On September 2, 1929, one year and two days after the opening of the THREE PENNY OPERA, Brecht and Weill opened HAPPY END. As dismal a failure as THREE PENNY had been a success, HAPPY END closed two days later. In 1972, Bob Brustein, founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre, introduced Michael Feingold to Lotte Lenya. Lenya essentially said to Feingold that the piece had never worked, and gave him carte blanche to adapt it liberally, which he did.
This same version ran for 75 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre starring a young Meryl Streep who had performed it at the Yale Rep. Since that time, it has had numerous regional theatre productions. In all this time, no one has seen fit to revise the piece in a way that will make it viable for the contemporary stage.
I have seen many productions of this piece and they always seem to fall short because the artists involved attempt to justify and marry the world of the songs and the world of the text. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these worlds exist in two separate dimensions, that their juxtaposition is not logical, not rational. Brecht and Weill were onto something so brilliant and specific with this idea of “alienation” and often, it appears to be misunderstood.
HAPPY END is not a traditional book musical in which the “numbers” further the action or even comment on the character’s emotional condition in that moment of the play. Any attempt to force the material in this linear direction reduces the songs to interesting musical diversions at best. It simply will not yield to this kind of plodding, earthbound treatment. Neither are the songs merely stopping places for political interjection or worse, moralizing, which sets the entire piece into a hopelessly monochromatic landscape.
With HAPPY END, as in all other Brecht/Weill collaborations, we are presented with a whole other animal altogether. And what is wonderful about these works, and this work in particular, is the abrupt way in which the songs continually interrupt the action of the play, and even seem contrary to the concerns of the characters. Their concerns are local, diminutive, specific to time and place, and suddenly, a window opens and what emerges are those magnificent lyrics and melodies that hurl the play and the audience outward from the local, to the universal.
In reworking this text Michael Feingold and I have attempted to bring the gang out of their bumbling and somewhat benign BOWERY BOYS existence into a life more closely resembling the one represented in PUBLIC ENEMY, making them far more dangerous, suggesting that, perhaps, crime really does pay. We want to heighten and polarize the Gang and the Salvation Army, making the pairing of Bill Cracker and Lillian that much more extraordinary and unlikely.
I love that HAPPY END is such an American story told, at the time, by Germans who could, as yet, only “envision” America, to borrow from George Grosz. I plan to take advantage of this idiosyncrasy and play heavily into this notion of “mythical” Chicago, ultimately marrying American and German influences in the look and the playing style of the piece. We’re very excited to be here at Sundance, taking our first real steps toward breathing new life into this wonderful piece.
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