“I think I’ve written a good piece and that several numbers in it, at least musically, have the best prospects for becoming popular very quickly.” This was the assessment offered by the German composer Kurt Weill in a letter to his publisher 10 days before the premiere of his latest work. Created in partnership with the revolutionary dramatist Bertolt Brecht, that work would, in fact, prove to be the most significant and successful of Weill’s career and one of the most important works in the history of musical theater: Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). In addition to running for 400-plus performances in its original German production, Brecht and Weill’s masterpiece would go on to be translated into 18 languages and receive more than 10,000 performances internationally.
The premiere of The Threepenny Opera on this day in 1928 came almost exactly 200 years after the premiere of the work on which it was based: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. In Gay’s satirical original, the thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes of London’s Newgate Prison competed for power and position in the accents and manners of the English upper classes. It was Bertolt Brecht’s idea to adapt The Beggar’s Opera into a new work that would serve as a sharp political critique of capitalism and as a showcase for his avant-garde approach to theater. Much of The Threepenny Opera‘s historical reputation rests on Brecht’s experimental dramaturgical techniques—such as breaking “the fourth wall” between audience and performers—but the music of Kurt Weill was just as important in turning it into a triumph.
The drama critic for The New York Times said of Weill in 1941, “He is not a song writer but a composer of organic music that can bind the separate elements of a production and turn the underlying motive into song.” While this comment was intended as praise of Weill, who had by then fled his native Germany for the United States, it nevertheless sold Weill’s songwriting somewhat short. By 1959, Weill’s opening song from The Threepenny Opera, “The Ballad of Mackie Messer” would be one of the biggest pop hits of all time for Bobby Darin in a jazzy variation inspired by Louis Armstrong and renamed “Mack The Knife.”