By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 334 pages, 3.5 stars
In the summer of 1928, in a disrupted and dispirited Germany that was inexorably headed for war, a new form of theater debuted in Berlin. Not entirely classical, jazz or cabaret, The Threepenny Opera, along with its most recognizable song, ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” made the careers of two young writers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In this book-length essay that is both a biography and a cultural and political history of the time, American author Ethan Mordden discusses the development of modern musical theater through the story of one of its principal inventors, Weill, and his Austrian wife, the actress/singer Lotte Lenya. Married for 20 years, the couple had a complex personal and professional relationship that here is somewhat thinly played out against the turbulent backdrop of the 20th century.
Although the setting rather than the main characters ultimately makes for the more compelling narrative, Mordden has an engaging writing style that is both chatty and descriptively detailed. An extensive chapter on sources and a discography are helpful additions. This is for readers who have a general sense but not a familiarity with the characters or time period, or who enjoy Broadway and other musical stage histories.
Reviewed by Linda Frederiksen