by Chris Davis
"I'm thinking about going into banking. It's safer and the takes are bigger"
—Macheath, Threepenny Opera
Americans are most familiar with Marc Blitzstein's sanitized translation of the seedy Bertolt Brecht Kurt Weill masterpiece The Threepenny Opera. That doesn't mean there aren't more interesting translations. In 1976 Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival presented a new, edgier version translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. It was directed by arch-formalist Richard Foreman, founder of New York's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre and starred Raul Julia as Macheath and the Tony-nominated Ellen Greene as pirate Jenny.
Stanley Silverman's aggressive treatment of Weill's already remarkable score made this cast recording the most powerful interpretation of Threepenny Opera that doesn't also include a performance by Lotte Lenya. Thanks to Sony Masterworks this and seven other difficult to find cast albums are now available on CD for the first time.
A handful of Memphians were exposed to elements of the Manheim/Willett translation in 1988 when Rhodes College staged a production of Threepenny Opera that also used the best parts of the Blitzstein and Eric Bently translations. Rhodes received word from the Kurt Weill Foundation that the cast had to perform from the Blitzstein text exclusively or shut down. The production, starring Tony Garner as Macheath, and directed by Jack Eric Williams (who originated the role of Beadle Bamford in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) closed after only two preview performances.
In addition to Threepenny Opera Sony Masterworks is also releasing DisinHAIRited, Hazel Flagg, Jimmy, Let it Ride!, The Last Sweet Days of Issac, New Faces of 1952, and New Faces of 1956.
Geek Alert: Jimmy, a musical about Gentleman Jimmy Walker, the flamboyant predecessor of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, starred hipster comedian and impressionist Frank Gorshin, best known for his performances as The Riddler on the 1966 Batman TV series. Gorshin further enhanced his geek appeal by appearing as a racially bifurcated alien in “Let This be your Last Battlefield,” a classic episode from the original Star Trek series.