Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2018
Think of theater during the Weimar Republic, during the interwar period in Germany, and probably the first thing that comes to mind is the eminently hummable “Mack the Knife,” the lead song of the Brecht/Weill musical The Threepenny Opera. Why is that? First of all, the ballad has become an international hit, sung by luminaries from Lotte Lenya, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin to Sting. Second, the musical itself, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann from John Gay's 1728 Beggar's Opera, quickly proved to be the most popular play of the Weimar Republic. Within a year of its opening in Berlin on August 31, 1928, there were dozens of additional productions in Germany alone, and translations and productions soon followed as well in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Finland, and the Soviet Union. Kurt Weill's jazzy musical settings for Brecht's lyrics hit a nerve like no other music of the time, generating what has come to be called “Threepenny fever.” Although the first American staging was a failure, opening at the Empire Theatre in New York City in 1933 before either Brecht or Weill had arrived as exiles from Nazi Germany, when it was resurrected in 1954 in a new translation by Marc Blitzstein, it became the longest running Broadway musical of the day, with six and a half years of consecutive performances. Indeed, The Threepenny Opera laid the foundation for both Brecht's and Weill's subsequent reputations as they went their own ways.
Who was behind this success story? None other than Ernst Josef Aufricht, whose memoir presents a blow-by-blow suspense story of how the musical came about, with all its improbable coincidences and lastminute catastrophes. He was the visionary who had leased the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin's theater district, an otherwise artistically unremarkable stage that today still functions as the storied Berliner Ensemble, the theater that Brecht established when he returned to East Germany from exile in 1948. Twenty years before that, Aufricht needed to commission someone who could provide a play to open his “new baby” on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday.