Monday, April 20, 2020

40. THE BEGGAR'S OPERA. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Company of The Beggar's Opera [1], with Stephen D. Newman (top), Kathleen Widdoes (right), Marilyn Sokol (bottom, center).
"In Lieu of Reviews"


For background on how this previously unpublished series—introducing all mainstream New York shows between 1970 and 1975—came to be and its relationship to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the earlier entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

There were two (related) revivals of this work between 1970 and 1975.

[1] THE BEGGAR’S OPERA [Musical Revival] A: John Gay; D: Gene Lesser; CH: Elizabeth Keen; S: Robert U. Taylor; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: William Mintzer; P: Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn; T: Chelsea Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 3/21/72-4/16/72 (31); McAlpin Rooftop Theatre (OB); 5/3/72-12/10/72 (224)

A reasonably successful revival of John Gay’s 1728 antiheroic, classic comic opera about life among the thieves and beggars of London’s underworld. Gene Lesser’s production underlined the grosser aspects of the characters’ behavior, with lots of rowdy flesh grabbing, drinking, and general coarseness, an approach that Julius Novick and John Simon assessed as totally inappropriate to the author’s intentions.

These critics suggested that Gay sought to satirize the pretensions of the middle and upper classes by having his rogues and whores emulate that behavior within their own social substrata. The greater the characters’ presumed sophistication, the more the obviousness of their coverup of baser natures. Novick felt the “funkiness is often self-conscious and hollow,” yet he did enjoy the show as a work of charm and entertainment. Simon found very little to praise aside from a chance to see the rarely produced work, whose reputation has been vastly overshadowed by a more famous modern work it directly influenced, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928).

More upbeat reactions came from Clive Barnes (“a positively joyous and euphoric production”; John Lahr (“a strong, focused production which succeeds in bringing the flesh back into the frolic. . . . The scenes move crisply, the actors can be heard, the characters maintain a sense of variety . . . and the satire on opera is never lost”); and Edith Oliver (“the best production, hands down, of anything I’ve seen all year. It is the most beautiful, the most inventive, the most vigorous, and the funniest, and, incidentally, it is utterly faithful to” the original). The critics selected Stephen D. Newman (Macheath), Marilyn Sokol (Lucky Lockit), and Kathleen Widdoes (Polly Peachum) as the prize performers in this period romp. Sokol won an OBIE for Distinguished Performance, and Widdoes was deemed the winner of a Variety poll for Female Lead, Musical.

There was also unanimous approval for Robert U. Taylor’s rendering of a wood-planked setting that embodied the Hogarthian world of old London. The same was true of Carrie F. Robbins’s inspired costumes, soiled and creased, but indubitably elegant and, for the women, provocative. Her creations landed her a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Costume Designer, while Taylor got one for Outstanding Scene Design.

After its limited run at Brooklyn’s Chelsea, the show moved on to a commercial Off-Broadway house, the McAlpin Rooftop Theatre, for a longer run, with a small number of cast changes, including Timothy Jerome replacing Stephen D. Newman as Macheath and Jill Eikenberry taking over Dolly Trull from Joan Nelson.

Norman Snow, Mary Lou Rosato.
[2] D: Gene Lesser; CH: Elizabeth Keen; S: Robert Yodice; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: Martin Aronstein; P: City Center Acting Company; T: Billy Rose Theatre; 12/22/73-1/11/74 (8)

David Ogden Stiers, Nita Angeletti, Sam Tsoutsouvas.
Not that long after the above revival closed, another production of The Beggar’s Opera visited New York but under the rather unique circumstances of having the same director, choreographer, and costume designer as the first. This version was part of a repertory offered during the second season of the Acting Company, a troupe founded by John Houseman with Julliard graduates that continues to this day. Other plays in the repertory were The Three Sisters, Measure for Measure, Scapin, and Next Time I'll Sing to You. Unhappily, The Beggar's Opera had an unappealing and dull-looking new set and, despite his ultimate fame and achievement, a mediocre performance as Macheath by Kevin Kline.

Kevin Kline, Cynthia Herman.
Exuberance and talent aplenty were around in the spirited work of others, however, especially Patti LuPone’s Lucy and David Ogden Stiers’s Peachum. Others of eventual note in the cast were Benjamin Hendrickson as a Beggar, Norman Snow as Filch, Mary Lou Rosato as Mrs. Peachum and Betty Coaxer, David Schramm as Wat Dreary, Mary-Joan Negro as Jenny Diver, and Sam Tsoutsouvas as Lockit. Director Lesser provided “vigor and a certain Rabelasian bombast” to the proceedings but the piece “never really took off,” sighed Clive Barnes. John Simon was harsher. He accused Lesser of repeating himself and said the acting was inadequate for a Broadway mounting.

Earlier 20th-century revivals in New York of The Beggar’s Opera were in 1920, 1928, 1957, and 1964, each of the first two (one Off Broadway, at the Greenwich Village Theatre, the other on, at the 48th Street Theatre) running 37 performances.

Previous entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel