Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation of The Threepenny Opera established the work in America, more than a quarter-century after it had premiered in Europe, spending years in an off-Broadway theater and even spawning a pop hit in "Mack the Knife." But in the uptight 1950s, Blitzstein was restricted from translating Bertolt Brecht's caustic lyrics accurately, and the cast album was even more expurgated than the stage version. When the New York Shakespeare Festival theater company came to mount a new production in the permissive 1970s, it commissioned a new translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett that, if anything, went to extremes in the other direction. Their lyrics are triumphantly scatological and unsparing in their descriptions of the evil doings of the underworld characters who people the show and in those people's pronouncements about how awful the world is. These statements, reflecting Brecht's philosophy, are most clearly expressed in the finales to the three acts. In the first, "Concerning the Insecurity of the Human State," Jonathan Peachum, proprietor of a store for outfitting beggars, declares, "The world is poor, and man's a sh*t/And that is all there is to it." In the second finale, "What Keeps Mankind Alive?," the chorus sings, "For once you must try not to shirk the facts/Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts." One might suppose that such dire notions would make for a dreary, depressing evening and an equally deadly cast album, but quite the opposite is the case. Musical director Stanley Silverman has expanded The Threepenny Opera's usual small band, adding such instruments as Hawaiian guitar (which composer Kurt Weill's arrangements actually call for), giving the music a livelier and more majestic feel. And the performers dig into their parts, singing their harsh words vigorously. Raul Julia, who earned a Tony nomination in the lead role of Macheath, is smooth and funny, and he sets the tone for the rest of the cast. "Cannon Song," which he sings with David Sabin as Tiger Brown, is stirring and, in its references to colonialism, even more disturbing than in the Blitzstein translation. "Barbara Song," Polly Peachum's account of her seduction, is compellingly sung by Caroline Kava. As in the Blitzstein version, the revenge fantasy "Pirate Jenny" is sung by Jenny Towler rather than Polly Peachum, and Ellen Greene gives it appropriate anger. And such songs as "Ballad of Immoral Earnings" and "Jealousy Duet" gain force from their more explicit translations. As such, this production of The Threepenny Opera, actually the first successful Broadway version, manages to be just as entertaining as, if much more vulgar than, the celebrated 1954 show.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann