Singing at the Theatre de Lys

This morning’s music — what my iTunes offered when I woke, as it automatically went through music overnight — was clearly the voice of Bea Arthur. Yes, it was her, singing the “Barbara Song” from the Three Penny Opera, specifically on the cast album of the 1954 production in English at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village:


Not just Bea Arthur (as Lucy Brown), but also Charlotte Rae (as Mrs. Peachum), two young actors then mostly appearing on stage, especially the musical stage — before they established their tv sitcom careers, both of them in tremendously popular sitcoms (The Golden Girls, The Facts of Life) whose central characters were all female (four older women in The Golden Girls, a woman and four schoolgirls in The Facts of Life).

Arthur and Rae belong to what I called in a 7/20/15 posting “The Acting Corps”, a bank of reliable actors appearing in numerous tv shows (and movies and stage productions). The Theatre de Lys production included, over the years, several more from the corps — Ed Asner, Jerry Orbach, Jerry Stiller, and John Astin — but here I’m going to focus on the two women.

3PO (Die Dreigroschenoper, or DGO, in German) has a long and complex history, in German and in English, with many notable productions over the years, involving gigantic changes in all the details of the show. Some discussion of the Theatre de Lys production in one section of my 3/6/16 posting “Sex in the shadows”; I saw two performances of the show there, mostly for the sake of Lotte Lenya, whose recordings of the Berlin theater songs of Kurt Weill (in German) I had pretty much memorized.

About this production, from Wikipedia:

In 1956, Lotte Lenya [who played Jenny in the 1928 Berlin premiere of DGO] won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny, the only time an Off-Broadway performance has been so honored, in Blitzstein’s somewhat softened version of The Threepenny Opera, which played Off-Broadway at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village for a total of 2,707 performances, beginning with an interrupted 96-performance run in 1954 and resuming in 1955. Blitzstein had translated the work into English, and toned down some of its acerbities [and Blitzstein’s book was further altered in the cast album, mostly for the sake of modesty]. The production featured Scott Merrill as Macheath, Edward Asner (as Mr Peachum), Charlotte Rae (later Jane Connell) as Mrs Peachum, Bea Arthur (as Lucy), Jerry Orbach (as PC Smith, the Street Singer and Mack), John Astin (as Readymoney Matt/Matt of the Mint) and Jerry Stiller (as Crookfinger Jake) as members of the cast during its run. [The opening night cast included Bea Arthur (Lucy), John Astin (Readymoney Matt), Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Leon Lishner (Mr. Peachum), Scott Merrill (Mack), Gerald Price (Streetsinger), Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Peachum), and Jo Sullivan (Polly).]

You can listen here to the cast album version of Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny”.

More detail, from an Amazon customer review of the cast album:

The women steal the show. Charlotte Rae as Mrs Peachum is venomous, as suits the part. Bea Arthur and Jo Sullivan as Lucy and Polly are perfect antagonists in the battle for Macheath. Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow, is – for me – the most memorable of all with Pirate Jenny and Solomon Song. The men are the supporting cast: Martin Wolfson’s Peachum is sneaky and sarcastic and his light lisp adds just the right sinister touch. Gerald Price as the street singer opens ominously and closes suitably darkly. Scott Merrill has the misfortune, for all the singing he does, of being cast as a sleaze, and so gets little sympathy for his part. [Unfair to Merrill, I think, who does a stunning job of portraying a character who’s both a charming rogue and a moral monster.] I’ve left out Tiger Brown, Macheath’s gang, the chorus and orchestra: all are wonderful. I love the slide guitar – whether steel or slack-key I can’t tell, but it was a shock to hear it 60 years ago. For those who criticize Blitzstein’s adaptation as being too civilized and simplified keep in mind that Brecht approved it and Lenya was not only a mover in its production but a participant. After all these years the album still holds up.

A seque into more attention to Arthur and Rae.

Bea Arthur. From the show:

(#2) Scott Merrill (Macheath) and Bea Arthur (Lucy Brown)

From Wikipedia:

(#3) Arthur with a characteristic facial expression (note the raised eyebrow) — matching her characteristic vocal tone

Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (born Bernice Frankel; May 13, 1922 – April 25, 2009) was an American actress, comedian, singer, and animal rights activist. Her career spanned seven decades.

Arthur achieved fame as the character Maude Findlay on the 1970s sitcoms All in the Family (1971–72) and Maude (1972–78), and as Dorothy Zbornak on the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–92), winning Emmy Awards for both roles. A stage actress both before and after her television success, she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Vera Charles in the original cast of Mame (1966).

… In 1999, Arthur told an interviewer of the three influences in her career: “Sid Caesar taught me the outrageous; [method acting guru] Lee Strasberg taught me what I call reality; and [original Threepenny Opera star] Lotte Lenya, whom I adored, taught me economy.” Another source of influence to Arthur, was that of famed actress/director Ida Lupino whom Arthur praised as, “My dream was to become a very small blonde movie star like Ida Lupino and those other women I saw up there on the screen during the Depression.”

The Golden Girls main cast:

(#4) Bea Arthur (Dorothy Zbornak), Estelle Getty (Sophia Petrillo), Betty White (Rose Nylund), Rue McClanahan (Blanche Devereaux)

Charlotte Rae. You can listen here to Rae singing “Ballad of Dependency” from the 3PO cast album. Then from Wikipedia:

Charlotte Rae Lubotsky (known professionally as Charlotte Rae; born April 22, 1926) is an American character actress of stage, comedian, singer and dancer whose career spans six decades.

Rae is known for her portrayal of Edna Garrett in the sitcoms Diff’rent Strokes and its spin-off, The Facts of Life (in which she had the starring role from 1979–1986). [The Facts of Life focuses on Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) as she becomes a housemother (and after the second season, a dietitian as well) at the fictional Eastland School, an all-female boarding school in Peekskill NY.]

… A stage actress since the 1950s, she appeared in Three Wishes for Jamie, The Threepenny Opera, Li’l Abner, and Pickwick. In 1955 she released her first (and only) solo album, Songs I Taught My Mother, which featured “silly, sinful, and satirical” songs by Sheldon Harnick, Vernon Duke, John La Touche, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and Marc Blitzstein (who reportedly wrote the song “Modest Maid” especially for Rae), among others.

The Facts of Life cast:

(#5) Kim Fields (Tootie Ramsey), Lisa Whelchel (Blair Warner), Nancy McKeon (Jo Polniaczek), Mindy Cohn (Natalie Green)

The four older women of The Golden Girls and the four teenagers of The Facts of Life are all flawed, but also, each of them, admirable in her own way; in each show, the four characters are differentiated as much as possible — with the result that each show offers an assortment of personas that viewers could identify with. And then both shows take on  socially sensitive themes directly, among them abortion, rape, homosexuality, race and ethnicity, social class, and religious differences.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: