor in the MFA program, the department was free to cast me as they liked, and no amount of negotiation could get me out of this show.  I have hopes of writing all about this experience one day; it was a lousy production but a good story). 

This is not my production of Mother Courage (oh, that it were!). Meryl Streep played the role for The Public Theatre several years ago in Central Park, they even made a documentary about it. On the left is actor/director/teacher/playwright Austin Pendleton, who played my role, the Chaplain. In my experience, any character in a play who does not have an actual name is going to give the actor trouble.  I bet Pendleton would agree. Mother Courage continues to be revived, whenever an actress of note (and clout) wants to pretend it's King Lear. Diana Rigg and Kathleen Turner are other modern day offenders.

The Chaplain is (arguably) the male lead in Mother Courage, and my solo number in USC's production was so atonally obnoxious that even my fellow cast members felt sorry for me.  I performed in 11 shows during my two years on campus at the University of South Carolina, and Mother Courage wins the award as my least favorite.  The fact that our production ended up on the Best of the Year list of one of the local newspaper critics still astounds me.
In Signature's production of 3Penny, my friend Rick Hammerly played Lucy in drag. He fulfilled every requirement of the role, and got most of the laughs in this grim show. It was not Rick's first time in drag, nor was it even the first time Lucy was played by a man, but I wonder what is actually gained by having this role played by the wrong gender. What new insight on this role do we get when it's played by a crossdressing man, particularly when the character is pretending to be pregnant?
But what the heck do I know?  The Three Penny Opera is probably revived more often than any other Brecht, though I think regular theatergoers attend it because they think it's good for them.  Nobody gets any artistic nutrition out of Anything Goes, so to atone for enjoying such fluff, we must, every once in a while, see some Brecht.  Like eating broccoli or watching ballet, we do it because it's good for us.
Here's Bea Arthur in the longest running production of 3Penny in America. This Off-Broadway offering ran a whopping 2700 performances, and during its run, such future stars as Charlotte Rea, Ed Asner, Jerry Orbach, and Jerry Stiller cycled through the show. It was this production which insured 3Penny an honored place in musical theatre history. And apparently, it was Bea Arthur's performance as Lucy which, decades later, inspired at least two directors to cast men in her role.
Lotte Lenya was the leading interpreter of the
works of Bertolt Brecht and of her husband,
Kurt Weill;  she will always be remembered
in connection to The Threepenny Opera. She
was even awarded a Tony for it, the only time
in history that an Off-Broadway performance
was so honored.
Over the years, other high-profile productions have featured Raul Julia (that production was actually filmed), Blair Brown, Ellen Greene, and even Sting.  The most recent Broadway revival was a starstudded affair with Alan Cumming as Macheath, supported by Cindi Lauper, Ana Gasteyer, Jim Dale, and yet another male actor playing Lucy. 
In its most recent Broadway revival, Cindi Lauper
played Jenny, opposite the Mrs. Peachum of
Ana Gasteyer.

There are a couple of clips out there of those other revivals mentioned above, but none of them are interesting enough for the Friday Dance Party.  For our purposes, we must return to the first German revival of the piece after WWII.  It happened in Berlin in 1945, and was described as "raw...but free."  The audience had to access the bombed-out theatre by climbing over rubble and going through a tunnel.  The theatre had no roof, so the performance was in the open air, which was a good thing, as the smell of rotting bodies trapped under the rubble wafted through the space.  The audience was in rags, as were the actors, some of whom had just been released from concentration camps. 

This week's clip comes from that unique performance.  As you can see, the opening number is being shared by two actresses (there were precious few male actors left in Germany at this time), and you can almost smell the stench of the performance stage.  But the rawness of the venue is matched by the searing honesty with which these two women attack the song.  This may be the most important rendition of "Mack the Knife" ever performed.  Try to ignore the distasteful appearance of these two, and listen to the song itself;  never has it been filled with such meaning and clarity. Brecht and Weill would be so pleased.