(Note: This is a longish post. I apologize that I could not shorten it further, but I haven’t the time.)
Those in the know will note that I specified only John Gay, and not the composer Pepusch: I’m working on getting hold of a copy of the opera–the 1983 staging, supposedly with the original music, aired by the BBC–but for the moment I just have the public domain etext from Project Gutenberg.
It’d be an understatement to say that The Beggar’s Opera was kind of a big deal during and after its first staging in Haymarket back in 1728. Better to think of it as the theater world’s equivalent of a tactical nuclear strike on the hegemon of the scene, which was then G.F. Handel (yeah, that Handel) and his “Italian” operas.
And it was a successful one: the librettist/playwright John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch may not have single-handedly invented the modern English musical–the best characterization I’ve seen of the thing is that it’s more like “a play with karaoke”–but they did change musical theater in England, for one thing making people aware that there was a market for productions that strayed beyond the exotic finery of Italian opera, and told stories set in London, that poked fun at both the lowest and the highest of famous English folk, and that entertained people outside the upper class (and those bent on imitating the upper class).
As for the music, well, all I can say is that while some of the tunes are enduring and lovely,that has nothing to do with the composer involved. Nearly none of the music in the play is new, after all. Aside from the overture, what Pepusch did ought to be considered arrangements, rather than composing, since Gay used the tunes of a number of popular melodies (and selections from collections of folktunes). That might remind you of the [redacted] known as Mamma Mia!, but bear one thing in mind: at least Gay wrote new lyrics, instead of warping his plot to fit the tunes in their original form.
(Yes, yes, despite my dislike of most musicals, I do know about Mamma Mia!… I once endured an unabridged amateur staging of it by students at a talent night. I failed my SAN check during the proceedings but that’s another story.)
But anyway, at the moment I’m reading it, not watching it as a performance. What that is like… well, imagine reading a script for a Broadway musical The Sopranos, as written by someone channeling Jonathan Swift, with all the song lyrics set to other peoples’ songs. Seriously. Or, you know, what you might get if you took, I don’t know, Fielding, locked him up with a staff writer of prostitutes and cutpurses and gin-sots, and made him supervise them rewriting Breaking Bad for Georgian England, with songs thrown in…. but insisting they drink at least a liter or two of gin a day per person while they work.
Theatrically, it was like an alien ship landing in London, and it made precisely that kind of a splash. Here’s a (very) quick nutshell summary of the plot, courtesy of Adam Stevenson:
In other words, the opera sort of boils down about two thirds of the wonderful stuff discussed in Rictor Norton’s The Georgian Underworld into a few hours’ entertainment with musical accompaniment.
Holy misogyny, Batman.