Pimps, Prostitutes, and Hangings ~ An inside look at this year’s musical, The Threepenny Opera

Photo by Tanaha Simon

By Raymond Hawkins

I’m guessing you’ve probably heard of Oliva Hall. Now if I asked you to tell me where it is, you might be a little less certain, depending on how many N2O shows you’ve attended. I bet you don’t know that in this random little hall in Cummings rehearsals for Conn’s upcoming production of The Threepenny Opera are in full swing.

When I heard the rehearsals were being held in Oliva, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to trek down Gallows Lane to the old DNA EpiCenter, the traditional location for Conn’s theater rehearsals. Instead, I made my way from Harris to Cummings on a treacherously icy Wednesday evening to find out more about the upcoming show.

When I arrived, the cast was just getting ready to go. They gathered around a circle of chairs, laughing and swapping jokes with director Peter Deffet. I wondered how fewer than twenty people could be as loud as Harris at dinnertime – I guess the answer is pure enthusiasm. But when it came time to start, the room became immediately silent. They got started on discussing the rehearsal schedule, comprised of eighteen intense hours each week. These people meant business.

Logistics worked out, the cast began their first read-through. “You are about to see an opera for beggars,” the play begins. “Because this opera is so magnificent only a beggar could have thought it up, and because it still had to be so cheap even beggars could afford it, we call it The Threepenny Opera.”

Set in the slums of Victorian London, the musical centers around the notorious criminal, Macheath, who marries a young woman named Polly. But when her father, Mr. Peachum, hears the news, he tries to use his influence to have Macheath hanged.

You might have heard of “Mack the Knife,” a song first popularized in the U.S. by Louis Armstrong. It was later sung by Bobby Darin, recorded by Frank Sinatra and ranked 251 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Did you know that “Mack the Knife” is from The Threepenny Opera? Well, now you do.

Clearly there are some good tunes in the show; yet, cast member Ben Stepansky ’12 explains, “It’s a musical that doesn’t focus on the music. It’s really more about the story.”

So what kind of a story is Threepenny? As Stepansky points out, “There’s pimps, there’s prostitutes and there’s hangings.” There’s also more beneath the grizzly surface.

According to Deffet, “This isn’t your everyday jazz-hands kind of musical.” German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s goal was “making people realize that what they were watching was not real.” His technique discourages excessive emotional investment by the audience, and “if they do get caught up in the romance, it’s only so we can pull the rug right out from underneath them.”

Some of you might remember The Rocky Horror Show from last year, also directed by Deffet, along with Bill Thomas as Music Director. When I asked what led to the decision for this year’s musical, Deffet explained that he had directed Threepenny in college, and had been discussing doing it at Conn for a while. He thinks it’s the play’s strong political message that makes it popular on campuses. “It speaks to the wish for everyone to be treated equally.” After all, “college students are political.”

Assistant stage manager Molly Clifford ’13 says that The Threepenny Opera “is all about economics and getting ahead, and that relates so well to the world we live in. It’s a very interesting, timely piece to do.”

Based on my evening in Oliva, I’d say that when The Threepenny Opera goes up March 3-6, it will be well worth three pennies to go see. Hell, I bet it’ll be worth eight bucks. •