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What is the Threepenny Opera?

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The Threepenny Opera, Die Dreigroschenoper in German, is play with music. It consists of a prologue and three acts, and is credited to composer Kurt Weill, playwright Bertolt Brecht, and translator Elisabeth Hauptmann, whose version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was the basis for the new work. To John Gay’s assortment of sources — musical works by composers such as Henry Purcell, George Handel, and John Eccles — for which he provided new words, Brecht added poems by French poet François Villon and British poet Rudyard Kipling. Except for one setting from Gay’s version, Weill completely rescored the work.

The premiere of The Threepenny Opera took place in Berlin at Theater am Sciffbauerdamm on 31 August 1928, as the first performance of Ernst Josef Aufricht’s new theater company. The principle roles were played by actors drawn from spoken theater, cabaret, and operetta, and Weill’s score for 23 instruments was played by the seven-person jazz band called the Lewis Ruth Band. The role of Jenny was created by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya.

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The story of The Threepenny Opera begins as The Beggar’s Opera does, with a frame. In the Prologue, the Ballad Singer shares the ballad of Mack the Knife with the audience, and Jenny, a whore, points him out. Act I opens with Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, outfitter of a band of beggars, negotiating with a new beggar for entrance into his gang. His thoughts are elsewhere, however — on his daughter Polly whom he is afraid is growing too close to a highwayman named MacHeath, but better known as Mack the Knife.

Peachum’s concerns are warranted, for Polly and MacHeath are celebrating their wedding in a stable nearby. The wedding guests include the off-duty chief constable of London, "Tiger" Brown, an old friend of MacHeath’s. At home, Polly tells her parents of her marriage, and Peachum, afraid that his daughter will betray his professional secrets, plans to have MacHeath arrested and hung. The First Finale closes the act.

In Act II of The Threepenny Opera, Polly goes to MacHeath’s hideout to warn him of her father’s plan. He tells her how to run his business while he’s gone. MacHeath, predictably, goes to find Jenny Driver, and she betrays him to Mrs. Peachum and a constable. MacHeath, taken to prison, dismisses a tearful Brown, and lies to Brown’s daughter Lucy, with whom he had previously broken up, telling her that he is not married to Polly. His lie is revealed when Polly enters, and the two women argue.

Meanwhile, MacHeath pays off the warder to get his handcuffs removed. Mrs. Peachum comes and forces Polly to leave, and MacHeath convinces Lucy to help him escape. Reminded by Peachum that the public will blame him, Brown realizes he must have MacHeath rearrested. The second finale ends the act, pointing out that the need to eat supercedes morality.

Act III of The Threepenny Opera opens in Peachum’s shop as the beggars are preparing to create a scene at the Coronation. Jenny, again, betrays MacHeath’s whereabouts, and when Brown comes in to arrest Peachum and the beggars to keep the Coronation undisturbed, they give him Jenny’s tip and deflect his attention to MacHeath.

Trying to figure out where MacHeath is, Polly affects a polite visit to Lucy. Mrs. Peachum takes her away to put on mourning, since MacHeath has been condemned to hang. MacHeath has no money left for bribes. MacHeath bids the world farewell, but as he is about to be hanged, Peachum interrupts and explains that an opera should have a happy ending. Brown enters as the royal messenger, reprieving MacHeath, and raising him to the peerage.

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