The Cantor’s Son Behind “The Threepenny Opera”


An early-20th-century cantor’s son, steeped in the traditions of the old world, aspires for pop music stardom—and gets it. No, we’re not talking about Al Jolson. We’re talking about Kurt Weill.

Weill (b. 1900) became famous for songs like “Mack the Knife” and “Speak Low,” but he took a more circuitous route than Jolson toward popular song, first training at Berlin’s prestigious Hochschule für Musik.

By 1925, the young Weill was a celebrated music-theater composer. He caught the attention of playwright Bertolt Brecht, and their partnership led to the boundary-pushing “The Threepenny Opera.” The pair was not without tensions: Brecht was intensely political, and Weill once protested that he was “unable to set the communist party manifesto to music.”

Weill’s edgy operas, which often featured prostitutes and unjust punishments for petty crimes, eventually drew the ire of the Nazis. In 1933, Weill fled Germany, arriving in America just in time to help guide musical theater into its “golden age” with shows like “Knickerbocker Holiday.” Before long, Weill’s Weimar songs were American standards.

Watch “Mack the Knife”:

Watch “Speak Low”:

See “The Threepenny Opera” in German:

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