In November, we started a new series of blog posts looking at how Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” became the iconic American classic, “Mack the Knife.” At first glance, the original is a gritty, darkly comic murder ballad about the seditious ways of the notorious Mackie Messer. The comedy lay in the understanding that Mack is not so different from the politicians and members of respectable society that look down at ruffians of his stature; Brecht and Weill want us to know that corruption is a game everyone plays.
Die Dreigroschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. In the 1930s, as the Nazis took over Germany and Weill’s livelihood and life itself were endangered, he emigrated to the United States and began his second life as a composer for Broadway and Hollywood. He died in 1950, just as the composer Marc Blitzstein was beginning a new English translation of Die Dreigroschenoper. Blizstein’s adaptation–The Threepenny Opera–premiered off-Broadway in 1954, bringing the work to a wide American audience for the first time. While the run was deemed an enormous success (it ran until 1961 and garnered a Tony Award for Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya in the role of Jenny), Mack the Knife’s moment in the cultural spotlight was still to come.
In 1956, Louis Armstrong introduced his version of “Mack the Knife” to the American hit parade in a new, jazzed up version that decidedly lightened the musical tone of the piece:
Just two years later, in 1958, Bobby Darin recorded his iconic version of “Mack the Knife.” The single was released in August 1959 and sold 2 million copies, stayed at number one on the charts for 9 weeks, and won the Grammy for Record of the Year, forever embedding the piece in the annals of American pop culture. Darin used Blitzstein’s translation in his recording, but he was liberal in throwing in some “babes” at the end of almost every line. Furthermore, influenced by Armstrong’s take on “Mack,” Darin’s arrangement is almost aggressively smooth and sugary where the original is rough and bitter. Take a listen below:
Sounds a little different than this, huh? In Darin’s version, much like in Armstrong’s, Mack is no longer the dangerously seductive criminal you fear. Rather, he sounds almost like an Elvis figure, someone slightly dangerous but endlessly cool, someone you want to know. While the words are only slightly altered, the new music is downright gleeful, rendering a work that would likely be unrecognizable to Kurt Weill.