King of Thieves is a rarity for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival: a new musical. But it’s based on an old idea. The story of singing criminals in 1928 New York, opening Aug. 12, is what writer George F. Walker describes to Maclean’s as “my own version of The Beggar’s Opera,” John Gay’s 1728 musical comedy about thieves and underworld kingpins. Walker has updated the story from 18th-century London to the eve of an economic crash that’s eerily similar to our own. He’s following in the footsteps of some big names who put their own spin on Gay’s cheerfully nasty satire: most famously, Bertolt Brecht, who rewrote it into The Threepenny Opera, but also Wole Soyinka, whose Opera Wonyosi transplanted it to Nigeria.
It makes sense that a classical theatre would produce a new show with centuries of baggage.
Why is The Beggar’s Opera so appealing to new generations of writers? One reason is that the format Gay created, a musical that comments on its own form, is irresistible to writers like Walker, who says he has “no real knowledge of musical theatre.” Instead of having to write traditional musical numbers, he can use songs as didactic commentary. The show starts with the cast telling us that its theme is “the history of banking,” and another song comments on the inappropriateness of the scene we just watched. Walker is known for plays that subvert genres like film noir and comic books; here he’s trying to do what Gay and Brecht did, subverting the musical to teach satirical lessons.
Because The Beggar’s Opera deliberately offers itself up as a “poor man’s” musical, it can avoid the slickness of a typical show. The singing and dancing don’t have to be polished; director Jennifer Tarver says she moved the actors “away from singing, getting them into speaking in rhythm,” so we can concentrate on the meaning of the songs. And Tarver thinks the self-aware, low-tech Beggar’s Opera form helps her to pace the show faster, providing “a context where we can really move through these scenes,” and allowing the narrator, Vinnie (Seán Cullen), to take us into his confidence by making fun of the small space of Stratford’s Studio Theatre.
But there’s a big difference between King of Thieves and other versions of The Beggar’s Opera: where Brecht preserved Gay’s plot and his ending, Walker says he “didn’t give any thought to what the source material was.” A few characters remain—Mac (Evan Buliung), the heroic thief, his seemingly respectable wife Polly (Laura Condlin), and the crime tycoon Peachum (Jay Brazeau). But Walker surrounds them with an all-new story about Mac being drawn into a scheme to take down corrupt bankers, which Buliung describes as “a parallel to what’s been going on in our time, with our financial system.”
The tone is different too, at once more violent and silly than the originals. The laughs come from jokes like Mrs. Peachum (Nora McLellan) carrying increasingly larger guns, or goofy scenes with what director Jennifer Tarver describes as “the bankers talking about what they’re going to get away with.” And it’s less bitter: Gay and Brecht made fun of their audience for accepting a criminal as the hero, but King of Thieves gives Mac a Marxist social conscience, making him a character Buliung calls “more of a Robin Hood than someone who’s just a reckless murderer.”
Such charm may keep the show from being as tough as Brecht’s. Walker wants to teach us that bankers, crooks and cops work together in a “triangular structure,” but the evening revels in ’20s iconography—“it’s a great era for music,” enthuses composer John Roby—and seems oddly nostalgic. Even the anti-musical form is less shocking now that Avenue Q and The Drowsy Chaperone (whose authors are writing a new musical for Stratford) use similar ideas.
Still, this style hasn’t lost its power to surprise. An enthusiastic preview crowd was caught off-guard by the whiplash between violence and music. And there’s an advantage to using The Beggar’s Opera as what Walker calls “a starting point”: people who know the original are reminded that no matter how bad things were in 1728, they got worse.