Here is the third and final part of Joe’s article. To read the previous parts please click the relevant link at the end of the article.
First of all, the German word Moritt has an unusually pertinent etymology, in that it denotes a song about the dirty deeds of criminals.” It was intoned throughout the Continent as far back as medieval times and was still cranked out by barrel-organ grinders in the Weimar Republic period of the early 1920s. Without missing a beat, composer Weill picked up on and used the genre’s repetitive, drone-like quality as a continuous link between the scenes of Brecht’s wicked wordplay.
The “vastly watered-down” English version of the ballad, soft-peddled to easily-shocked New Yorkers of the mid-1950s, is shorn of two of the original’s patently suggestive stanzas: their graphically explicit content exposes Mackie as more than just a dashing, Victorian-era rogue (“a cute rat-pack gambler,” as author Peter Gutmann eluded to, in the Classical Notes website), but a vicious and brutal thug, arsonist and rapist-more akin, in type, to the disreputable Jack the Ripper:
And the ghastly fire in Soho,
Seven children at a go-
In the crowd stands Mack the Knife, but
He’s not asked and doesn’t know.
And the child bride in her nightie,
Whose assailant’s still at large,
Violated in her slumbers-
Mackie, how much did you charge?
The debauched nature of Mackie’s character, along with more of Threepenny’s blowzy, jazz-based scoring and racy, gutter dialogue (newly translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett, as evidenced by the above), was hammered home a few years before the formal introduction of Chico’s Rio-Lapa edition, in the now-fabled New York Shakespeare Festival production of 1976, credited to noted theater producer Joseph Papp, who wrote at the time that Blitzstein, with his highly sanitized translation, had “vitiated the political and sexual thrust” of the work “which [gave it] its relentless power.” He could talk.
With the USA having undergone some earth-shattering transformations of its own, due, in large part, to the permeation of the sexual revolution, resulting in a more permissive entertainment environment; and energized by such explosive events as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Women’s Liberation, and the sixties counterculture – all wholly ingrained into American society by the middle of the 1970s – Brazil, in contrast, had taken a few calculated steps (missteps, actually) backward, away from these allegedly “open” Northern attitudes.
These unfortunate missteps manifested themselves in a more conservative outlook on, of all things, live theater, which was heavily in line with the Brazilian general’s narrow-minded, tunnel “vision” for the nation.
This intractable position only reinforced Chico’s resolve to rewrite the verses to several of Malandro’s key tunes prior to curtain time, chief among them the hit, “O Meu Amor,” wherein he removed all reference to a woman’s private parts. Astonishingly, and in light of the headaches these last-minute changes might have ensued for him, the perceptive songwriter much preferred the less provocative, “watered-down” version.
For the recent revival of the show in Rio and elsewhere, he even insisted that the musical’s salty street language be noticeably toned down – go figure!
But his major departure from Gay’s and Brecht’s hallowed text – and an inspirational stroke of genius it would surely turn out to become – was the totally re-imagined opening number, “O Malandro,” composed, eerily enough, to the same monotonous-sounding strain as that of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.”
The gist of it was this: in Chico’s version, the malandro, or street hustler, gulps down a bottle of cachaa (a type of whiskey fermented from cane sugar) obtained at a local bar. He suddenly runs off, leaving the empty-handed waiter (o garom) with an unpaid bill.
The ramifications of this spontaneous act against the waiter (read: the establishment), deprived of his principal means of livelihood, brings about a series of harsh economic “sanctions” any self-respecting citizen of hyper-inflated Cidade Maravilhosa would be all-too familiar with: the waiter complains to the Portuguese owner of the bar (o galego), who passes along his losses to the distributor of the whiskey (distribuidor), who in turn passes along his losses to the operator of the still (alambique), while the operator of the still does the same to the owner of the plant (o usineiro), which promptly has its liquor taxes raised to absurd levels by the Bank of Brazil.
In the meantime, the Americans (os ianques) urge their allies to block further sales of the drink, thus leading to further fiscal calamities, including a “drying up” of the excess cachaa reserves.
The formal conclusion to this convoluted mess is that it winds up exactly where it all began, with the helpless malandro caught and captured, as well as being made the official scapegoat for the resultant global imbalance of payments – a “song about dirty deeds,” indeed.
Although the original aesthetic of both ballads are clearly defined and culturally distinctive, in Chico’s masterful hands the essential mood and spirit, if not the letter, of “Mack the Knife” have been faithfully rendered and respected – but with an artful wink of the Carioca’s knowing eye and an ironic touch of Lapa street smarts.
Of course, if the story had ended there, pera do Malandro would still have satisfied most audience members’ craving for some truly topical theater fare.
As luck would have it, though, this was only the beginning of its good fortune; for, having made a valid critique of the soon-to-be-outmoded military’s failed domestic policies of the not-so golden seventies-the so-called “Brazilian miracle” years – the play’s auspicious 2003 reappearance has helped steer countless new fans of the work toward its uniquely dystopian view of Brazil’s current social problems: that of a singing, stinging portrait of a still-fat, disparate society on the eve of its potential destruction.
How worthy a successor to Brecht-Weill is that?
Copyright 2007 by Josmar F. Lopes
A naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, Joe Lopes was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.
To read previous articles by Joe Lopes click below:
Brecht, Weill & Buarque: The Brazilian Play’s the Thing! Part 2
Brecht, Weill & Buarque: The Brazilian Play’s the Thing! Part 1
Theater, the Brecht of Life: The Influences on Chico’s “Modern” Street Opera, Part II
A Walk on the Weill Side: The Influences on Chico’s “Modern” Street Opera Part 2
A Walk on the Weill Side: The Influences on Chico’s “Modern” Street Opera Part 1
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 5
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 4
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 3
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 2
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 1
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 11
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 10
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 9
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 8
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 7
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 6
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 5
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 4
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 3
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 2
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 1
Teaching English In Brazil Part 21
Teaching English In Brazil Part 20
Teaching English In Brazil Part 19
Teaching English In Brazil Part 18
Teaching English In Brazil Part 17
Teaching English In Brazil Part 16
Teaching English In Brazil Part 15
Teaching English In Brazil Part 14
Teaching English In Brazil Part 13
Teaching English In Brazil Part 12
Teaching English In Brazil Part 11
Brazil: Thrills, Spills, and… Oh Yes, No Ifs, Ands or Head-Butts, Please
Teaching English In Brazil Part 10
Teaching English In Brazil Part 9
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 4
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 4
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 3
Brazilian World Cup Debacle: Just Wait Till 2010! Part 2
Brazilian World Cup Debacle: Just Wait Till 2010! Part 1
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 3
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 2
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 2
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 1
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 1
Teaching English In Brazil Part 8
Teaching English In Brazil Part 7
Teaching English In Brazil Part 6
Teaching English In Brazil Part 5
Teaching English In Brazil Part 4
Teaching English In Brazil Part 3
Teaching English In Brazil Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 4
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 3
Teaching English In Brazil – Part I
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 1
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 3
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 2
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 1
Brazil: A Candid Talk with Gerald Thomas
Getting to the “bottom” of Brazil’s Gerald Thomas
A Brazilian Diva Torn Between Europe and Brazil
The Enraged Genius of Brazil’s Maestro Neschling
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest
Brazil’s Musical Polyglots: What Was That You Were Singing?
Did Bossa Nova Kill Opera in Brazil?“