Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill gave the world The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) in 1928. When it was running in Berlin, the artist George Grosz said, “You would hear those songs wherever you went in the evening.” Long before Louis Armstrong made “Mack the Knife” a universal hit, theater critics were calling The Threepenny Opera the greatest musical of all time. Walter Kerr wrote, “I think the most wonderfully insulting music I have ever come across was composed by the late Kurt Weill for Bert Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.” The producer Harold Prince said, “Many have tried to imitate it. No one has succeeded.”
From the Threepenny Opera web site:
In their opera “by and for beggars,” composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) transformed saccharine, old-fashioned opera and operetta forms, incorporating a sharp political perspective and the sound of 1920s Berlin dance bands and cabaret. Weill’s acid harmonies and Brecht’s biting texts created a revolutionary new musical theater that inspired such subsequent hits as Cabaret, Chicago, and Urinetown. The show’s opening number, “Mack the Knife,” became one of the top popular songs of the century.
The opening night audience at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm didn’t quite know what to expect when the curtain rose on The Threepenny Opera on August 31, 1928, but after the first few musical numbers they began to cheer and call for encores. The show was a brilliant hit, and Threepenny-fever spread throughout Europe, generating forty-six stage productions of the work in the first year after the Berlin premiere. In 1931, a film version directed by G.W. Pabst entitled Die 3-Groschenoper opened, making an international star of Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, who repeated her portrayal of Jenny Diver from the show’s first production.
Dozens of jazz artists have recorded “Mack the Knife.” Gil Evans gave us memorable impressions of “Bilbao Song” and “Barbara Song.” Once in a great while someone with esoteric tastes tackles “Pirate Jenny” or “Love Song.” Still, for all its riches and potential for interpretation, until recently there have been, to my knowledge, only two entire jazz albums of music from the score of this twentieth century milestone, both on long-playing vinyl. One was by the Australian Jazz Quartet (Bethlehem Records, 1958, long out of print). The other was by pianist André Previn and trombonist J.J. Johnson with bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Frank Capp, recorded for Columbia in 1960. Despite the material and the big names, this superb album, at once lively and mordant, has never been reissued on CD. If you’re lucky, you might snag a copy of the LP on e-bay or elsewhere on the internet.
The relatively new (2005) album of music from The Threepenny Opera came to my attention by chance when the Chicago pianist Jeremy Kahn sent Rifftides a comment about something else entirely. I looked him up on the web, found his site, and discovered that he and his quartet had a CD called Most Of a Nickel: Music From The Threepenny Opera. I listened to the samples and arranged to get a copy. I have been listening to it for days. Kahn and his colleagues find both the acid bitterness and the subtle beauty of Weill’s music and, by extension, the mocking parody of Brecht’s story. Even if you knew nothing about the background of the music, I think you would be captured by the bittersweet tango of “Ballad of Immoral Earnings;” the understated longing of Jim Gailloreto’s tenor saxophone in “Love Song;” the delicacy of his flute in “Solomon Song;” “Cannon Song’s” intimations of joy, with hints of militarism from Eric Montzka’ drums; the forthrightness of “Barbara Song.” There are three short versions of “Mack The Knife,” one devoted to Kahn’s piano, its voicings rich with minor key irony; one for Gilloreto, who conjures an unaccompanied solo fantasy on the song’s primary phrase without once resorting to quoting Sonny Rollins; one for Larry Kohut’s bass, also unaccompanied.
Some CDs are too long. This one is too short. It has eleven of the twenty-four pieces in the Weill score. Kahn’s quartet leaves you wanting more from The Threepenny Opera. A second volume would be welcome.