Interview: THE NEW YORK TIMES (1989)

November 01, 1989

The following article by Mervyn Rothstein appeared in a November 1989 issue of the The New York Times newspaper...

A Macheath for the 90's?

Seated in the first row of the orchestra at the National Theater in Washington, a few blocks from the White House, John Dexter, the Tony Award-winning director of 'M. Butterfly' and 'Equus', is rehearsing Sting, Maureen McGovern and other cast members in Act I, Scene 2 of '3 Penny Opera'. It is Thursday afternoon Sept. 28, two weeks since the show, in town for a pre-Broadway run, was blasted by the local critics, who belittled Sting's acting ability, said his singing voice was barely audible and described the production as murky, boring and poorly directed.

Sting, as Macheath, the elegant thief, is bringing Ms. McGovern, as Polly Peachum, his bride-to-be, to a stable where they will be married, sort of, in a mock ceremony attended by his criminal cohorts. One of them, played by Josh Mostel, enters the dark stable with a lantern to illuminate the way. Polly expresses doubts about the wedding site while Macheath, for perhaps the eighth time that afternoon, extols its wonders.

"Today, in this stable, I shall marry Miss Polly Peachum," Sting says, accentuating his words, "who has come with me out of love, to share the rest of my life with me."

Mr. Dexter rises. "Sting-ey," he says. "You're not playing to the deaf and the blind. So you don't need a gesture on every line."

When Sting and '3 Penny Opera' open on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater tonight, the event will mark the final chapter in a story that began more than two years ago in a beach house in Malibu, Calif. The house is owned by a successful movie producer named Jerome Hellman ('Midnight Cowboy', 'The Day of the Locust'), and it was there that the idea was born of combining a world-famous rock star and a 1928 German musical work by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

This is a piece of that story, covering about a month in the life of an idea that has become a Broadway show budgeted at $4 million. The cast of characters includes Mr. Hellman, a well-liked producer getting his first taste of what it means to run a Broadway show. It includes Sting, a millionaire pop idol and sex symbol making his first outing on the legitimate stage.

And it includes Mr. Dexter, a director with a reputation for being difficult with actors; and the actors themselves, some of whom say they love their director and some of whom say they dislike him intensely.

When 'The Threepenny Opera' opened in Berlin in 1928, it was an immediate hit. Adapted from 'The Beggar's Opera', an 18th-century play by John Gay - here transposed to 19th-century London - it tells of Macheath, his marriage to Polly Peachum, the daughter of the king of the beggars, and her father's attempt to wreak revenge on the charming but dangerous robber for stealing his child. A ballad singer - played in the current production by Ethyl Eichelberger - guides the audience through it all. It is meant to entertain, and it is also, as are most works by Brecht, who became a Communist after writing 'Threepenny', a play of instruction to the bourgeoisie he despised. Its moral, in the words of one lyric: "First comes the feeding - then the moral code."

For this production, known as '3 Penny Opera', the producer commissioned a new translation by Michael Feingold. And the director has come up with a vision that he has gradually developed to help audiences relate the play to today: The beggars of the opera are the homeless of our modern cities, who populate the stage in cardboard boxes, suggesting a direct link between the poor of today and the beggars of Brecht and Weill.

The best-known revival of the work in this country was an adaptation by Marc Blitzstein that opened Off Broadway at the Theater de Lys in 1954 and starred Lotte Lenya, Weill's widow. A different version, starring Raul Julia, played at Lincoln Center in 1976. The idea of a commercial Broadway run, even with Sting, is inherently risky: one reason is that for many theatergoers Brecht's words and Weill's music do not always make for easy listening.

"If anyone, even in the darkest reaches of their unconscious, had believed that we had a sure thing, or all we had to do was come to Broadway and open with Sting and '3 Penny Opera' and John Dexter and all that and that we were going to be a success, those reviews damn well jolted it right out of them," Mr. Hellman says that September afternoon. The show, he says, was reviewed too early - it was "barely on its feet and undergoing transformation."

Almost everyone in the company echoes Mr. Hellman's opinion. And, they add, look at 'M. Butterfly', the play Mr. Dexter last directed on Broadway. It was panned in Washington and, after much revision, won the Tony Award as best play in 1988.

The problem of Sting's not being heard was easily solved, everyone says. Mr. Dexter had not wanted the actors to use microphones. But shortly after the reviews came out, the mikes came in. And one notion everyone expresses is a sense of a play in development.

"This is more like jazz than anything else," Sting says, "in the sense that you have a framework which was provided by Brecht and Weill, and initially manufactured by John Dexter, and then you work inside the framework. It's a work in progress and we have another month to make the show work."

Sipping tea, his voice sounding more than a little hoarse from the toll of eight performances a week in Washington, Sting says he is unconcerned about the bad reviews.

"For me it's a learning process," he says. "I came in expecting to have to learn at least 300 to 400 percent more than I knew about acting from the movies. Because in films you act in little bites, and you do it again and again until you get it right. But to get this right, you have to get it right every night."

Sting, whose real name is Gordon Matthew Sumner and who grew up in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the north of England, is 38 years old. Soon after achieving fame as the lead singer with the rock group the Police in the late 70's, he began a film career. His movies include 'Plenty', 'Dune' and 'Brimstone and Treacle'.

Getting this play to work right, he says, "is a complicated process. Brecht wants alienation, but at the same time we have to entertain. So there's a tension between being aggressive and also entertaining people. It's hard to do. And I think my character is not an easy one to pull off, because he's a criminal. He's not a particularly pleasant chap. He allegedly murders people. And yet he's charming. He has to charm the audience and they have to feel sorry that he's going to be hanged. And it's a tall order for someone who's never acted on the stage before."

The idea for Sting's Broadway debut, Mr. Hellman says, came ashore in Malibu. "I've know Sting for several years. We're friends and neighbours. My wife, Nancy Ellison, is a photographer, and she's photographed Sting professionally on several occasions. After one of those sessions, about two years ago, she brought home a CD that he had given her. And that night while we listened to it she commented on what she felt was the relationship between Sting's music and Kurt Weill's.

And she said, 'Wouldn't Sting make a fantastic Mack the Knife?"'

As it turns out, Sting himself had long talked about his interest in Weill and had recorded several Weill songs. So the idea of a rock star who has been described as "the intellectual Dark Prince of Sadness" playing the dastardly but charming Macheath might not seem such a reach.

But some theater people scoff at the idea. As one put it, "the Sting fans will be disappointed because it's '3 Penny Opera,' and 'Threepenny Opera' fans will be disappointed because it's Sting."

Mr. Hellman set about getting the rights to the play and obtaining Sting's commitment. The performer is under contract to stay until June. "The simple truth," Mr. Hellman says, "is if I tried to raise money for another production of '3 Penny Opera' without Sting, or his equivalent, I wouldn't be able to raise a dime." He is producing the play in association with Haruki Kadokawa, a film producer who is also president of one of Japan's largest publishing houses, and James M. Nederlander, whose organization is part-owner of the Lunt-Fontanne.

After signing Sting, Mr. Hellman approached Mr. Dexter, who was eager to do the play. "I've wanted to do it for the last 30 years," Mr. Dexter says. "And it seemed that since I was 64 this might be my last chance."

Mr. Hellman then decided he wanted a new translation. To do it, he chose Mr. Feingold, a drama critic for The Village Voice, who has translated more than 40 plays, including the major Brecht-Weill collaborations. Mr. Feingold's translation, based on the original 1928 version rather than revised versions Brecht published later, is very different from Mr. Blitzstein's successful adaptation. For one, its language is tougher, since Mr. Feingold did not have to be concerned with offending 1950's sensibilities.

Mr. Dexter's long career has included theater, opera and Brecht-Weill. He spent seven years as director of production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and staged the Met premiere of the Brecht-Weill 'Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny'.

For "3 Penny," he has created a new concept, one that he has only begun to introduce fully in the last couple of performances. "I always saw it played by a group of actors who have no home and live in a cardboard city," he says. "They emerge out of the cardboard city and return to it at the end of the day. They play all the parts - the beggars, the gentry - and they observe the play, too. It is a play written for them and performed by them."

The director's reputation for being tough with actors is one of long standing, and it increased during his sojourn with 'M. Butterfly'. This afternoon, however, until his words to Sting, he has essentially been polite, with even a touch of charm. He sometimes has called Sting Sting-ey, and sometimes Stingle, yet almost always with wry affection.

But then, minutes after lashing Sting, he has an encounter with Mr. Mostel, who somewhat resembles his late father, Zero Mostel. For what is now the 10th time, Sting is declaring that he has come to the stable to marry Polly. Mr. Mostel has to hold his lantern up to illuminate Sting's face, but he is forgetting to do so.

"Will you hold that lamp up," Mr. Dexter says. "You're so lazy."

The actor looks at his director. "It's a heavy sonofabitch," Mr. Mostel says. "And so are you," Mr. Dexter responds. Mr. Mostel stands dumbfounded for a moment.

"That's not nice," he says.

WASHINGTON, OCT. 6 - 'Alienation Effect,' Onstage and Off

This is the last weekend at the National; the night before, the cardboard boxes were very much in evidence, scattered about the stage. Beggars are now on stage for much of the performance, reacting to the various scenes, helping to illustrate the Brecht "alienation effect" - Brecht's desire to make the audience focus more on social critique than on the emotions of the characters.

This morning, some cast members privately express discontent with Mr. Dexter. They say that he is cruel and that he stages rather than directs. While some directors' difficult personalities often lead to superior performances, these cast members say that Mr. Dexter's techniques are harming the production, especially Sting's performance.

They say that in general they have not revealed their feelings to Mr. Dexter or Mr. Hellman because they are concerned about losing their jobs. Onstage, they bite their tongues.

Mr. Dexter says there has not been any serious friction. "It's easy for the experienced actors. The younger ones tend to take every note as a criticism of themselves personally."

Later he will expand on his reaction. "Cruel?" he says. "That rumour's been going around for 10 years, usually bounced around by people who haven't worked with me." He is, he agrees, "sharp." But cruel? "If they think that's cruel, they should listen to some of the old bastards I worked for."

As for staging versus directing '3 Penny', he says that "if you get people in the right place on the stage and they just let the words come through, it works without direction, without my saying, 'Here you're thinking about your grandmother, or whatever.' "

Sting, too, along with some other cast members, disagrees with the criticisms. "It's not an easy piece, and we're not working with an easy director," he says. "But art isn't nice. I can only speak personally. I'm very happy. I like tension. I'm used to it in my other work. I'm just as demanding as John Dexter and probably just as obstreperous."

Mr. Hellman says he has been dimly aware of some unhappiness in the ranks, but, he adds, "unhappiness in the ranks among actors is something that accompanies every production.

"I've seen John work with enormous patience and skill and a very tough hand when it's needed," he says. "I myself have not found John Dexter any more difficult than any of the other major directors I've dealt with. Like everyone else, I've heard the stories, but I've also seen his work. And I do tend to judge directors more on the basis of their work than on their personality. He was chosen for the brilliance of his work."

NEW YORK, OCT. 19 - Pressure Grows, Then a Toast

On the marquee atop the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on West 46th Street in Manhattan is a drawing of Sting and the words '3 Penny Opera'. It is the day of the first preview - almost two and a half weeks before opening night - and, as the pressure grows, there are even more private expressions of discontent.

One cast member, who requests anonymity, says the show has serious problems because of a lack of direction: "You get 19 or 20 different versions of the show going on at once because everybody has been left to their own devices." The cast member cites one key reason for this problem: the show does not have an experienced New York producer running things. "We have a Hollywood producer who although a tasteful and classy guy doesn't know from theater."

Later, Mr. Hellman is asked for his reaction. "I think my choices in this situation," he says, "have stemmed more from my own style, my own personality, than they have necessarily from the lack of specific experience. I certainly couldn't argue that if I had done five Broadway musicals I might not have made other choices or made them more swiftly. But by the same token, I'm not at all certain that I would necessarily have made different choices."

This evening, the first performance is sold out, and there is an air of expectation as the audience enters the theater. There are many young people - Sting fans, most likely. Afterward, there is a party in Sting's dressing room, with much congratulation and much Champagne.

OCT. 20 - 'It's Got To Scare You'

"I was pretty happy last night," Sting says. "There was an edge to the audience and an edge to us."

Mr. Dexter also seems relatively pleased. He says he wants to concentrate on trimming the play, because he feels it is too long. Mr. Feingold will devote much of the weekend to working on those trims. "I want to get about four minutes out of the first act," Mr. Dexter says. "And I want to get a couple of minutes out of each of the other acts."

Mr. Hellman, too, is very interested in trims - "we're trying to get rid of all those little moments that stretch out into eternities." But there are other things on his mind. "I feel it's still time for experimentation," he says. "It's not time to lock. It's got to have a razor's edge. It's got to cut. It's got to scare you. You should be laughing one moment and really a little startled the next. And that's what all the work that's going on now is about, and it's going on all through the show."

He is afraid, he says, of overconfidence, in part because the show has a $4.2 million advance. The weekly gross at capacity - with its $55 top ticket price - is $600,000, and the estimated weekly break-even point is $300,000 to $350,000, which means a net of $250,000 to $300,000 a week if every ticket is sold. "That's a sizeable margin," he says. "We can recoup comfortably within the period I have a commitment from Sting."

OCT. 26 - Added Material And Rough Spots

Ten days to opening night. There is optimism, but there are also indications that things are not going the way everyone would like.

Fifteen minutes before this evening's curtain, Mr. Hellman walks up the aisle to the back of the orchestra. "We put a lot of new stuff in tonight," he says, "so it may be a little rough."

OCT. 27 - Creating Signposts For a New Version

In his dressing room, Sting is feeling tired. "The changes are very hard," he says, "because it takes about three or four days to work them into the system. As soon as you put a change in, it kind of throws off the rhythm. And when you put in as many as last night, the whole play kind of seems truncated. It was a pretty harrowing experience." On the other hand, he says, "It's what we're here to do." Act I is about four minutes shorter, and cuts are still to come. Some business has been added in the stable scene to emphasise the crooks' violence. The tango in the whorehouse scene in Act II is being restaged. One other change involves telling the audience at the very beginning that it will be seeing a new and contemporary version of the play. It's an attempt," Mr. Hellman says, "to avoid some of the confusion of people expecting to hear familiar lyrics and a familiar text."

The New York critics will begin coming in less than a week and Mr. Dexter says he is planning to continue making changes, most of them small, until just a couple of days before the deadline. He turns and looks at the stage. "There's this terrible feeling," he says, "that the righter you get it, the less they're going to like it."

Sitting on the bar on the theater's mezzanine level, Mr. Hellman seems troubled. "If I sound a little tentative," he says, "it's simply an accurate reflection of what I'm feeling."

During the last week, he says, he has invited many friends to see the show. The problem is that their responses have generally been so disparate: "Just absolutely divergent viewpoints, about something as specific as a particular performance, as extreme as one person hating a particular performer and performance, feeling that it's irritating and excessive, and someone else thinking it's wonderful, it's Brechtian, it's dead target center."

Ultimately, he says, you can fall back only on your own visceral reactions. The problem is that "you lose the capacity for real objectivity - and you forget that at your peril."

It's nine days to opening night, and Sting is talking about his feelings.

"I'd rather dispense with the idea of opening night altogether," he says. "I don't like the idea of putting a stamp on a certain night and saying the show has to be good on that night. It has to be good every night. It has to be good in six months' time."

He stands and looks at his watch. The afternoon's rehearsal is about to begin. "This play is going to run for a while," he says, referring to the advance sale. "And therefore the process will finish the day we close."

© The New York Times


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