In his sleeve notes to this cast recording of the production of The Threepenny Opera that opened at the small Donmar Warehouse theater in London on December 8, 1994, musical director Gary Yershon points out several musical alterations to the original score, most of which have to do with transposing keys lower to make the songs easier to sing. But he does not mention the major change that will be noticeable immediately to anyone familiar with the show. In every other production of The Threepenny Opera, the first song is what authors Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht called "Moritat von Mackie Messer" in the original German, which Marc Blitzstein, in the best-known English translation, rendered as "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." The song is sung by a character known as the street singer. But there is no such character in the Donmar Warehouse production, and the song, here called "The Flick Knife Song (Moritat)," is moved to the middle of the show, where it is sung by the character of Jenny. That should be some indication of the liberties taken by this version of The Threepenny Opera. In an English translation by Robert David MacDonald with "new lyric translations" by Jeremy Sams, the show has had its setting moved from the 19th century to a "not-too-distant future" (as Yershon puts it) in London when Prince William is about to be crowned king. Thus, the translation is anything but faithful. In fact, it is shot through with contemporary references (the ice skaters Torville and Dean, the Marks & Spencer department store, etc.) and British slang. For example, "John was a squaddie and Jim was a toff/And both of them behaved like wankers" is the opening of "Squaddies Song (Cannon Song)," which in the original German reads, "John war darunter und Jim war dabei/Und George ist Sergeant gewarden" (literally, "John was among them and Jim was there too/And George became a sergeant"), and which Blitzstein translated as, "Johnny joined up and Jimmy was there/And George got a sergeant's rating."
Not surprisingly, this is also the most vulgar translation since the 1976 Broadway revival, nearly matching that version in scatological references and far exceeding it in use of the ever-popular "F" word. The cast performs this text in pronounced lower class British accents, with a particular tendency toward the Scottish, especially in Sharon Small's portrayal of Polly Peachum. (In a rare instance of fidelity to the original production, this is the first version of the show in memory to return "Pirate Jenny" to Polly.) They are not particularly strong singers, but they attack the songs with enthusiastic venom. The result may well be a production that played forcefully in the fringe theater of 1994 London, but that would have difficulty being appreciated fully in any other time and place.