The following article by Jeremy Gerard appeared in the November 1988 issue of Fame
The Weill Thing: Sting puts the bite back on Broadway with Brecht and Weill's 'The Threepenny Opera'...
"I want to talk about the core of the play," Sting says, narrowing his eyes and peering, un-rockstar-like, across the desk in his manager's office, surrounded by the framed platinum disks that attest to his triumph with the Police and, more recently, as a solo rocker. He's referring to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 'Threepenny Opera'.
"The moral, message of the play remains the same and it applies today: You can't judge people on a moral basis unless they're a part of society. Look at the people living on the street.
Their response to being disenfranchised is to sell crack. I don't blame them."
"It's capitalism. I can't very well sit in my apartment on Central Park West and say, 'You people are wrong.' Hell is full of judges and critics."
You gents who want to lead where we should follow
And teach us to stay out of crime and sin
Our stomachs, like your platitudes, are hollow
Give us some grub first, then you can begin!
You love to see us standing tall while you sit tight
But lock your doors when we come down the road
So get this through your skull for once and get it right:
First comes the feeding - then the moral code.
Sting, now 39 years old, makes his Broadway debut this month. For five years, from 1979 to 1984, he led the per- oxide-blond Police, the last great new- rock band, and wrote some of the most
Sting, now 38 years old, makes his Broadway debut this month. For five years, from 1979 to 1984, he led the peroxide-blond Police, the last great new-rock band, and wrote some of the most memorable songs of the decade: 'Every Breath You Take', 'Roxanne', 'Message in a Bottle'. Five years ago Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner) disbanded the Police for a solo career which produced two innovative, sophisticated albums, a couple of sold-out tours, and 'Bring On the Night', a movie documentary directed by Michael Apted ('28 Up', 'Coal Miner's Daughter'). Now the one- time schoolteacher with dangerous blue eyes and chiselled features that have also propelled a film career ('Stormy Monday', 'Plenty', 'Brimstone and Treacle', 'Dune'), is going legitimate in a stage production that reflects many of the risk-taking qualities of his own work.
"I've had a long relationship with Brecht' " Sting says. "Weill for some reason appeals to me. The songs are angry, funny, cynical; they have a lovely angular quality not found elsewhere. "
'The Threepenny Opera' is darker than Les Miserables, raunchier than Oliver!, and more cynical than Sweeney Todd. Better known than those not-dissimilar works, too, mostly because of 'Die Moritat von Mackie Messer', a prologue that was originally an afterthought when Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were putting their musical together and needed something to set the tone, but later an international hit as 'Mack the Knife', a song beaten into unconsciousness by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgeraid and then slipped the death shiv by Bobby Darin.
Sting has a kind of spiritual connection to Brecht and Weill, and a history with them. A friend reports that Sting has been talking about this show for months. throughout his work on behalf of human rights - two Amnesty International tours - and, most recently, his work to save Brazilian rain forests.
In addition to his college studies, he performed a concert of Brecht/Weill songs in German, in Hamburg two years ago. You can bear a preview of his Macheath on Lost In the Stars (A&M), a loopy album of Kurt Weilliana featuring Sting singing 'Mack the Knife' - and Lou Reed singing 'September Song' in a sprechstimme more appropriate to 'Threepenny Opera' than 'Knickerbocker Holiday', the show from which that song is taken.
The show's popularity, disconnected from the scathing politics of the work itself, is certainly one reason why Sting wants to talk about the core of the play. 'The Threepenny Opera' caused a sensation when it opened in Berlin in 1928, when the musical theatre was silly and the world was on the brink of collapse. There is nothing silly at all about 'The Threepenny Opera', which Brecht transformed from 'The Beggar's Opera' - the work of an eighteenth-century British poet, John Gay - into a tough, didactic romp through the underclass.
Nevertheless, we know it mostly for reasons unrelated to intentions of its creators. For Brecht's racy, unsingable lyrics, Weill composed a jagged, jazz-cacophonous score whose genius lay in its insinulativeness: those non-tunes you leave the theater humming anyway. And we know it for its odd history in America: The first Broadway production, in 1933, was a flop. But in 1954 a revival with a new translation by Marc Blitzstein opened in Greenwich Village at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel), with Lotte Lenya - Weill's widow - creating her original performance as the prostitute Jenny Diver. After a brief hiatus, the production returned and ran for an astonishing 2,611 performances. It became a sentimental showpiece, an evening's alternative to 'The Fantasticks' on the other side of Sixth Avenue.
America was not at the brink of collapse in 1954, nor in 1976, when Joe Papp produced another revival, with yet another translation, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, in a production that starred Raul Julia as Macheath. That was the first Brecht/Weill appearance at Lincoln Center. The next would he a production of 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny' at the Metropolitan Opera staged by John Dexter, who happens to he the director of this new 'Threepenny Opera', on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne. Dexter's mission, one he shares with Sting and with Michael Feingold, the author of yet the latest translation (there have been many others since the first), is to bring back the anger and the urgency of that opening in Berlin in 1928. Unlike 1954 and 1976, they feel that time - or the times - now is on their side.
"America's at the brink again, and this piece was written for a world on the brink," says Feingold, whose translation of 'The Second Threepenny Finale' is quoted below and throughout.
You tell us that a woman's naked torso
Can either be pornography or art
Your talk is fine, but it would be much more so
If she's been fed - then your debate can start!
To you our shame means so much more than your delight
You make us walk the dark side of the road
So get this through your skull and get it right:
First comes the feeding - then the moral code! ,
First you must guarantee the poor and starving
Their slice of all the bread and meat you're carving.
"I chose this because as radical and revolutionary as it was in the '20s, it was still part of the musical theater," Sting says, in a conversation one day just after rehearsals have begun. There are three producers listed in the show's credits, none of them the singer, but it is his show. He instigated it; it came from his passion to play Broadway in some mean- ingful way. And he is surrounded by theater heavyweights. The cast includes Alvin Epstein and Georgia Brown as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum and Mrs. Peachum, the proprietors of a haberdashery for beggars, and Maureen McGovern as their daughter Polly, married, sort of, to the gang leader Macheath. The police chief is played by Larry Marshall, and the chief's daughter Lucy - also enamoured of Mack - is played by Kim Criswell. Jenny - Mack's true love and betrayer - is played by Suzanne Douglas, a yeoman actress who is soon to he a household name.
Dexter, known for his opulent but sleek productions, will play it straight with The Threepenny Opera. It will be presented in Brechtian fashion, replete with a raised, onstage orchestra and a half-curtain that never quite shuts out the action on the hi-level set.
The show rehearsed at the theater and moved to Washington for its pre-Broadway run. Sting likes that - the notion of these words being heard in the nation's capital at a time when legislators are considering cutbacks in arts funding because some of the art being funded acknowledges in discomfiting terms that it no longer is 1954, or even 1976.
He's also fairly knowledgeable about the context in which 'The Threepenny Opera' was created. "Most musical theater had songs created for the drawing room," Sting says. 'But Weill was a student of Schönberg. His songs popularized theater music." That is a little simplistic. The drawing room, after all, was exceedingly popular in mittel-europe, and in the late '20s in America, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II had just invented 'Show Boat', which did its share in dragging the musical theater out of the parlour and into the world.
Quibbles aside, Sting is unquestionably sincere when he talks of his spiritual affinity for Brecht/Weill, and no one will likely accuse him of being a dilettante in making his Broadway debut in so demanding a role. For someone who is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to critics, he is putting himself in a relatively intimate glass house in the middle of Broadway, a plagued town where death can come swiftly and without mercy. Who needs it?
'It's important to explore as many different performance mediums as possible," he says. "My main habitat the last few years has been stadiums with a minimum of 20,000 people, and I've done some small clubs. I guess Broadway is somewhere in the middle. In the theater you have to work harder to play to 2,000 people. People see you, see you're vulnerable. Performance is about risk. If it's not a risk, it's not performing."
He even goes so far as to confide that Broadway retains a 'certain mystique," especially for the British. It's a charming, antique thought.
Like every actor ever chosen or compelled to play a bad guy (with the exception, perhaps, of Larry Hagman), Sting says he had to find something agreeable in 'Mack the Knife'. "It's hard to go on-stage and say, 'I'm not nice but you should like me.' I've got to find something I like in Macheath.
'I don't think he murders and rapes people at all. It's useful to him for people to think he does. But he wants to be a banker, to be like Peachum. Macheath is more likely to seduce people than to rape them." Useful is a favourite word of Sting's, and this is a useful revision, another charming thought.
Michael Feingold's job has been to retain, or restore, angularity and anger, and his task was made no easier by the familiarity of the Blitzstein translation. particularly 'Mack the Knife' and 'Pirate Jenny'. 'What's irritating about Blitzstein is how well it sings," says Feingold, a much-admired translator and the Village Voice's theater critic cum drama-encyclopedia-in-residence. 'Blitzstein's was an adaptation. I'm, making a translation. " That's only a little disingenuous. In many places, Feingold's book and lyrics are refreshingly, angrily, angularly faithful to the German. In other places they are cunning. Still, such is the translator's duty. Dexter, who staged last year's Tony award- winning hit, M. Butterfly, admits that he would not have undertaken the production without a new translation.
'The Blitzstein was brilliant, but it had limitations,' the director says. "He couldn't have the coarseness of the language; it's German cabaret coarse. Michael has toughened up and sharpened the language. It's language that bites, if we can get our teeth and tongues around it. "
Sting agrees. Brecht parodied the musical theater conventions of his time, even tacking a ludicrous happy ending on 'The Threepenny Opera'. He wanted the audience to be in on the joke, a device he hoped would prevent them from sentimentalizing the action of the play. Seeing the creaky stage machinery, he theorized, would alienate the audience; he meant to motivate them to look beyond the stage to the world outside.
'Ideally," says Sting, 'you hope to reproduce the effect it had on German audiences in 1928. I'm not expecting riots in the streets. But one would hope for that alienation. The Blitzstein translation is lame, archaic. The sharp end of cynical language is constantly changing.
That would have been a great quote to end on, but there is something still troubling about this idea that you can't judge crack dealers if you're legit. It gnaws for days. Dexter and Feingold concur, however, with the notion that only hypocrites presume to condemn those outside the gates of society. Indeed, Dexter says, it's his job to get that message across, to insure that the audience knows it is attending a live, provocative show, not a museum piece, and he's not sure he'll succeed: "Whether it is going to turn itself into 'The Merry Widow' or if it still has something to say, well, we shall see, " he says.
How do all humans live? By being rotten
By beating, cheating, stealing, smashing friends in the face
Then they'll survive because they have forgotten
That they belong to any human race
It is Feingold who finally gets to the heart of the matter, recalling what Brecht was aiming for with this spectacle of tattered rogues, duplicitous whores, and proud bastards. And his observation is exceedingly trusting of Sting's current mission, as 'well. 'It doesn't mean that you tolerate drug dealers," Feingold says of the rock star's pronouncement. 'It means you go out and change the world.
© Fame magazine