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Naughty and Dangerous

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It will only take three words to sell you on The Threepenny Opera: Mack the Knife. The name alone promises grit and double-dealing, violence and crime. Apparently ruffians and antiheroes never go out of style, and what was edgy and cool in 1928 isn't so different from what's edgy and cool today. Add in the fact that Threepenny's opening number of the same name was one of the biggest hit songs of the 20th century, covered by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin, and you can hardly go wrong.

The poster from the 1954 production of The Threepenny Opera at New York's Theater de Lys.
  • The poster from the 1954 production of The Threepenny Opera at New York's Theater de Lys.

The Threepenny Opera, or Die Dreigroschenoper if you hail from Deutschland, is the brainchild of German composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Weill and Brecht adapted it from an 18th-century English ballad opera, and though none of those adjectives generally conjure images of excitement or intrigue, the result was a crackling, jazz-inspired political and social critique.

It was a hit from the very beginning, premiering in Berlin in 1928 and setting the town ablaze. On opening night, the audience demanded an encore before the first act was even over. The public couldn't get enough, and performances consistently sold out. One enterprising fan even opened a club in its honor--Dreigroschenkeller--which appears to still exist today. (A questionable online translator maintains that "Dreigroschenkeller" means "three dimes cellar.")

There were 46 stage productions of The Threepenny Opera across Europe in the first year after the Berlin premiere. Across the pond in New York, an off-Broadway production at the Theater de Lys ran from 1954 through 1961, totaling 2,707 performances--at that time the longest running musical in history.

The riotous success came as a total shock. Production leading up to the premiere was fraught with conflict and cast changes. The dress rehearsal was a shambles that dragged on until 5:00 a.m. Actors threatened to walk, and songs were being cut and added at the last minute (The iconic "Mack the Knife" barely made it in). There was a general consensus among the cast and crew that the whole thing would be a colossal flop.

And yet they were wrong. Maybe it was Brecht's biting social commentary, as he essentially thumbed his nose at capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Brecht himself felt the opera was successful because "the top stratum of the bourgeoisie was made to laugh at its own absurdity." Or maybe it was the music, which continues to inspire, even now. Bob Dylan once said that he was "aroused straightaway by the raw intensity of the songs" in Threepenny. Whatever it was, it worked, and it's been working for 85 years.

COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS OPERA
  • Courtesy of Indianapolis Opera

And now Mack is coming to Indianapolis, bringing with him a pack of beggars, gangsters, and whores. The Indianapolis Opera is pulling out all the stops, actually changing the entire seating plan of the Basile Opera Center and modifying the theater to fit the production. Attendees can look forward to a thrust stage and cabaret seating. (Translation: A peninsula-esque stage that juts into the audience and cozy, intimate seating at round tables.)

This year, the Indianapolis Opera is focusing on 20th century pieces with modern appeal, perhaps none more so than The Threepenny Opera. Nicole Brandt, Indianapolis Opera's director of marketing, says, "Threepenny has an edge to it. When we asked our stage director, Bill Fabris, to describe the show using only two adjectives, he said, 'Naughty and dangerous.' It sort of has the same vibe as Chicago and Cabaret; it's a story about the seedy underbelly of society." Add in Fabris' background in choreography, and you're looking at a wicked good time. Oh, and never fear: this opera is in English, so you can leave your German phrasebook at home.

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