From its first performance, January 29, 1728, The Beggar's Opera was an absolute success. In that period a box office hit might be continued for four or five nights. Remarkably, The Beggar's Opera ran sixty-two nights in London, and was produced nearly every year thereafter to 1886. Its popularity quickly spread to Wales and Scotland, France and Germany, and even to the New England colonies (and became a favorite of George Washington).
A London revival in 1920 ran 1,463 performances. A Beggar's Opera Club had membership limited to those that had seen at least 40 performances. Bertholt Brecht's twentieth century version, Three Penny Opera, was immensely successful too. A jazzy rendition of one of Brecht's songs, Mack the Knife, became Number One on the Hit Parade in the early 1960s.
John Gay's innovative musical appealed to the masses with its rollicking, rowdy, English lyrics overlain on old, sentimental melodies. Formal, highly structured, Italian opera was shoved aside by this novel musical form.
The cast was equally original, being comprised of cutthroats, pickpockets, thieves, streetwalkers, highwaymen, and a corrupt jailer. Polly Peachum, the sweet, trusting daughter of the roguish Peachum, was the only honest character in the play. Miss Lavina Fenton, perhaps the best theatrical singer of her day, became immensely popular for her role as Polly and at end of the run - the sixty-two performances - she married the Duke of Bolton and retired from acting.
The audience was quick to associate Newgate Prison with Whitehall; the deceitful, avaricious Peachum (Polly's father) with Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister; Macheath's band of rogues (Jemmy Twitcher, Crook-Fingered Jack, Nimming Ned, etc.) with aristocratic courtiers, and Macheath's women of the streets (Mrs. Coaxer, Dolly Trull, Mrs. Vixen, Molly Brazen, etc.) with ladies of high society.
This short three-act play has some forty-five scenes, almost all with musical interludes. Gay holds this myriad of scenes together through nearly continuous action, more akin to a modern film than to the conventional eighteenth century play.
The Penguin Classics edition (titled The Beggar's Opera, as might be expected), edited by Brian Loughrey and T. O. Treadwell, is quite good and not difficult to find.
Another good choice (and my favorite) is The Beggar's Opera published by Barron's Educational Series, edited by Benjamin Griffith, and illustrated by Keogh with full page ink-line drawings of the key characters. The lengthy, three part introduction - the playwright, the play, and the staging - is quite helpful. The initial musical notes are presented along with the lyrics.
The Beggar's Opera, Regents Restoration Drama Series, Nebraska University Press, 1969 may be more suitable for English majors as it offers a scholarly introduction by Edgar V. Roberts. An extensive appendix, some 140 pages, is a compilation of the music of The Beggar's Opera with keyboard accompaniments, edited by Edward Smith.
The Beggar's Opera and Companion Pieces, Crofts Classics, 1966, edited by C. F. Burgess is particularly valuable - and somewhat unique - for including Gay's enjoyable poem Trivia (subtitled The Art of Walking the Streets of London), other poems (Newgate's Garland, 'Twas When the Seas Were Roaring, Sweet William's Farewell, Molly Mog, An Epistle to a Lady, and The Hare and Many Friends), and extracts from various letters. A possible drawback may be the absence of musical scores in the text, although the lyrics are embedded within the play itself.