In their landmark musical The Threepenny Opera, authors Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht provide performers of both genders with a host of juicy roles. But it's the female characters, namely Polly Peachum, Mrs. Peachum, Lucy Brown, and Jenny whom actresses can really sink their teeth into while plumbing great emotional depths. For her off-Broadway revival at the Atlantic Theater Company, director/choreographer Martha Clarke has cast four great actresses — Laura Osnes, Sally Murphy, Lilli Cooper, and Mary Beth Peil — in these storied roles. TheaterMania sat down with the quartet to discuss the enduring nature of a dark piece of theater that can somehow provide the most enjoyable experience.
Were you all familiar with The Threepenny Opera before you started?
Laura Osnes: No.
Lilli Cooper: I only knew the show from the reading I did with Martha Clarke a year ago.
Sally Murphy: I fell in love with it in high school. I got the record of the Lincoln Center production with Raúl Julia. I wanted to do it at Steppenwolf for years; it just never happened.
Mary Beth Peil: It's pretty amazing [that I’m] my age and have not seen it.
Not having known the show going in, what were your reactions when you first heard it aloud?
Mary Beth Peil: I had no idea how beautiful it was and how rich a score it was.
Laura Osnes: It's very unique. It's music I've never really done or heard before. I was like, This is really strange and odd, but uniquely cool at the same time.
Sally and Mary Beth, you both go back and forth between plays and musicals. Is there a form you prefer?
Sally Murphy: It's so much fun to mix it up. I had a few years of a lot of musicals and you get a little burnt out. But not having music, there's really something missing…you really do start to long for it again.
Mary Beth Peil: I agree with Sally. When you're doing one, you think, Oh, this is so great, and then you do the other, and it's just a great privilege to be able to do both. But there's nothing like hearing the orchestra warm up before you start. And an overture. You have to make up your own overture when you're doing a straight play…It's a much more communal feeling doing a musical.
Laura, you're making your off-Broadway debut with this show. Was that a conscious choice at this point in your career?
Laura Osnes: It was a draw to do an off-Broadway show, to do a role completely opposite from what I just did. It’s fun because we're back in an intimate space. Having the audience that close is very palpable and you're forced to be living in the moment. I enjoy the communal aspect of being here and doing this. They get really amazing people to do these short off-Broadway productions.
You all go to really dark places during the piece. Is that darkness easy or hard to turn off? How do you prepare?
Lilli Cooper: Getting into costume transforms me. My character is also pregnant, so having a pregnant belly is something that changes your movement and habits. There's a moment before my first song where I'm standing on a ladder and I'm listening to "The Army Song," and I have this incredible view of a brick wall and the shadows of all the men dancing. That image is so striking to me; it mesmerizes me in a way. That's a really important moment I have before I start my story.
Mary Beth Peil: There's something about the rigor of the language, because it's been pared down to almost haiku storytelling. The rigor of getting it across in a very short amount of time, I don’t know if it's a dark place exactly, but it's a different kind of energy.
Sally Murphy: It looks dark; I mean, it is. But you can't think of it that way. You can only be where your character is. I just listen to Michael [Park] and Laura sing the love duet. You just start to think of who you are and what you want at that point.
What is your favorite part of the show to perform?
Lilli Cooper: I love the "Jealousy Duet."
Laura Osnes: That's what I was going to say! It just feels like — Mary Beth has used this word and I'm stealing it — the slam dunk. It's going to be a sure-fire hit.
Lilli Cooper: I remember the first time we sang it together, which was the first day that we met, and we finished the song and F. Murray Abraham [who plays Mr. Peachum] goes, "Hoooooooooorah!" And we were like, "Oh, I guess it works."
Mary Beth Peil: I suppose I would have to say the most ridiculously fun and satisfying moment is interrupting Sally and Mac at the end of the first act. It's like, Here is a piece of cake for you, sweetheart.
Sally Murphy: Before I sing "Solomon Song," our genius, wondrously gifted ensemble is in a line behind a curtain during "Useless Song." It is my favorite thing about the show. They're all so singular and incredible. I find it really inspirational.
Mary Beth Peil: The reason we're here is because of Martha Clarke and what she brings and what she does. Part of that are these four women and four men [in the ensemble]. How to describe what they do? Dancer, actor, performance artist, human creatures? They're just brilliant. They set the high level of art.
Laura Osnes: They know Martha's vision and how to capture it. We learn from them.
Sally Murphy: Every night.