The Enduring Quality Of THE THREEPENNY OPERA’s “Pirate Jenny”

Bea Arthur gets even cooler by the end of this article.

There are many reasons why one might be interested in The Threepenny Opera. It contains rich, mean satire and was banned (in any of its forms) by the Nazis. Its author, Bertolt Brecht, is a Liberal Arts degree mainstay. And for film fans who don’t really care about any of that, the film has a cozy spot on the Criterion Collection.

But Kurt Weill’s music is the real reason The Threepenny Opera stays with us. Brecht’s plays, largely by design, are not fun. Threepenny Opera is not necessarily meant to be fun either, but it’s hard not to be entertained by it when its songs are such a blast. Even if you’ve never heard of the film or play, you know “Mack the Knife” (though Bobby Darin’s famous version of the song is laughably at odds with the original’s tone):

And surprisingly enough, so is this one from Dee Snider:

It is difficult, however, to strip that tone away from The Threepenny Opera’s other famous song, “Pirate Jenny.” The rapid fire, almost spoken verses which then fall away to the morose, slowed-down chorus play too complicated an emotional game to suffer the smoothed-over swing found in most “Mack the Knife” interpretations. This song has knives that cut no matter who sings it. The film offers the ultimate “Pirate Jenny” in the form of the immaculate Lotte Lenya:

Lenya sang the song a lot and, for good reason, became synonymous with it. Here she is much older, performing the song in English:

But while Lenya will aways be the best, there are so many more versions to enjoy! I’m a huge fan of Hildegard Knef’s manic take on the song:

Nina Simone did a wonderful and very well-known cover of it, too. The recorded version appears on the Watchmen soundtrack, but I’m especially fond of this chilling live rendition:

And then you have a hilarious take from the late, great Bea Arthur:

Of course, OF COURSE, Amanda Palmer sings it as well:

That sampling is just the tip of the iceberg. Many female vocalists have covered “Pirate Jenny.” The song has an acidic, biting anger to it that seems like it might be difficult to resist. On the other hand, it’s such an atypical song. Rhythmically and structurally, it forgoes a lot of musical rules. Even by today’s standards, its lyrics are bracingly dark. And yet it somehow managed to become something of a standard. For all The Threepenny Opera's triumphs, this might be the most impressive.