T he Threepenny Opera proclaims itself "an opera for beggars," and it was in fact an attempt both to satirize traditional opera and operetta and to create a new kind of musical theater based on the theories of two young German artists, composer Kurt Weill and poet-playwright Bert Brecht. The show opens with a mock-Baroque overture, a nod to Threepenny's source, The Beggar's Opera, a brilliantly successful parody of Handel's operas written by John Gay in 1728. In a brief prologue following the overture, a shabby figure comes onstage with a barrel organ and launches into a song chronicling the crimes of the notorious bandit and womanizer Macheath, "Mack the Knife." The setting is a fair in Soho (London), just before Queen Victoria's coronation.
A ct I begins in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who runs a rather unusual business-he is the boss of London's beggars. He equips and trains them in return for a cut of whatever they can beg. In the first scene, he enrolls a new beggar with the help of his wife. After finishing with the new man, they notice that their grown daughter Polly did not come home the previous night. The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath himself is about to marry Polly, as soon as his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly gets up and tosses off "Pirate Jenny," showing a surprisingly tough side of herself. The gang gets nervous when Chief of Police Tiger Brown arrives, but it's all part of the act; Brown had served with Mack in England's colonial wars and has prevented Mack from being arrested all these years. The old friends duet in the "Cannon Song" ("Army Song"). In the next scene, Polly returns home and defiantly announces that she has married Mack by singing the "Barbara Song." She stands fast against Mr. and Mrs. Peachum's anger, but she does let slip Brown's connection to Mack, which they will use to their advantage.
P olly tells Mack that her father will have him arrested. He is finally persuaded that Peachum has enough influence to do it and makes arrangements to leave London, explaining his bandit "business" to Polly so she can manage it in his absence. Before he leaves town, he stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing the "Pimp's Ballad" ("Tango Ballad") about their days together, but Mack doesn't know Mrs. Peachum has bribed Jenny to turn him in. Despite Brown's apologies, there's nothing he can do, and off Mack goes to jail. After he sings the "Ballad of the Easy Life," another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown's daughter) and Polly show up at the same time, setting the stage for a nasty argument that builds to the "Jealousy Duet." After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Mack's escape. When Mr. Peachum finds out, he confronts Brown and informs him that he will unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria's coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Brown his job.
J enny comes to the Peachums' shop to demand her bribe money, which Mrs. Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Mack is at Suky Tawdry's house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr. Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown's only option is to arrest Mack and have him executed. In the next scene, Mack is back in jail and desperately trying to raise enough of a bribe to get out again, even as the gallows are being assembled. Soon it becomes clear that neither Polly nor the gang members can raise any money, and Mack prepares to die. Then a sudden reversal: A messenger on horseback arrives to announce that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen and granted a castle and pension. The cast then sings the Finale, which ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly.
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