Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Threepenny Opera': Debauchery, Updated

In 1928, playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were at the cutting edge of German theater. Their adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera -- which they retitled The Threepenny Opera -- was a major sensation.

The highly political show, set in 18th-century London, was populated with a nasty assortment of thieves, cut-throats, beggars, prostitutes and capitalists. Now, a Broadway revival directed by Scott Elliot untethers The Threepenny Opera from its period setting and puts it into a kind of metaphorical present. Playwright and actor Wallace Shawn adapted Brecht's script for the Roundabout Theatre's production, using coarser language than previous translations; the venue is Manhattan's Studio 54.

Many of the cast members of this gender-bending production wear S&M bondage costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi, and the spare set uses large neon signs to identify locales: a stable, whorehouse, the gallows. Elliot calls it a "theatrical urban landscape."

That landscape is inhabited by an array of artists from wildly differing backgrounds, from theater veterans such as Jim Dale to pop star Cyndi Lauper and Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer. Performance artists and drag queens appear in some of the smaller roles.

Alan Cumming, who won a Tony Award as the androgynous Emcee in the Roundabout's production of Cabaret, plays the central role of Macheath -- a Mack the Knife in a Mohawk who kisses women and men.

Elliot says that Cyndi Lauper, making her stage debut as the prostitute who betrays Macheath, is a natural. "When she sings, she embodies the song in ways that many singers don't," Elliot says. "I thought, 'I bet she can act.' And she can."

The non-profit Roundabout Theatre, which is marking its 40th anniversary season, already has a sold-out hit with its Broadway revival of The Pajama Game, starring Harry Connick, Jr. The theater's artistic director, Todd Haimes, acknowledges that the Threepenny production represents a contrast: "When I got [the theater to watch] Threepenny Opera, I remember thinking, "Oh, boy, we're not in Kansas anymore, Auntie Em!"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.