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A 20-Year ‘Threepenny Opera’

Times Arts Editor

In more ways than one, the persistence of vision is what makes movies work. A trick of the eye makes a fast succession of still pictures seem to move. A persistent vision gets movies made, even if the planning and the peddling takes years. “The Last Temptation of Christ” was a dream of Martin Scorsese’s for a decade or more, before his persistence paid off. Similar tales are part of Hollywood legend.

Stanley Chase, a producer not widely known outside industry circles, has had a persistent and probably obsessive feeling about the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht “The Threepenny Opera” since he first heard the original 1928 version on 78 r.p.m. Telefunken records, when he was an undergraduate at New York University.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 17, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 17, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 5 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
The part of Polly in the forthcoming film “Mac the Knife,” mentioned in an article in Thursday’s Calendar, will be played by Julia Migenes. The role was created by Lotte Lenya in 1928.

In 1954, Chase, in partnership with director Carmen Capalbo, produced a new version, with the Kurt Weill songs and new lyrics and libretto by Marc Blitzstein, at the Off-Broadway Theatre de Lys.

Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, who had also been in the 1928 version when it was called “Die Dreigroschenoper,” sang the part of Jenny again. Also in the cast were some other names that would be better known in time: Charlotte Rae, Bea Arthur and John Astin.

Mounting the production, Chase said nostalgically during a recent interview, cost $8,897. By the time it closed seven years later, after many adventures, it had played 2,611 performances, longer than “South Pacific” or “Oklahoma!” More than 700 actors had played its 22 roles, including Valerie Bettis, Jerry Orbach, Paula Stewart, Pert Kelton, Georgia Brown, Ed Asner, Estelle Parsons, Leonard Nimoy and Carroll O’Connor.

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“Every time business started to slow down, something would happen,” Chase said. “First it was Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Mac the Knife’ (the show’s big hit), then Bobby Darin’s, then Ella Fitzgerald’s. It made the charts three times.”

Chase always thought “The Threepenny Opera” would make a movie, too. Or make a movie again. The great German director G. W. Pabst had made simultaneous French- and German-language versions of “Die Dreigroschenoper” in 1931. Unfortunately, Chase couldn’t immediately acquire the film rights, and another German version was made in 1964, with Curt Jurgens and Hildegarde Neff. It was, in Chase’s view, an embarrassment. When the rights became available in 1970, he grabbed them. The persistence of vision is not to be trifled with; getting the movie made took nearly 20 years.

The musical had been Chase’s first venture as a producer. He has since done some movies, including “The Hell With Heroes” and “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” several plays, among them Graham Greene’s “The Potting Shed,” William Saroyan’s “The Cave Dwellers” and a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” and several television specials, one of them a biography of Grace Kelly starring Cheryl Ladd.

After a good deal of shopping around, Chase found a somewhat improbably ally: Menahem Golan, co-founder of Cannon Films, which was even then in deepening financial trouble.

“Menahem,” Chase said, “had directed theater in Israel before he got into producing, and it turned out that he’d always loved ‘Threepenny Opera.’ I’d had several versions of the film script and none of them worked. He understood the property and he wrote the script and directed it.”

The film, now in post-production, has Raul Julia as Macheath, Julie Walters (from “Educating Rita”) as Mrs. Peachum, Roger Daltrey as the Street Singer and Lotte Lenya herself as Polly.

Chase says he is pleased with the film and hopes it will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It is being called “Mac the Knife,” to capitalize on the song’s popularity, and Pathe, which bought out Cannon, is distributing it.

The original vehicle was John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” a ballad-opera first produced in 1728 and suggested to Gay, Chase believes, by Jonathan Swift, as an attempt to discredit then-Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

Its sharp satire--the murderous Macheath reprieved from hanging and given a medal--was intended to mirror a decadent society. The Weill-Brecht “Die Dreigroschenoper” was timed to the 200th anniversary of “Beggar’s Opera” and inspired by a magazine article about Gay’s work. The musical’s point of view seemed well-attuned to the waning days of the Weimar Republic.

The later version prepared by Blitzstein had its debut as a concert performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Brandeis University in 1952, where Chase saw it.

“Weill had died in 1950 at the age of 50,” Chase said. “My partner and I went to see Marc Blitzstein. Lenya was visiting him. They were planning a production for 1953 with Billy Rose. It didn’t happen, and Lenya trusted us with the rights.”

It looks to be quite a year for the Weill-Brecht legacy, said Chase. Jerome Hellman is producing a new Broadway version of the musical, starring Sting and directed by John Dexter, for November. Donald Spoto is writing a biography, “Lenya: A Life,” and there are plans for a Tri-Star film of Lenya’s life, starring Bette Midler.

It is enough to give persistence a good name.


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