Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
August 16, 2013 1:20 PM   Subscribe

To start with the beginning: Jack Sheppard was a notorious English robber who inspired John Gay to write The Beggar's Opera (1728). Two centuries later, the German composer Kurt Weill and dramatist Bertolt Brecht adapted it into a musical as a socialist critique of capitalism and the modern world: Die Dreigroschenoper. It was about to open when the lead actor demanded a song to introduce his character. It was this song that would open the play and at its premiere, it was Kurt Gerron who would be the first to sing the Moriat of Macky Messer as the street singer setting the scene.

In 1931 Die Dreigroschenoper was made into a movie with Ernst Busch in the role of the street singer. As the play was translated into English as The Threepenny Opera, first in 1933, more successfully in 1954, Macky Messer became Mack the Knife. Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's estranged wife, played the role of Jenny in 1956, winning a Tony Award in the process. She of course had already recorded her own version of the German original, but was also present in the studio when Louis Armstrong recorded his version of Mack the Knife, namechecking her in the process.

It wouldn't be the last time that Mack the Knife would get new lyrics, most famously by Ella Fitzgerald when she forgot the lyrics during a concert in Berlin -- and got a Grammy for her troubles. Robbie Williams also improvised, during the 2012 Diamond Jubilee.

Sinatra sung it. So did Nick Cave. And Dee Snider. Miloš Kopecký sung it, translated in Czech, halfway between the menace of the original and the cheerful cheese of Mack the Knife. Bavarian indie band SLUT proved it could be updated and still keep its menace, while Westlife, well, the less said, the better.

Everybody has done it: Hildegard Knef, smoky and throaty, Pearl Bailey and Dinah Shore, hilariously, Liberace, ...uniquely.. Mina did it in Italian, Ernie Kovacs as a punchline.

Sometimes it's done as pastiche, sometimes a capella, sometimes it's reinterpreted as an industrial song. Some do it in whiteface, some do it operatically and sometimes it's just Muppets.

Even actors got in on the, well, act: Bruce Willis murdering it in Hudson Hawk, Kevin Spacey did it in Beyond the Sea and there we are almost to the version everybody's waiting for, Bobby Darin's 1959 interpretation that kicked it all off, made a bitter attack song into a Vegas standard. That's show business.
posted by MartinWisse (20 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Let's not forget this version.
When the clock strikes half past 6, babe
Time to head for golden lights
It's a good time for the great taste -- dinner!
At McDonald's, it's Mac Tonight
Come on, make it Mac Tonight!
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posted by Space Coyote at 1:35 PM on August 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Must be a Brecht kinda day, I was just listening to Bowie's fantastic recording of Baal.
posted by jason_steakums at 1:51 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Brecht's own recording has a certain something.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 1:57 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sting sang it on Hal Willner's Weill tribute album Lost In the Stars (previously).
posted by pernoctalian at 2:07 PM on August 16, 2013

In the post, "the Moriat of Macky Messer" should read Moritat, which is a kind of Bänkelsang or street ballad (the name is probably from Mordtat 'murderous deed'). Maybe a mod could fix it?

Also, great post!
posted by languagehat at 2:13 PM on August 16, 2013

Pop-culture heresy it may be, but I've never cared for Bobby Darin's version; in English, it's Armstrong or bust!
posted by kewb at 2:46 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Previously Oh, the Shark has Pretty Teeth Dear.
posted by adamvasco at 4:21 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is awesome.
posted by nooneyouknow at 4:36 PM on August 16, 2013

You forgot Christopher Lee's version!
posted by reynaert at 4:51 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

When the shark bites
With his teeth dear
When MacHeath is
Back in town
I simply remember my favorite things
And let my cement bag drop down!
posted by kenko at 5:46 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Terrific post, MartinWisse! Thanks!

The Liberace is...something. Bossa nova *and* boogie-woogie? Wow!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:33 PM on August 16, 2013

There was also a French version of the Die Dreigroschenoper movie, L'Opéra de quat'sous, filmed at the same time as the German version with French actors; Bill-Bockets sang La complainte de Mackie.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:08 PM on August 16, 2013

Mostra i denti il pescecane
E si vede che li ha.
Un cotello ha Mackie Messer
Ma vedere no fo la.
posted by erniepan at 9:11 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The New York Shakespeare Festival's version from 1976 is pretty dang good.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 9:25 PM on August 16, 2013

How could you leave out Ute Lemper?
posted by deadbilly at 10:56 PM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Andrei Mironov (in Russian; ends with brief interview).
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on August 17, 2013

Great post. I've always loved that Ernie Kovacs bit. I wish I could find video of the Steve Martin "finger sharks" version.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:11 AM on August 17, 2013

Sonny Rollins does a creditable version.
posted by kenko at 10:05 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, this is outstanding.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:11 AM on August 17, 2013

How could you leave out Ute Lemper?

deadbilly -- thanks. Fantastic.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:38 PM on August 17, 2013

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