#146: THE UNDERWORLD—WITH MUSIC. One of the pleasures of comedy, of course, is when a character opens his mouth and says something scurrilous, silly or incongruous. Dialogue comedy is one thing (Groucho takes a man’s pulse and says “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”), but movies long ago came up with their own variation: in “Singing in the Rain,” because of an out-of-sync sound recording, a bewigged and powdered woman’s and her mustachioed seducer’s cries of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and “No! No! No!” get exchanged. In “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” Woody Allen dubbed his own dialogue into a grade-z Japanese thriller: a woman dressed only in a bath towel smiles at the hero and says “Name three presidents,” and the plot is jimmied to be about a stolen recipe for the perfect egg salad, which will guarantee world domination. “Don’t ask me why egg salad,” a character grumbles. “I’ve got enough aggravation.”
It may not be commonly recognized that one form of this mischief dates back to the London stage of the 1720s. Italian opera had recently arrived in England, and despite some dismay at the form—recitative was particularly complained of—it became enormously popular. The floridity of the music and the idiocies of the plots left the stage open for parody—which arrived in the form of John Gay’s play “The Beggar’s Opera,” which not only had its own enormous success but created a genre: the ballad-opera, in which the dialogue was spoken but the score appropriated from the most popular tunes of the day—this was well before the invention of copyright and the roving inspectors of ASCAP. The songs and dialogue were then put into the mouths of rogues, whores, highwaymen, thieves and informers, with a plot-line that referenced and pilloried everything local from bribe-taking politicians to rival sopranos. Its characters—Macheath, Peachum, Lucy Lockit, down to the minor roles—Filch, Jemmy Twitcher, Robin of Bagshot, Dolly Trull, Jenny Driver—wear the energy of their rumbustious and disreputable lives right in their names. The contrast is between the comically reprehensible people and the lilting, extraordinary sweetness of the songs— imagine, for instance, “Greensleeves” with lyrics about the use of riches to escape hanging. The characters do escape hanging, by the way—purely by the fiat of one of them proclaiming “An opera must end happily,” and a reprieve for Macheath is instantly produced. The combination of the tawdry and the tuneful was such a success that with reference to the author and the play’s producer, John Rich, “It made Gay rich and Rich gay,” and it has held on to its place in the repertory to this day.
Not without its own transformations, of course. On the play’s two hundredth anniversary, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill roughed it up with a new book and score as Die Dreigroschenoper—The Threepenny Opera. One of Weill’s songs, “Messer Mackie,“ was sung by his wife, Lotte Lenya, whose name crept into the lyrics when Bobby Darin sang the Englished version, “Mack the Knife”—yes, 1959’s number one song’s hero was Captain Macheath, from a 1727 play. The text of the play is easily available, online and in a good annotated edition from Penguin. In 1953 Peter Brook directed a film version of Gay’s original, starring Laurence Olivier as Macheath—not easily found, alas. Difficult to get hold of as well is Malcolm Sargent’s charming recording of the play and score, in which the contrast between the expertly delivered dialogue and the sweetness of the songs can be experienced as it will never be purely on the page. Worth searching out? Yes! Yes! Yes!