Chico’s Modern Street Opera – Part Three: Brecht, Weill and Buarque, Together At Last!

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Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill (aceterrier.com)
Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill (aceterrier.com)

Returning now to Ópera do Malandro and to the two quotations by Kurt Weill that have occupied our thoughts since the outset of this essay — to wit, the difference between “serious” music and “light” music, and the legitimacy of its being filled out with new musical content by the use of popular songs — we should keep the following in mind: to what extent has Chico Buarque’s “trans-cultural reading” of Brecht-Weill’s better known theater-piece proved itself to be a worthy successor to Threepenny Opera’s stated “urgent purpose”?

In the same sense, was the choice by Chico of a pop-driven music-score for this strictly Brazilian by-product the “correct” one for him to have used in expressing, to an equivalent degree, his own deliberately high-minded goals?

This was, in fact, an old argument, which has often been trotted out by purists whenever the built-in dichotomy found in the fecund Brecht-Weill partnership and their brief, albeit liberal, brush with musical theater are inevitably brought up — especially where it concerned their two most substantial stage collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930).

The question has also turned up in the February 2007 issue of the publication Opera News, in which culture critic Philip Kennicott’s highly informative article, “The City of Mahagonny Rises Again,” is given over mainly to pondering the point that, “If Weill’s music is reliant on Brecht’s libretto to communicate its sneer — its contempt for the ugliness of a grasping, cynical world — is it therefore lesser music? Is Weill’s music really nothing more than good show-tunes with bitter lyrics? And if that’s true, are we under any obligation to take his music as seriously as he and Brecht and contemporary social critics in the 1930s took it — as social statement, as consciousness-changing… because it was eminently hummable?”

Similarly, in historian and musicologist Richard Taruskin’s monumental study, The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume Five: The Early Twentieth Century, he offers this cogent analysis of Threepenny Opera’s unconventional theme and tone, what Weill himself referred to as its “service to the general public”; and that is, “public political education or indoctrination as a stimulus to revolutionary political action. To achieve this purpose, music had not only to change its style… but also its function within the drama.”

Both opinions to the contrary, its function within the framework set by Chico was not merely to provide “good show-tunes with bitter lyrics” — one must give the politically astute and fully “indoctrinated” Carioca his due here — but rather to hold a mirror up to Brazilian society of the seventies, as both Brecht and Weill had done before him (with that of pre-Nazified Germany), and show what could happen to that same, disparate society if its myriad social problems were left unattended for long.

In that, Chico was right in “disguising” his intentions from the official censors by utilizing the tried-and-true formula of popular song then available to him and at his ready disposal; all this, despite the rather surprising (for an intellectual) admission early on, made to Brazil’s Veja magazine at the time of the world premiere, concerning Malandro’s previous “incarnations”:

“I wasn’t familiar with John Gay’s piece [The Beggar’s Opera]; in fact, I never knew it existed. What did exist was the idea [with Ruy Guerra, who directed the movie adaptation of Malandro in 1986] for a new version of Threepenny Opera. But when we got our hands on the play that first inspired Brecht, we decided to do a complete review of both works.

Chico Buarque (conexaovivo.com.br)
Chico Buarque (conexaovivo.com.br)

“Besides, there were other things that led me to consider these [two] texts. Brecht himself was often accused of plagiarizing other people’s ideas, but he didn’t seem to care; he just went right on with his own plans. Well, then, if Brecht could do this to others, why couldn’t we use his idea and transport it to Brazil?”

No wonder the government was suspicious! More reason why Buarque placed the action of his musical play in the waning years of the Vargas regime’s Estado Novo (“New State”) — a textbook example, really, of Brecht’s vaunted distancing effect. But with all due respect to Seu Chico, that’s as gutsy a response as any to accusations of the Brazilian songwriter’s feigning ignorance of his European literary sources, to say nothing of the difficulty he encountered in obtaining approval beforehand (from authorities in both Rio and Brasília) for the staging of his novel musical experiment.

What we do have, bottom line, is a third major influence on Chico’s modern street opera, in the subtle but no less tangible model laid out for him by an eighteenth-century English poet’s ever-popular “ballad opera” called, suitably enough in Portuguese, Ópera do Mendigo.

Nevertheless, to clear the air once and for all regarding this matter, and nudge the debate along as to whether or not Brazilian show-tunes could successfully hold their own against the firmly established “classics” — all the while conveying the same seriousness of purpose in supporting an equally serious social agenda — let us look closely at one of the ballads common to both Brecht-Weill and Buarque: the introductory song, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” or, as it is commonly known in the States, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” in the widely circulated version by Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock) for a 1954 off-Broadway revival starring Weill’s widow, the great Lotte Lenya (Cabaret); and in Chico’s own bowdlerized rendition, “O Malandro,” in wonderfully literate Brazilian Portuguese:

 

“Mack the Knife” (Marc Blitzstein, after Brecht-Weill)

Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear

And he shows them pearly white

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear,

And he keeps it out of sight

 

When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,

Scarlet billows start to spread,

Fancy gloves though wears Macheath, dear,

So there’s not a trace of red

 

On the sidewalk, Sunday morning,

Lies a body oozing life,

Someone’s sneaking round the corner,

Is the someone Mack the Knife?

 

From a tug boat by the river

A cement bag’s dropping down

The cement’s just for the weight, dear

Bet you Mack is back in town

 

Louie Miller disappeared, dear

After drawing out his cash

And Macheath spends like a sailor

Did our boy do something rash?

 

Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver

Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown

Oh the line forms on the right, dear

Now that Mack is back in town

 

—————————————————–

“O Malandro” (Adapted by Chico Buarque)

O malandro na dureza

senta à mesa do café

bebe um gole de cachaça,

acha graça e dá no pé

 

O garçom no prejuízo

sem sorriso, sem freguês

de passagem pela caixa

dá uma baixa no português

 

O galego acha estranho

que o seu ganho tá um horror

pega o lápis soma os canos

passa os danos pro distribuidor

 

Mas o frete vê que ao todo

há engodo nos papéis

a pra cima do alambique

dá um trambique de cem mil réis

 

O usineiro nessa luta

grita puta que pariu

não é idiota, trunca a nota

lesa o banco do Brasil

 

Nosso banco tá cotado

no mercado exterior

então taxa a cachaça

a um preço assustador

 

Mas os ianques com seus tanques

têm bem mais o que fazer

e proibem os soldados

aliados de beber

 

A cachaça tá parada

rejeitada no barril

o alambique tem chilique

contra o banco do Brasil

 

O usineiro faz barulho

com orgulho de produtor

mas a sua raiva cega

descarrega no carregador

 

Este chega pro galego

nega arreglo cobra mais

a cachaça tá de graça

mas o frete como é que faz?

 

O galego tá apertado

pro seu lado não tá bom

então deixa congelada

a mesada do garçom

 

O garçom vê um malandro

sai gritando, pega ladrão

e o malandro autuado

é julgado e condenando culpado

pela situação

 (Copyright © 1977 Cara Nova Editora Musical Ltda.)

 

First of all, the German word Moritat has an unusually pertinent etymology, in that it denotes a “song about the dirty deeds of criminals.” It was intoned throughout the European Continent as far back as medieval times and was still cranked out by barrel-organ grinders in the Weimar Republic period of the early 1920s. Without missing a beat, composer Weill picked up on and used the genre’s repetitive, drone-like quality as a continuous link between the scenes of Brecht’s wicked wordplay.

The “vastly watered-down” English version of the ballad, soft-peddled to easily-shocked New Yorkers of the mid-1950s, is shorn of two of the original’s patently suggestive stanzas: their graphically explicit content exposes Mackie as more than just a dashing, Victorian-era rogue (“a cute rat-pack gambler,” as author Peter Gutmann alluded to, in his Classical Notes Website), but a vicious and brutal thug, arsonist and rapist — more akin, in type, to the disreputable Jack the Ripper:

And the ghastly fire in Soho,

Seven children at a go —

In the crowd stands Mack the Knife, but

He’s not asked and doesn’t know

 

And the child bride in her nightie,

Whose assailant’s still at large,

Violated in her slumbers —

Mackie, how much did you charge?

 

Threepenny Opera Poster Art
Threepenny Opera Poster Art

The debauched nature of Mackie’s character, along with more of Threepenny’s blowzy, jazz-flavored scoring and racy, gutter dialogue (newly translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett, as evidenced by the above), was hammered home a few years before the introduction of Chico’s Rio-Lapa edition, in the now-fabled New York Shakespeare Festival production of 1976, credited to noted theater producer Joseph Papp, who wrote at the time that Blitzstein, with his highly sanitized translation into the vernacular, had “vitiated the political and sexual thrust” of the work “which [gave it] its relentless power.” He could talk!

With the U.S. having undergone some earth-shattering transformations of its own, due in large part to the profusion of the sexual revolution; resulting in a more permissive entertainment environment; and energized by such explosive events as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Women’s Liberation, and the sixties counterculture — all wholly ingrained into American society by the middle of the 1970s — Brazil, in contrast, had taken a few calculated steps (missteps, actually) backward, away from these allegedly “open” Northern attitudes. They manifested themselves in a more conservative outlook on, of all things, live theater, which was heavily in line with the Brazilian generals’ narrow-minded, tunnel “vision” for the nation as a whole.

This intractable position only reinforced Chico’s resolve to rewrite the verses to several of Malandro’s key signature tunes prior to show time, chief among them the hit, “O Meu Amor,” wherein he removed all reference to a woman’s private parts. Astonishingly, and in light of the headaches these last-minute changes might have entailed for him, the perceptive songwriter much preferred his less provocative, “watered-down” version. For the recent revival of the show in Rio and elsewhere, he even went so far as to insist that the musical’s salty street language be noticeably toned down — go figure!

But his major departure from Gay’s and Brecht’s hallowed texts — and an inspirational stroke of genius it would surely turn out to be — was the totally re-imagined opening number “O Malandro,” composed, eerily enough, to the same monotonous-sounding strain as that of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.”

The gist of it all was this: in Chico’s version, the malandro, or street hustler, gulps down a bottle of cachaça (a type of whiskey fermented from cane sugar) obtained at a local bar. He suddenly runs off, leaving the empty-handed waiter (o garçom) with the unpaid bill. The ramifications of this spontaneous act against the waiter (read: the Establishment) brings about a series of harsh economic “sanctions” any self-respecting citizen of hyper-inflated Cidade Maravilhosa would be all-too familiar with: deprived of his principal means of livelihood, the waiter takes his money from the cash register.

When the bar’s Portuguese owner (o galego) can’t figure out where the day’s profits went to, he passes along his losses to the distributor of the whiskey (distribuidor), who in turn passes along his losses to the operator of the still (alambique), while the operator of the still does the same to the owner of the plant (o usineiro), which promptly has its liquor taxes raised to ridiculous levels by the Bank of Brazil.

In the meantime, the Americans (os ianques) urge their allies to boycott future sales of the drink, thus leading to further financial calamities, including a “drying up” of the excess cachaça reserves. The formal conclusion to this comical mess is that it winds up exactly where it all began, with the helpless malandro caught and captured, as well as being made the official scapegoat for the resultant global imbalance of payments — a “song about dirty deeds,” indeed.

Although the original aesthetic of both ballads are clearly defined and culturally distinctive, in Chico’s masterful hands the essential mood and spirit, if not the letter, of “Mack the Knife” have been faithfully rendered and reproduced, but with an artful wink of the composer’s knowing eye and an ironic touch of the Lapa street smarts.

Of course, if the story had ended there, Ópera do Malandro would still have satisfied most audience members’ craving for some truly topical theater fare. As luck would have it, though, this was only the beginning of its good fortune; for, having made a valid critique of the soon-to-be-outmoded military’s failed domestic policies of the not-so golden seventies — the so-called “Brazilian miracle” years — the play’s audacious 2003 reappearance has helped steer countless new fans of the work toward its uniquely dystopian view of Brazil’s current social condition: that of a singing, stinging portrait of a still-fat disparate society on the eve of its potential destruction.

How worthy a successor to Brecht-Weill is that? ☼

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “Chico’s Modern Street Opera – Part Three: Brecht, Weill and Buarque, Together At Last!

    Beats By Dre Pro said:
    July 16, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Saved as a favorite, I like your website!

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