Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yes, that line forms on the right, babe

Bobby Darin's Mack the Knife is one of my favorite songs. I love the lounge act swing of it that contrasts with the dark subject matter of the lyrics. Maybe I'm the only one, but this is one of those songs that hooked me with its melody, and it was only several listens later that I realized, "Hey, it's about a guy who kills people!" The song has been performed by all sorts of people: Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Robbie Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Nick Cave.

I pick Darin's as the definitive version (Fitzgerald's is a close second - she name drops fellow Mack-crooners Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong, what's not to love?), but the song originated in a 1928 German musical called The Threepenny Opera, composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. The song's original title? Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife). It was apparently written for Weill's wife. Though wikipedia can be a dubious source, this tidbit about the song caught my interest:
A moritat (from mori meaning "deadly" and tat meaning "deed") is a medieval version of the murder ballad performed by strolling minstrels. In The Threepenny Opera, the moritat singer with his street organ introduces and closes the drama with the tale of the deadly Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, a character based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The Brecht-Weill version of the character was far more cruel and sinister, and has been transformed into a modern anti-hero.
The opera opens with the moritat singer comparing Macheath (unfavorably) with a shark, and then telling tales of his robberies, murders, rapes, and arson.

I can't find the original German from the 1931 film version, but the movie's a great watch if you're into old, subtitled musicals. Man, I love the film version organ and the way the song's intensity builds. And singing along lets me pretend like I know German. Here's the French-language version from the same year--they shot the same film in 2 languages at the same time:

-A few years ago there was a Tony-nominated Broadway revival of the show starring Cyndi Lauper, Alan Cumming and Nellie McKay. Cyndi Lauper sang Mack the Knife!
-Finally, I haven't watched all of it yet, but Northwestern University has posted an entire live, professional-quality live performance of Threepenny. It looks pretty neat so far - live orchestra, good production value, and decent filming and editing, so if German musicals don't float your boat, you can see it in English.

If today's post had a moral, it might be to steer clear of anyone with weapon as part of their nickname.

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