Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mack the Knife - The Song's Back in Town

As we head into the run of The Threepenny Opera at Signature Theatre, it is slowly becoming obvious why a many guests are coming to see the show. For some people it might be the strong and talented actors that make up Signature Theatre's cast of regulars. For others it might be the strong direction by Associate Artistic Director, Matthew Gardiner. But for the rest of you, I suspect it is one particular song. Might that song be “Mack the Knife”?

Natascia Diaz in Signature Theatre's The
Threepenny Opera
sings Mack the Knife.
"Mack the Knife" or "The Ballad of Mack the Knife", originally "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", is a song originally composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their music drama The Threepenny OperaA moritat; from mori meaning "deadly" and tat meaning "deed", is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels. In The Threepenny Opera, the murder ballad singer introduces and closes the drama with the story of dastardly Mack the Knife. (Interesting side note, Mack the Knife as a character is based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, who was based on the historical English thief Jack Sheppard.)

The song was actually a last minute addition to the musical. The song itself was written and inserted just 24 hours before its première in 1928 because the actor who was playing Macheath demanded another musical number that would more effectively introduce his character. Weill intended the Moritat to be accompanied by a barrel organ, which was to be played by the singer. At the premiere, though, the barrel organ failed, and the pit orchestra had to quickly provide the accompaniment for the street singer.

The song was first introduced to American audiences in 1933 with the first English-language production of The Threepenny Opera. In the best known English translation, from the Marc Blitzstein 1954 version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway for over six years, the words are:

Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath dear
And he keeps it out of sight.

A dapper and dashing Bobby Darin.
A much darker translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams into English was used for the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production in London (This particular translation is the one being used at Signature.) This new translation attempted to recapture the original tone of the song:

Though the shark's teeth may be lethal
Still you see them white and red
But you won't see Mackie's flick knife
Cause he slashed you and you're dead

 As a "popular" song, "Mack the Knife" was introduced to the United States by Louis Armstrong in 1956, but the song is most closely associated with Bobby Darin. Even though Darin was reluctant to release the song as a single, in 1959 it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Black Singles chart, and earned him a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.

Louis "Pops" Armstrong with his trumpet.
Other popular and eclectic covers include ones by Lotte Lenya (1955), Bing Crosby (1957), Eartha Kitt (1959) Bill Haley & His Comets, (1959), Ella Fitzgerald (1960), The Doors (1968), Peggy Lee (1977), Frank Sinatra (1984), Sting (1985), Lyle Lovett (1994), The Brian Setzer Orchestra (2000), and Michael Bubl√© (2004)

Bretolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera runs from April 22nd - June 1st at Signature Theatre. Call 703 820 9771 for tickets and showtime information.

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