Beggar’s Can Be for You Choosers
By Peter Filichia
Long before Forbidden Broadway’s Gerard Alessandrini put his own lyrics to existing melodies, John Gay (1685-1732) did the same with The Beggar’s Opera. Unlike Alessandrini, Gay didn’t center on songs from musicals – for the good reason that none existed at the time. What Gay did do was refit no fewer than sixty-nine arias and popular tunes of the day and inserted them into a script. Back in 1728, that was a brand-new concept.
Even Alessandrini, Tony-winner that he is, would probably admit that his parodies won’t survive as long as Gay’s masterwork has. The Beggar’s Opera opened on Jan. 29, 1728, and became London’s second longest-running show, racking up – wait for it — sixty-two performances! Had Robert Cambert, the creator of Pomone, still been alive, he wouldn’t have worried; Beggar’s would have had to reach 146 to even tie him.
Ah, but Gay had his revenge starting in 1920 (not, of course, that he was around to see it). The Beggar’s Opera had a then-unheard-of run of more than three years, racking up 1,463 performances in London’s West End. Surely the news of its success reached Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, who by 1928 had their own version ready to go: The Threepenny Opera.
Actually, Jonathan (Gulliver’s Travels) Swift was the first to make a modest proposal “to put thieves and whores” into a show. He wrote this in a letter to Alexander Pope, and word got to Gay, who did the grunt work and wrote the extravaganza.
He made it topical. Most everyone watching at Lincoln Inn’s Fields – a theater that was originally, of all things, a tennis court – knew that Gay had patterned Mr. Peachum after Jonathan Wild (1682-1725) and that Macheath was a thinly veiled Jack Sheppard (1702-1724).
“Who?” you ask. The appropriately surnamed Wild stole from the rich, but not to give to the poor; he later approached the high-borns and said that he could find their goods – albeit for a finder’s fee “in recognition of his contribution to justice.” How eighteenth-century London audiences must have roared when Peachum actually quoted a line that Wild had already made famous: “If a lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine.”
As for Macheath, who sees his values as aristocratic and Peachum’s bourgeois, his muse Sheppard had a two-year criminal spree that included dozens of grand larcenies, five convictions, four jailbreaks and one hanging. By creating Macheath, Gay has kept Sheppard figuratively alive for almost three solid centuries. As John Wilkes Booth says with full irony in Assassins, “And they say fame is fleeting.”
By the way, in real life Wild and Sheppard hated each other. Each thought that he was the superior lawbreaker. I’d give the edge to Sheppard, because he saw his autobiography while Wild never had one. And if you think it’s a little odd that a common criminal would have the time, inclination and talent to write an autobiography, I’m here to point out that it was ghostwritten by Daniel (Robinson Crusoe) Defoe.
As scholar John Loftis observed in a 1959 essay, both Macheath and Peachum “live with indifference to conventional moral and social discriminations … Accidents of birth and fortune, more than differences of virtues and abilities, accounted for the immense discrepancies of privilege in the eighteenth century.” (And, let’s face it, for the twenty-first as well.)
Their nemesis in real life was Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister — and a first-class adulterer. All of London knew that Walpole, although married, had a mistress on the side. Walpole was a Whig who must have flipped his when Gay satirized him through Macheath, married to Polly Peachum but foolin’ around with Lucy Brown.
Gay could have simply written the show as a play, of course, but the inspiration to make it into a most unoperatic “opera” was a masterstroke. Given that there hadn’t been widespread appreciation for Italian opera in England, Gay’s burlesque of the form met with wild approval with Londoners.
Here’s another irony, courtesy of Yvonne Noble, who wrote in a 1975 essay that “Macheath’s counterpart in Italian opera (is) the castrato as hero.” I doubt that the very butch Kevin Kline, who played the role in a 1973 Broadway revival, would appreciate the comparison.
From the outset, the reviews for The Beggar’s Opera were good. Alexander Pope, who was on the ground floor of this creation, proclaimed that the show was “a piece of Satire which hit all the tastes and degrees of men from those of the highest Quality to the very Rabble.” (Capitals his.)
And if you think souvenir-selling at the back of the theater is something new, let it be known that even in 1728 there were Beggar’s Opera playing cards. Not only that, Polly Peachum’s face wound up adorning many a commercial product.
All they didn’t have was an Original London Cast album. One wouldn’t be available until late 1968, after a new production, co-produced (but not directed by) the legendary Harold Prince opened on September 12th (that famous date in Hair history) at London’s Apollo Theatre.
That West End engagement wasn’t planned; the production had simply been earmarked for summer festivals in Cambridge and Edinburgh. However, the show went over so well that a transfer to London’s “Broadway” just had to happen.
Musical theater aficionados were more than thrilled to finally have any recording at all of The Beggar’s Opera. Never mind that a “long-playing” record could only offer thirty-seven of the sixty-nine songs; half a loaf (53.62%, actually) was much better than none.
Those who know Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera will be especially intrigued by this recording. They’ll feel the seeds and shards of ideas and melodies and lyrics that influenced both of those German legends.
So welcome back to the 1968 London revival cast album of The Beggar’s Opera that is once again available after decades of neglect. To paraphrase a song that was a substantial hit record not once but twice in the ‘50s, Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry, Lucy Brown and Mackie can now all be back in your town.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.