‘The Beggar’s Opera was first performed at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728 and had a run of some 62 performances, a record at the time, and has broken several others since. It was a blatantly populist piece, satirising Italian opera, but also making a lot of pertinent comments on low life and English society at the start of the 18th century. The lyrics were by John Gay and music by Pepusch, who I think was musical director for the Duke of Chandos for a time. Here’s a sample of it by Lawrence Olivier and Dorothy Tutin, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’
It has been incorporated into another play,’A Chorus of Disapproval’ by Alan Ayckborne, in 1988 and it is best played one after the other, as I saw it, by the same cast, a week apart. It has been turned into a film by Michael Winner starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins.
Anyhow, this makes it rather special, but it was thoroughly updated by Die Dreigroschenoper by dramatist Bertold Brecht and composer Kurt Weil and premiered in 1928 with a socialist take on the original tale. As such it was not popular with the Nazis, but has been widely praised by pretty much everyone else. Here is Alan Cummings and Cyndi Lauper singing ‘The Ballad of the Pimp’at the Tony Awards:
I’ve just been watching the unofficial biography of Tom Waites, and he began writing songs in the style of Kurt Weil, incorporating a lot of very dark German stuff in it, but he claims he had never heard of the composer. But when he did, his songs became even more Weil-like. This is his title song to the album ‘Rain Dogs’
Weil’s wife was the singer Lotte Lenya, who popularised much of his later work, which was often in English after they settled in the states, and used a lot of mashed up English phrases, which appealed to Jim Morrison of The Doors who recorded their ‘Alabama Song’. The Doors are a fascinating band, as they were doing some very dark stuff at the height of all the peace and love pschychedelia.
But what surprised me most is that the Threepenny Opera, which used songs as part of the narrative, not as stand alone songs, actually generated a very popular pop tune in the 1960s, ‘Mack the Knife’. Bobby Darin had a huge hit with this, but this is Louis Armstrong’s version :
Here’s Kurt Weil singing the original, which was written in a hurry in time for the 1928 premiere when the actor playing Macheath thought his opening wasn’t grand enough. It was called ‘Die Moritaet die Mackie Messer’ and is in the style of a mediaeval murder ballad, which pushes the ancestry back even further:
And of course, it is hard to imagine the Hollywood movie ‘Cabaret’ without these precursors, hence Liza Minelli’s famous show stopper:
Sally was named after the novelist and wife of novelist Paul Bowles, apparently because Christopher Isherwood didn’t like her. Not sure if this makes sense, but they were part of the same circle.
So over 300 years after Gay invented his early Georgian underworld, torch singers were belting out the story in Las Vegas.
And if this was not enough, there was also a prog rock band called Beggar’s Opera.