Words & Music: Chico Buarque de Hollanda
English Plot Summary: Josmar Lopes
(From the revival by Charles Möeller & Claudio Botelho)
The most well-known of singer/songwriter Francisco (“Chico”) Buarque de Hollanda’s musical plays for the Brazilian stage, Ópera do Malandro (or “The Street Hustler’s Opera”) is based in large part on The Beggar’s Opera (1728), an English ballad opera attributed to poet and dramatist John Gay; and The Threepenny Opera (1928), conceived by playwright Bertolt Brecht with composer Kurt Weill. The original show premiered in Rio de Janeiro in July 1978, and was subsequently introduced to São Paulo, in October 1979, under the direction of Luiz Antonio Martinez Correa. It has since been revived a number of times throughout Brazil and Portugal, particularly during 2003-2004 by the award-winning production team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.
Dramatis Personae (in order of appearance):
Fernandes de Duran – an enterprising merchant, moneylender and bordello owner.
Fichinha (“Easy as Pie”) – a recent “recruit” from the North of Brazil.
Vitoria Regia – Duran’s wife, a fanatical social climber and former madam.
Geni (a.k.a. Genival) – Max’s go-between, a transvestite panderer and lazy good-for-nothing,
who plays both sides of the fence, as befits his dual nature.
Teresinha (“Little Teresa”) – the Durans’ spoiled-rotten daughter, in love with Max.
Max Overseas – the malandro of the title, a smuggler, thief and master con man, in addition to being Public Enemy Number One.
Inspector Chaves – called “Big Tiger,” the chief of police and friend to Max; he happens to be on the con man’s payroll, but who also works for Duran on the side.
Max’s gang of malandros: Johnny Walker, Barrabas, General Electric, Phillip Morris, Big Ben, Kid
Duran’s team of hookers: Shirley Packet, Mimi Trinkets, Baby Doll Dora, Doris Floppy Breasts, Jussara Angel’s Feet, Catarina Blue
Lucia – Inspector Chaves’ daughter, in love with (and made pregnant by) Max.
The setting is the old bohemian district of Lapa, in Rio de Janeiro. The time is the early 1940s, during the dictatorship of Brazilian strongman Getúlio Vargas. Although the story takes place during this period, the setting and action are, in reality, sharp-eyed reflections on Brazil’s military government years of the late 1970s and the growing dependency on foreign (read: American) corporate interests and influence.
Merchant and moneylender Fernandes de Duran and his social-climbing wife, Vitoria Regia, run a successful operation of houses of ill repute, among other questionable activities, employing hundreds of fallen women as workers in their “boutique,” thus keeping them out of “trouble.” The couple has a daughter, Teresinha (“Little Teresa”), who has been brought up to lead a rather sheltered life – or so they believe – away from the cruelty and want of this world. Duran and Vitoria have done their best to seek an advantageous match for their only child.
The couple’s silent partner, Inspector Chaves, the dreaded chief of police, is in charge of the so-called morals of the city. By sheer coincidence (or perhaps not so coincidentally), Chaves supplements his measly police earnings by accepting gifts, grafts and gratuities not only from Duran but also from his friend and ally in crime, the notorious smuggler Max Overseas.
At the same time, Max lords it over his enterprising band of hoods, known collectively as malandros (“street hustlers”), that operates in the vicinity – and without too much interference from the law, thanks to his pal Chaves. Business is thriving, until the day all three of these men cross paths with each other. That’s when the real fun begins!
Before the curtain rises, two malandros appear in front of the stage to introduce the program by singing the praises of malandragem, or the street-hustler life, in their wide-brimmed hats, white-tailored suits, dark shirts, white shoes and spats. They break into a little song and dance routine, which is enlarged to encompass the entire cast in an elaborate opening production number:
1) A VOLTA DO MALANDRO (“The Return of the Street Hustler”)
Scene One: Duran’s office home. Fernandes de Duran, zealous guardian of “law and order” (as he sees it), is talking to Inspector Chaves on the telephone. Duran is calling in his debt: he informs Chaves that the end of the month is at hand, but the police chief’s monthly payment is long overdue. After interrupting the phone conversation with repeated knocks on the door, Fichinha sashays into the room. A young girl from the impoverished North, she has been sent to him from a nearby jail, allegedly for loitering and soliciting. After getting the impression she is probably the most clueless individual he has ever met, Duran offers her a job in his boutique. He thinks she has definite “possibilities” in the call-girl profession.
His social-climbing-minded wife, Vitoria Regia (a former call girl and bordello madam herself), thinks otherwise. Among her duties, Vitoria is responsible for the employees’ moral and physical welfare (such as they are), in accordance with her husband’s instructions. Vitoria examines the obviously unqualified candidate, calling her names and cursing her misshapen body repeatedly. In the next number, Vitoria explains to Fichinha the basics of her profession. Forget about love, she admonishes, this is strictly a business affair. Concentrate instead on doing the best job you can for one’s clients, just as any self-respecting working stiff would do:
2) VIVER DO AMOR (“Living by Loving”)
Unfortunately, her advice is cut short by the arrival of Geni, or (when it moves him), Genival, a transgender-like lost soul who is Max’s go-between. Through hints and sarcastic asides, Geni makes Duran and Vitoria aware of the impending marriage of their only child, their precious little Teresinha. Their daughter has lately flown the coop and, as the bewildered couple belatedly learns, is preparing to wed Public Enemy Number One, the infamous Max Overseas. Vitoria is aghast at the thought. Duran now resolves to have a little chat with Inspector Chaves, who owes him big time, to convince the police chief that he must disrupt his daughter’s wedding at any cost. What is needed is a little persuasion. He launches into a number whereby he claims to talk tough to miscreants, takes a hard-line with criminals. In short, that’s his philosophy of life, which he shares with the audience:
3) HINO DE DURAN (“Duran’s Code of Ethics”)
Scene Two: Max’s hideaway. The wedding of Teresinha and Max is about to take place at the bandit’s dingy hideout on the outskirts of town. While they await the arrival of the best man, Max presents his bride-to-be to his motley crew of subordinates, who dedicate an original ode to the little woman. They introduce themselves to her one by one, enumerating their various specialties (and virtues) in crime, by engaging her in a tango:
4) TANGO DO COVIL (“The Hovel Tango”)
When the “office boy” Kid blurts out that the best man is here, Max’s gang makes a mad dash for the exit. The best man turns out to be none other than Inspector Chaves, Lapa’s chief of police – the gruff individual known as “Big Tiger” – and a close pal of Max. The two trade friendly insults with each other, testing one another’s nerves almost to the breaking point, in the serio-comic duet that follows:
5) DESAFIO DO MALANDRO (“The Hustler’s Challenge”)
Chaves complains to Max that his “boss” is calling in his debts, so he has to press Max for payback as well. Max assures him that he can wrangle the money from his future father-in-law. When Max hears that Chaves’ boss and his father-in-law-to-be are one and the same person, i.e. Fernandes de Duran, he is absolutely delighted at the news and assures his old partner that all debts will be forgiven, no questions asked. With that, Chaves begins to perform his “official duty” as justice of the peace, in order to get the wedding ceremony rolling. Just then, Geni enters in an attempt to crash the party. Too late, as the gang members devour all the food and drink in sight. The participants launch into a rousing musical number wherein Max and Teresinha sing of their separate interests, and dream of a “happy” married life together, till death do they part:
6) O CASAMENTO DOS PEQUENOS BURGUESES (“Wedding of the Petits Bourgeoisies”)
Scene Three: Back at Duran’s office. Duran and Vitoria confront their daughter Teresinha about the supposed rumor of her wedding. Since father and daughter are not on speaking terms, they transmit each other’s words through mother Vitoria. Yes, it’s true, Teresinha admits, she is now married to Max. This revelation sends Vitoria into exaggerated paroxysms of remorse. After her mother apostrophizes over her motives for marrying such a man as this bandit and thief, Teresinha makes a simple declaration: she did not marry Max for his money, oh no, but (gasp) for real love. She breaks into a song wherein she describes how this phenomenon came about:
7) TERESINHA (“Little Teresa”)
When Duran discovers that Inspector Chaves has served as the best man for Public Enemy Number One, the merchant threatens to blackmail him in a major scandal that will bring the police chief down. Knowing Chaves the way he does, Duran has no doubt he would rather choose to betray his buddy Max Overseas than to see his lucrative sideline collapse. The plan is to eliminate Max, once and for all. Teresinha overhears their conversation just as she is about to say farewell to her mother – and prior to her packing up and moving out of the house. Teresinha bids her parents adieu, during which Duran and Vitoria reminisce about how they nurtured and cared for “Little Teresa,” only to be treated to this unappetizing spectacle of her marriage to a hood. It would be better if Teresinha had never been born, they moan:
8) UMA CANÇÃO DESNATURADA (“An Unnatural Song”)
Duran’s girls come out, led by the Argentine firecracker Baby Doll Dora. Every one of the hookers is whining and complaining about a whole laundry list of problems and concerns, many of a debauched nature, i.e. how best to perform their call girl “duties” using such terrible and out-of-date accessories as Duran has supplied them with. They band together as a team to show off their individual “wares” in a slam-bang closing number, written especially for the 1986 movie version:
9) LAS MUCHACHAS DE COPACABANA (“The Girls from Copacabana”)
A young malandro named Kid comes out to the front of the stage to sing a samba-tinged homage to the street hustler. The malandro has become a respectable part of society, he intones, with a wife and a child – and a full-time day job, to boot. Kid is joined by the other malandros who participate in tandem:
10) HOMENAGEM AO MALANDRO (“Homage to the Street Hustler”)
Scene One: Back at Max’s hideout. Teresinha enters to tell Max that his “old buddy,” Big Tiger Chaves, is coming by to arrest him, under pressure from her dad, the now furious Duran. At first Max laughs off her entreaties, but soon realizes that she is deadly serious. Teresinha promises to take care of Max’s “business interests” in his absence, while Max decides to lay low for a spell. He summons the malandros to announce that he is taking a vacation from his chores and promptly runs off, leaving Teresinha in charge of his henchmen. No sooner has she taken over, when she gets immediate resistance from Max’s boys – one of whom, Barrabas, is “fired” for insubordination. He is promptly shown the door, but on his way out Barrabas vows that he will be reinstated in the end. Teresinha’s retort is that, given a choice between Barrabas and herself, Max will choose her every time. “Are there any other complaints?” she asks.
Scene Two: Duran’s brothel. Fichinha, a full-fledged member of the troupe, sings a brief ditty about her new “legitimate” hooker profession. If you want an amorous encounter, she boasts, she’ll be more than happy to oblige. But sooner or later, a client will just be another name among many in her little black book of contacts:
11) FOLHETIM (“Little Black Book”)
Max enters, seeking comfort among the ladies. Although he is supposed to be fleeing for his life, Max is a creature of habit – a very bad habit, at that: like clockwork, he stops by for his regular “visit” with one of Duran’s girls, just so he can “catch up” on the latest happenings. Geni steals in behind him, as the girls hide their signs and placards from them. The prestige that Max is held in by the girls cannot prevent them from following Duran’s orders: their boss has induced them to join a noisy street protest against him. Already the girls are in the process of making things difficult for Max. Some of their signs read: “Down with Corruption! To Jail with Max and Chaves!”
In the midst of all this, Geni warns Max of a coming betrayal. The betrayer’s name begins with the letter “G.” Max tries to bribe the girls with promises of expensive gifts. As an added incentive, he showers them with nylon stockings, the latest modern fashion statement. They’re having a grand old-time of it, leading to the next rollicking number:
12) AI, SE ELES ME PEGAM AGORA (“What Would Our Parents Say If They Caught Us Now?”)
Tipped off by a possible stool pigeon (most logically, Geni), Inspector Chaves now enters, followed by Vitoria, who tries her best to apprehend Max. Vitoria makes a big deal out of the protest signs, so that Chaves gets the blunt idea he is to carry out her husband’s orders to the letter and eliminate Max, or else. Max stands alone against his pursuers. Even his own former gang members, all of them “fired” by the lordly Mrs. Teresinha Overseas, have joined the protest against him. As Max is left to his fate, the malandros and hookers repeat Duran’s “Code of Ethics,” but this time it is under another name: it’s now called the “Song of Repression”:
13) HINO DA REPRESSÃO (“Song of Repression”)
Scene Three: The jail where Max is being kept. With Max safely behind bars, Chaves goes off to ask Duran to suspend the protest march. Duran, for his part, is still not convinced that all is well. He wants to see his daughter, Teresinha, a widow – the sooner, the better. While this is going on, Chaves’ daughter, Lucia, comes to pay a visit to her “beloved” Max. To him, Lucia is like a little niece. To her, Max is an old flame, his intimate – so much so that she now carries Max’s child. Max promises to register their marriage, either officially or at the altar – and intends to spend their honeymoon in Hollywood – just as soon as he can get out of jail. Lucia is about to give in to his pleas, when all of a sudden, who should appear but Teresinha Overseas. It’s obvious that Lucia and Teresinha do not get along, as each tries to outdo the other in demonstrating their affection for Max, in an emotionally charged duet:
14) O MEU AMOR (“My True Love”)
Max rejects Teresinha’s advances. Why, he was only joking, he claims. How could she possibly think for one moment that he would consent to marry her? It was all a joke, a put-on, just to “humor” the poor, misguided girl. Lucia, however, is in seventh heaven and allows Max to escape. Now a free man, Max throws her a kiss and disappears into the shadows. Lucia is left to reflect that she will come back to him one day. No matter what happens. She swears it, on her word as a woman:
15) PALAVRA DE MULHER (“The Word of a Woman”)
Scene Four: Back at Duran’s office. The protest is about to begin in earnest. Chaves, who is having an attack of the nerves, has his men turn the city upside down to find Max. He goes to see Duran, who is equally upset at Max’s disappearance. The police chief starts to despair of his lot… unless, by some miracle, Max can be found. No sooner said than done as Geni now waltzes in. He flaunts his perfumes, jewels, silks and crystals. Geni is in a gracious mood. Vitoria plies him with cognac in a vain attempt to loosen his tongue as to Max’s whereabouts. While Duran insists, the police chief implores Geni to divulge his information, or face his wrath. There’s still an hour left before the protest is to commence, but Geni is in no hurry. He wants some form of compensation – with interest – for divulging what he knows about Max. He asks Vitoria for more cognac, all the while extorting money and favors from the hapless Chaves and Duran. Finally, before he gives up the locale, Geni decides the time is right to put on a little show of his own. To the horror of his captive audience, Geni breaks out in a spirited number dedicated to himself as he relates his sad, sordid plight: Geni wins, Geni loses, Geni loves, Geni gets tossed aside. Throw your stones at Geni, spit on poor Geni, worthless good-for-nothing Geni:
16) GENI E O ZEPELIM (“Geni and the Zeppelin”)
At the end of his song, he tells Duran, Chaves and Vitoria where they can find Max. They beat a hasty retreat, as Geni, exhausted, is left fanning himself on the couch.
Scene Five: Back at the jail. Recaptured, Max knows it’s the end for him. He runs into his old gang member, Barrabas, who is now on the side of the law – no thanks to Teresinha. Not even a visit from Teresinha can snap Max out of his dark mood. What Teresinha tells him, though, is that she’s been able to clear all his debts with loans obtained from legitimate sources. In fact, Max’s entire “fortune” which he had earlier placed in her loving hands (along with the combination to his safe) is gone. The money has now been invested in American multinational firms. Max also learns that he is the sole proprietor of an officially registered corporation called MAX-TERTEX. Max does not feel well at all. For the first time in his life, he is feeling fear.
Meanwhile, above the parapet, Duran goads Chaves into firing his pistol at Max. “Now is your chance, do it!” he cries. But Chaves hesitates as long as the protest is at full tilt. He decides to wait until the opportune time. Max and Teresinha say goodbye to each other in a moving duet. Take a little piece of me, they sing, take a small slice of me with you, wherever you go:
17) PEDAÇO DE MIM (“A Little Piece of Me”)
Scene Six: Vitoria and Duran urge the police chief to blast away. While Vitoria tries to shout down the street protesters, Chaves takes aim and shoots a volley at Max. The con man grabs at his chest, but miraculously he is unharmed. At that instant, Barrabas reappears to announce that he switched weapons on Chaves. What he fired were blanks! Besides, this is a musical, and you can’t have a musical without a “happy ending,” can you? All the cast members return in a glorious salute to Brazil’s growing consumerism, to the strains of composers Verdi, Wagner and Bizet. Duran embraces Max as his new son-in-law, as the curtain comes down on a seemingly happy ending:
18) ÓPERA (FINALE)
Max has the last word. Unfortunately, the word isn’t very nice: a rather graphic description of the dead malandro and his decaying corpse. But what is he really describing? Is it a future vision of the country of Brazil? Is it the end of sin city Rio de Janeiro, the death throes of capitalism, or the dangling body of a victim of the military regime? We are left to wonder for ourselves:
19) O MALANDRO Nº 2
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes