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The Cradle Will Rock

by Scott Miller

 

 

            In 1947, The New York Times said that The Cradle Will Rock “has qualities of genius . . . It catches fire, it blazes, it amuses and grips the listener.” It’s a wonderful musical, a powerful political document, a funny, potent satire, and a remarkable piece of theatre history. If someone didn’t know already know the work of its composer Marc Blitzstein, they might say the score sounds like the music of German composer Kurt Weill (Threepenny Opera) mixed with Stephen Sondheim (Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Passion, Into the Woods), maybe with a little Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) sprinkled on top. Of course Cradle came twenty years before Sondheim’s first musical and nearly thirty years before Kander & Ebb’s first big hit. Blitzstein said his show was “composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, [Bertolt] Brecht, and agitprop.” It was the first American musical from a working class perspective, and the first to address the controversial subject of labor unions, which were popping up – often in the midst of bloody conflicts – all over America at that time. It laid the groundwork, in its politics and its episodic construction, for later shows as varied as Cabaret, Hair, Pippin, Chicago, Assassins, and Rent. And like Chicago, it is thoroughly of its time and yet it doesn’t feel dated. There are just as many whores in politics, religion, academia, and the arts today as there were in the 1930s. As televangelists make millions and live in gilded mansions, as politicians receive gifts and campaign contributions from giant corporations, foreign powers, and other special interests, The Cradle Will Rock will always seem as if it could have been written last month. And now, with the fresh memories of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Reverend Salvation’s shifting exhortations about war hit perhaps too close to home.

            The Cradle Will Rock was the first musical comedy Marc Blitzstein ever wrote, even though he was already, at age 32, an internationally respected classical composer and music commentator. Completed in only five weeks, its underlying subject matter is very serious and yet it lives in a world of cheap laughs, cartoon characters and melodrama. It’s one of the funniest musicals of the 1930s – much sharper and funnier than shows like Anything Goes – but even though the audience laughs at the characters, Blitzstein somehow manages to create an emotional investment that pays off in the show’s very passionate, very dramatic ending. Its politics are proto-communist and unionist, yet it is unmistakably an American musical comedy and it still today holds a place of honor in musical theatre history. It’s the kind of theatre for which the term “agitprop” was invented (condensed from “agitational propaganda”) and yet, even though it is heavy-handed and didactic, and even though its motives are altogether transparent, it is still a funny, thoroughly entertaining musical, appealing precisely because of the honesty about its intentions.

            In the liner notes for Blitzstein’s later opera Regina, Leonard Bernstein wrote, “One always looks for something a bit wry in his lyrics, something off-beat, something that points to a familiar problem from an oblique point of reference. It is the obliqueness that so often gives a Blitzstein lyric its penetrating, wise, final, startling quality.” In Cradle, Blitzstein used jazz (the Gent’s music), Tin Pan Alley pop (“Croon Spoon”), romantic ballads (Gus and Sadie’s duet), burlesque comedy numbers (Yasha and Dauber’s scene), and operatic recitative – as Bernstein wrote, “anything that suits the purpose at hand.”

            Despite the fact that most people have never seen The Cradle Will Rock – or even heard of it – there are, remarkably, five casts recordings: the original 1937 cast, the 1964 off-Broadway cast, the 1983 off-Broadway (and London) cast, the 1994 Los Angeles cast, and the 1999 movie soundtrack. The only other musicals that have that many cast recordings are the big hits like The Sound of Music that everybody knows. That Cradle has been recorded so many times is a testament to the love so many people feel for the show and to its flexibility that lends itself so easily to so many fresh interpretations of its hilarious, blistering, angry story.

 

False Starts

            In the fall of 1936, the Actors’ Repertory Company in New York agreed to produce Marc Blitzstein’s new labor musical satire The Cradle Will Rock, with John Houseman producing and the twenty-one-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles directing. Blitzstein had been writing serious music for years and was considered one of America’s preeminent composers, but this was his first foray into musical comedy. It was an example of the socially conscious work that had taken the theatre world by storm in the middle 1930s, a kind of theatre that the American musical theatre had not yet explored. In the aftermath of the Depression and the subsequent national disillusionment, many theatre artists and some of the more elite theatre-going public had become members of the communist party. Blitzstein himself was a member of the communist party and there are indications that Cradle had been percolating for a long time. (Interestingly, as far back as 1928, he had written a small cantata based on Walt Whitman’s lines, “Out of the cradle, gently rocking.”) In 1935, Clifford Odets pro-union Broadway play Waiting for Lefty (whose structure Cradle imitates) had been successful and had paved the way for more work like it. In fact, the lyric in the song “The Cradle Will Rock” about “storm birds” is a reference to a line in Waiting for Lefty in which the actors on stage urged the audience – the “storm birds,” they called them – to rise up and strike.

            But only two months after the agreement had been made between Blitzstein and Actors’ Repertory Company, the company decided not to produce Cradle after all, because of its incendiary politics.

            Its politics were incendiary precisely because the issues were so real. In December 1936, auto workers at the Flint, Michigan General Motors plant staged a forty-four day sit-down strike, at the urging of the mostly communist union leadership. General Motors finally gave in and recognized the union in February, but Henry Ford hired six hundred armed guards to prevent unionization at the Ford Motor Company. In March 1937, the larger steel companies, known as “Big Steel,” agreed to their first union contracts. But the smaller steel companies – “Little Steel” – refused to bargain and recruited the clergy, police, and others to support their fight against the unions. As he waited for it to be produced, Blitzstein’s musical, set in fictional Steeltown, USA, was coming to dangerous life across America, and his fiction was becoming less and less fictional.

            Houseman and Welles were now working for Project 891 of the Federal Theatre Project (part of the Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration) and they decided to pick Cradle back up. Rehearsals began in March, with two actors in the cast who would later be blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. – Howard DaSilva (who went on to star on Broadway after the blacklists had disappeared) and Will Geer (who would later play Grandpa Walton on TV). The actors were each paid $23.86 a week and the show was scheduled to open May 1. but because of Welles’ other commitments, progress was delayed and a new opening was set for June 16. 

            (An interesting side note. The date of Cradle’s opening night, June 16, holds special significance. The date of the action in James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is also June 16, and that date is celebrated around the world every year as Bloomsday, after the novel’s hero Leopold Bloom. An even further connection is that Leopold Bloom is also the name of one of the main characters in Mel Brooks’ movie and stage musical The Producers, and the program for The Producers sets its action on June 16, 1959.)

            Meanwhile, on May 30, Republic Steel (one of the Little Steels) arranged for the Chicago police to attack union picketers, their wives and children, killing three and injuring eighty-four. Cradle was getting too close to the truth – or perhaps, the truth was getting too close to Cradle. People in high places were getting nervous.

            On June 10, the Federal Theatre Project budget was slashed. Seventeen hundred workers were fired, pickets popped up everywhere, and all openings of new shows were put on hold until July 1 – including The Cradle Will Rock. Interestingly, though three shows were slated to open before July 1 and should have been shut down, the other two were allowed to open anyway. Only Cradle was shut down. Rehearsals continued anyway as Welles and Houseman kept fighting to be allowed to open. The final dress rehearsal on June 15 was a logistical nightmare, with set trouble, missed cues, and other random and seemingly insurmountable disasters.

 

Oh What a Night

            On the morning of June 16, opening night, the Federal Theatre Project began calling the press, announcing the cancellation of The Cradle Will Rock. Armed guards (Houseman referred to them as “Cossacks”) were posted at the theatre to make sure no one removed sets, costumes, props, or anything else paid for by the Federal Theatre Project – including actor Howard Da Silva’s toupée. Houseman spent the day calling the press, telling them the show would indeed open in another theatre, which he still had not found. Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union, informed Welles that as long as the actors in Cradle were employees of the Federal Theatre Project, they could not appear on any stage that wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Project. The musicians’ union then told Welles that if they moved to another theatre, they could no longer pay the musicians the reduced pay rate allowed for the Federal Theatre Project. Welles and Houseman would have to pay the musicians full union scale, as well as back pay for rehearsals, and he would have to hire more musicians in accordance with the standard Broadway contract. There was no way Welles and Houseman could afford this.

            So Welles came up with a plan – the actors would come to the new theatre (wherever it might be), sit in the audience, and when the time came, perform their roles from the house. Of course, many of the actors were not comfortable with this plan, convinced that they would lose their jobs with the Federal Theatre Project. Jobs were just too hard to come by in 1937.

            Still, Welles and Houseman insisted the show could go on, without sets, without lights, without an orchestra, perhaps even without the cast. They planned to put Blitzstein onstage at a piano (he was not a member of the musicians’ union) to play the whole score and even sing it all if necessary. They sent an assistant, Jean Rosenthal (later an award winning Broadway lighting designer), to go find a piano and a truck and just keep driving around Manhattan until they could book another theatre.

            By late afternoon, the press and hundreds of ticket holders began gathering outside the theatre. Some of the cast came outside and performed for them to keep them occupied. A few minutes before eight o’clock, a theatre was found, the Venice, twenty-one blocks uptown, for a rental fee of $100. They sent the assistant up there with the piano, and they led the crowd, now swelling to even greater numbers, on a twenty-one block march uptown to the Venice, picking up hundreds more along the way. The show began at 8:50 p.m., with Blitzstein alone on stage and a single follow spot focused on him.

            As Blitzstein began singing the first song, he heard a small voice begin to sing along out in the house, and the follow spot swung out in the audience to illuminate Olive Stanton, a novice actress in her first show, who was playing the role of Moll. Once she had done this, slowly, one by one, the actors stood when their cues came and ended up playing the whole show in and among the audience, never venturing onstage. Though most of the cast had come to the Venice, Blitzstein sang eight of the roles that night, while some of the actors doubled up on other roles. Occasionally during the evening, the one musician who had come along, an accordion player, would stand up where he sat and play along with the solo piano. When the finale of the show ended, the audience went wild, cheering and screaming for what seemed like forever. Not only had New York seen the premiere of an exciting new musical by a gifted writer and composer, these lucky people had witnessed the birth of a theatrical legend.

            The Cradle Will Rock ran for nineteen performances like that at the Venice Theatre (although the Federal Theatre Project kept telling callers that the show was not running anywhere), all of the performances done with the actors out in the audience. The New York Times said the show was “written with extraordinary versatility and played with enormous gusto, the best thing militant labor has put into the theatre yet.” Brooks Atkinson wrote in the Times that the show “raises a theatregoer’s metabolism and blows him out of the theatre on the thunder of the grand finale.” The Herald Tribune called it  “a savagely humorous social cartoon with music that hits hard and sardonically.” The New York Post called it “a propagandistic tour de force.” Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theatre Project defended this controversial show by saying that “the theatre, when it’s good, is always dangerous.”

            Welles resigned from the Federal Theatre Project over the attempted closing of Cradle and Houseman was fired for insubordination. Unfazed, they formed the Mercury Theatre and went back to work. During the summer of 1937, they produced Cradle all over New York, in outdoor auditoriums, amusement parks, and other unlikely locations, as well as touring to the steel districts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere. In the fall of 1937, Welles and Houseman put together a series of Sunday night performances (to enable original cast members now in other shows to participate). This time, Welles put the actors onstage sitting in three rows of chairs. With the solo piano still on stage, they used the piano as a prop, as a drugstore counter or a judge’s bench. Of these performances, Stage magazine said, “Remarkable how, in an entertainment world drugged with manufactured glamour, they conjure Steel Town out of thin air, set it raw and terrible before your eyes.” The critics again praised it, even those who had hated it just a few months before. Still, some held out. George Jean Nathan wrote that it was “little more than the kind of thing Cole Porter might have written if, God forbid, he had gone to Columbia instead of Yale.”

            In December, Welles presented a radio production of the show. The show opened for a proper Broadway run on January 3, 1938 and ran 108 performances. Although still using only solo piano, the producers were forced by the musicians union to pay ten musicians not to play each night. Blitzstein chose ten of his neediest friends for the job. Though The Band Wagon had been the first musical to record a cast album, Cradle was actually the first cast album to be released.

            In June of 1938, amateur rights were released and radical groups around the country began producing Cradle. It was the first racially integrated show ever to play the South. The Chicago production featured journalist Studs Terkel as Editor Daily. In May 1939, Harvard senior Leonard Bernstein directed and accompanied a performance of Cradle on the Harvard campus, with his fifteen-year-old sister Shirley as the prostitute Moll. (A local city council member called for the chief of police to investigate the “reds” at Harvard who had put on this “indecent” show.) The show was revived in New York in 1947 in a concert presentation at City Center (the first time the orchestrations were used), conducted by Bernstein with several of the original leads. It was then produced later that year on Broadway starring Alfred Drake as Larry Foreman and Vivian Vance as Mrs. Mister, running only 34 performances. It was revived again by the New York City Opera in February 1960, staged by Howard Da Silva, who had created the role of Larry Foreman. In November 1964, it was revived off-Broadway in a production starring Jerry Orbach and directed again by Da Silva. It was revived again Off-Broadway in 1983, this time with Patti LuPone as Moll and directed by John Houseman. This production toured the U.S., played the Old Vic in London, and was videotaped for PBS.

 

Politics and Poker

            In 1932, the incredible success of Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg’s song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (from the Broadway flop Americana) brought the Depression squarely into the middle of the popular song form. In other quarters, there was a movement among serious American composers to fuse popular music with concert music, to create “proletarian music” that spoke to everyday people. In 1934, composer Charles Seeger wrote in Modern Music, “The morbidity, the servile melancholy, the frenetic sexuality, the day-dream flight from reality that permeates much of music of the nineteenth century cannot be regarded as fit for a class with a revolutionary task before it.” For these composers, the creation of art was automatically a political act, and they wanted to reach working class audiences with their call to action.

            Blitzstein wrote an article in 1934 in Musical Quarterly criticizing Stravinsky’s music as “luxury products.” Instead, Blitzstein wrote, America needed to look to “younger and fresher talents to combine the new discipline with an ideology that more truly reflects the reality of the day.” In 1936, Blitzstein wrote about a concert at the Downtown Music School in New York, saying, “Music must have a social as well as artistic base. It should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses.” Blitzstein believed – and said many times – that the American working class was ready for advanced musical technique coupled with an advanced political point of view. And that’s exactly what he gave them.

            The political atmosphere in America in 1937 was ripe for a show like The Cradle Will Rock. In 1936 there was no hint unionism at U.S. Steel, but by February 1937, just five months before Cradle’s premiere, the steel workers had unionized and U.S. Steel had signed a collective bargaining agreement. In response to this new movement, anti-labor organizations were springing up all over America, with patriotic names that hid their real agendas, names like the Liberty League, the Citizen’s Alliances, and others in the same vein. In early drafts of Cradle, Blitzstein had injected more reality into his story, giving characters real names rather than the morality play labels that he used in the final draft. Mr. Mister was originally named Mr. Morgan, after millionaire J.P. Morgan, and Larry Foreman was named John L. Lewis, after the head of the CIO.

            Labor strikes were becoming an everyday occurrence in America, many of them violent and bloody. In a confrontation over a strike at Standard Oil, nineteen men, women, and children were murdered by company guards. The thirties were a decade of incomparable battles between the new unions and company owners. In 1932, the California pea pickers, the airline pilots, the auto workers, and the coal workers all organized into unions. In 1933, California farm workers, New Mexican miners, and workers at Detroit Tool and Die and Hormel Meat Packing Company organized. In 1934, textile workers, farm workers, rubber workers, and longshoremen organized. In 1935 and 1936, it was metal workers in the Midwest, lumberjacks in the pacific northwest, southern sharecroppers and farm workers, and seamen; as well as the first sit down strikes at Bendix, General Motors, and Firestone Rubber. The Detroit News declared that sit-down strikes had replaced baseball as the national pastime. In 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act was unconstitutional, taking away from American workers the right they had been given to organize and bargain collectively. But Congress passed the new National Labor Relations Act to recreate the right to collective bargaining.

            In addition to all this, thousands of Americans were joining the communist party in the 1930s and it’s not hard to see why. One day everything’s fine, everybody loves democracy, and all’s right with the world. The next day, the stock market crashes, people lose their life’s savings, and unemployment skyrockets from less than half a million to about four million in two months, eventually reaching a whopping sixteen million within a few years. So many people lost everything they had – money, businesses, families. The suicide rate leapt. Many people stopped believing in democracy. It had failed them. The promises of communism – the redistribution of wealth, expansive rights for workers – were very seductive. Some historians believe that if it hadn’t been for Roosevelt’s New Deal programs (like the Federal Theatre), the American communist party would have grown even stronger than it did. Many famous artists, actors, directors, writers, composers, and poets were members of the party and began to create aggressively leftist art. Years later, both Howard DaSliva (who played Larry Foreman) and Will Geer (Mr. Mister) would be called by Senator Joseph McCarthy before the House Un-American Activities Committee and because they refused to cooperate by naming names, they would be blacklisted in Hollywood for many years. It was in this atmosphere, in which democracy was suffering a severe PR problem, that Blitzstein wrote The Cradle Will Rock.

 

Hallie’s Comet

            Into the mix came Hallie Flanagan. Under the leadership of Flanagan, the ground-breaking, history-making Federal Theatre Project hit the ground running. The Federal Theatre was part of the vast U.S. government emergency relief program during the Depression called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The purpose of the WPA and the Federal Theatre Project – as far as the government was concerned – was to create jobs to put unemployed Americans back to work. WPA projects included damns, highways, thousands of buildings, and lots of other construction. The Federal Theatre Project was one of the arts programs in the WPA, along with the Federal Music Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Writers Project, putting artists to work In fact, during its short four year existence the Federal Theatre, with a budget of $6.7 million, gave work to 40,000 theatre artists, including directors Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Orson Welles, actors Burt Lancaster, E.G. Marshal, Gene Kelly, Joseph Cotton, Arlene Francis, dozens of designers, stage managers, stage hands, and so many others.

            But the project’s director, Hallie Flanagan had two other goals as well. She wanted to create theatre that was closer to the real lives of ordinary Americans, theatre that dealt with real world issues and presented realistic portrayals of everyday Americans. She also wanted to create a “national theatre” that would reach millions of people across the country who had never seen live theatre before. The Federal Theatre was the incubator for lots of very brave, very political and experimental work, as well as reinvented classics, puppet theatre, children’s theatre, Black theatre, soviet theatre, touring theatre, vaudeville, radio theatre, dance, and much more. The Federal Theatre reached twenty-five million Americans during its four years, about twenty-five percent of the American public, most of whom had never before seen live theatre. It was one of the largest, most influential theatre projects in the history of the world. It was also the only time the U.S. government was directly responsible for producing theatre. The Federal Theatre was specifically designed to create theatre so vital to community life in towns across America that theatre projects and companies would continue after the Federal Theatre had ended.

            Many of the Federal Theatre projects were like nothing anyone had seen before. For instance, Orson Welles, at this point only twenty-one years old, directed a Federal Theatre production of Macbeth set in Haiti with an all-Black cast (known as the “voodoo Macbeth”) at a theatre in Harlem. Like many of the Federal Theatre productions, it was an enormous hit, bringing Broadway critics and audiences to Harlem to see the remarkable show. After a seven-month New York run, it went on a nationwide tour. One Federal Theatre play, It Can’t Happen Here, opened in twenty-four cities in seventeen states, all on the same night, creating for the first time, a genuine “national” theatre. But the works created by the Federal Theatre were often political lightning rods. One children’s theatre piece, Revolt of the Beavers, about a group of beavers plotting to overthrow a ruthless beaver king to achieve equality for all, was so controversial (it was called “communistic”) that it was shut down after one month. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, “Mother Goose is no longer a rhymed escapist. She has been studying Marx; Jack and Jill lead the class revolution.” The play was directed by Elia Kazan, who would go on to direct A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on  a Hot Tin Roof, Death of a Salesman, and other great American plays. Kazan would also go on to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and ruin the careers of many of his colleagues.

 

Give My Regards to Broadway

            Except for the anomaly of the socially conscious Show Boat in 1927, Broadway musicals had not yet matured. Unlike the very serious, socially conscious theatre going on around them, musicals were still silly, inconsequential, largely nonsensical stories constructed around (hopefully) hit songs. There were two trajectories Broadway musicals were on at the turn of the century, one toward operettas with exotic locales, royalty, and fantasy, and the second toward very American, lightweight, romantic comedies. George M. Cohan had set Broadway on the second path and set the stage for most of what was to come in American musical theatre. The First World War generated enough anti-German sentiment that it effectively killed the first path toward operetta.

            In the decade before The Cradle Will Rock, the standard fare on Broadway was shows like Hit the Deck!, Good News!, Whoopee, Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, and Babes in Arms. (There were also exceptions, of course, including the racially charged Show Boat, the Gershwins’ savagely funny political satire Of Thee I Sing, and the “folk opera” Porgy and Bess.)  The pro-labor revue Pins and Needles opened a few months after Cradle (including one sketch by Blitzstein). But it would be several years before musical comedy would take a giant step forward with Oklahoma! in 1943. What makes Cradle a little less surprising than it would have been otherwise is that Blitzstein was not a musical comedy composer. He was a serious concert and opera composer with a clear social and political agenda, a composer who was already working in a different tradition, and he was already at the center of the political, socially conscious, ground-breaking, rule-busting art of the 1930s. That he would write a musical like Cradle makes perfect sense in retrospect.

 

Goin’ for Brecht

            Revolutionary German director and playwright Bretolt Brecht was an artist first despised and then later worshipped by Blitzstein. And The Cradle Will Rock – particularly as it was performed on that first night in 1937, would have made Brecht swoon. One of Brecht’s main concerns was that audiences not get all wrapped up in the emotions of a story, that they be constantly reminded that they are watching actors in a theatre, that they be encouraged to think about what they’re experiencing rather than just feel. Brecht used all kinds of devices to distance the audience emotionally, to repeatedly jolt them out of the convention of “getting lost” in a play. In Brecht’s plays, actors often addressed the audience directly. Songs often interrupted the action to comment on what just happened. Giant, symbolic set pieces were often used to trumpet the idea of the stage and set as artificial storytelling devices and to reject the idea of a “fourth wall,” the idea that the audience is eavesdropping on a “slice of life.” Most modern plays pretend to offer reality, plays like All My Sons, You Can’t Take It With You, Fences, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Sisters Rosensweig, and most others. The sets look like real rooms, the actors look like real people, and the dialogue sounds (more or less) like real conversation. Brecht wasn’t interested in that kind of theatre and neither was Blitzstein.

            Though he criticized Brecht early in his career, Blitzstein later came to admire his work and his theories greatly, and it’s clear that Cradle was built on those ideas. Not only is music used throughout Cradle, as songs, as sung dialogue (called recitative in opera), and as underscoring under spoken dialogue; but the music often comments on the words it supports. And throughout the play, Blitzstein plays with slyly rhyming dialogue – sometimes almost undetectable – to distance the audience, to underline the artificiality of the storytelling, to get as far away as possible from naturalistic speech. The label-names the characters all possess, the frequent direct address to audience, and other devices all keep reminding the audience that they’re watching a play, that this is not real.

            But Brecht would have really loved the way Cradle ended up being presented for those first nineteen performances in 1937 with the actors in the audience. What other device could have better reminded the audience of the artificiality of the storytelling than a show with no set, no costumes, and no lights being performed by people in street clothes, running around the aisles of the theatre? Brecht would have been thrilled. And yet, like the best of Brecht’s plays, Cradle succeeds on both levels, as an artificial theatre of ideas that challenges its audience to think and analyze what they see, but also as an engrossing, emotional, thrilling event as well.

            Some hapless critics and actors over the years have dismissed Cradle (and the works of Brecht) as simplistic, as unsubtle, as awkward. Their ignorance keeps them from understanding that there are different kinds of theatre with different goals. Many people find Brecht and Blitzstein’s (and Sondheim’s) kind of theatre infinitely more exciting and more emotionally satisfying than the naturalistic sitcom plays that pervade our commercial theatre today.

 

The Usual Suspects

            The characters in The Cradle Will Rock are archetypes, universal personalities, but they are also very specific, very carefully drawn individuals. Blitzstein gives them real, compelling lives and that’s what gives the audience an emotional stake in the action, lending the finale a much more powerful wallop than it would have had otherwise.

            Just as Moll is the audience’s stand-in, the newcomer who knows nothing, Harry Druggist is our guide through the social minefield of Steeltown. He is also Steeltown’s own King Lear, his son dead, his wife (inexplicably) absent, his life in ashes, on the edge of insanity, only now able to see with clarity what’s going on around him when it’s too late. A druggists union was being formed as Blitzstein wrote the show and labor organizer Tom Mooney had been imprisoned since 1916 on a frame-up over an explosion, much like the drugstore scene in the show.

            Harry may be the least obvious and therefore the most difficult character in the show to play. His dialogue can be played in a variety of ways and his tragic life seems to point to a dark, tragic characterization. It’s true that he is Steeltown’s King Lear, but it’s also true that King Lear can’t exist in the broad caricature world of The Cradle Will Rock. So many actors and directors are flummoxed by Harry Druggist – especially since we see him both before and after his son is murdered – but the answer seems clear if you just step back from Harry’s tragedy. In the drugstore scene, a few things are obvious. First, Harry isn’t all there. As the gangster Bugs describes to Harry the impending explosion that will kill Gus and Sadie, Harry just doesn’t get it. He can’t imagine an act that heinous, that cruel, that violent. It doesn’t fit into his world view. He keeps asking Bugs questions like “Done what?” and “Who is?” He’s clueless – sweet, kind, cheerful, but clueless. This is a guy who has always seen only the bright side of life. In the drugstore scene, he says to his son Steve, “It’s a terrible world, Stevie, and I feel fine.” Add to that the fact that he tells Moll in the nightcourt that he’s drunk, and a clearer character begins to emerge. Harry was an eternally cheerful fellow, whose world was shattered, and now he escapes into liquor, probably recapturing some of that cheerfulness, but now a much darker version of it. He’s still got to be broad and funny and quirky, like all the other characters in this world, but with a subtle, dark undercurrent in the nightcourt scenes. It’s also important to play the drugstore scenes before Steve is killed as cheerfully and innocently as possible, to give the horror of Steve’s murder its full impact. Harry’s happy obliviousness to the dark side of life makes the loss of his son even more shattering. Just as he can’t imagine someone killing the sweetly romantic Gus and Sadie, he sure never imagined that his son would be murdered. Perhaps his wife died an unpleasant death as well, from cancer or something, and Harry has pushed those painful memories aside, focusing instead only on happier things. This would explain why the wife is never mentioned, and it could offer clues as to how Harry deals with Steve’s death and how best to portray him in the nightcourt scenes. It’s only toward the end of the show, when Larry Foreman shows up in the nightcourt that Harry gets excited about something again. In the struggle to defeat Mr. Mister, the murderer of his son, Harry finds a little hope, a little purpose again.

            The Reverend Salvation is reminiscent of the popular evangelist Billy Sunday, who had entered politics by preaching that Christians should hate the Germans during World War I. Like more contemporary evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Reverend Salvation leaves God behind when politics (and contributions) come into conflict with religion. Here again, Cradle’s relevance to modern day America is both real and disturbing.

            Dauber and Yasha, the two sycophantic artists, are particularly funny when you know Blitzstein’s early career. Their philosophy of “Art for Art’s Sake” was, in fact, Blitzstein’s philosophy when he was younger, though he later discarded it. Was he making fun of himself or did he not see the connection? Was he commenting on his own prostitution? He was certainly aware of the problem in 1936, when he wrote, “We composers are the tools of a vicious economic setup. The unconscious (sometimes not so unconscious) prostitution in today’s world is one of the sorry sights to see.” In some productions of Cradle during his lifetime, Blitzstein explicitly called for these characters to be played gay, which may also be some indication that they were meant to represent a younger Blitzstein. Also, the characters of Mr. Mister and his family are particularly funny when you consider that Blitzstein’s own family was made up of bankers, that in fact Blitzstein himself grew up in a life of relative privilege.

            Of the hero, Larry Foreman, Blitzstein wrote, “He’s not very good-looking – a humorous face and an engaging manner. Confidence is there, too; not self-confidence; a kind of knowledge about the way things probably have to work out. It gives him a surprising modesty and a young poise.” The leaflet scene in Cradle echoed similar scenes in Brecht’s play Mother and a 1934 Soviet film called Maxim’s Youth, which also had a scene in which a worker is mashed by a machine, like Blitzstein’s unseen character Joe Hammer. Ella, Joe’s sister, was originally to be paired with a pro-union farmer named Sickle, as symbols (hammer and sickle) of what Blitzstein thought was the superior social system in the Soviet Union.

            What’s fascinating about the relationship between Larry Foreman and Mr. Mister is that Larry is the only one in Steeltown who isn’t afraid of Mr. Mister. It’s significant in the final scene of the play that Mr. Mister loses his power, that this metaphoric stand-in for factory owners across the U.S. is defeated by an “average” worker. This is the central action of the play and the story can only end when this is accomplished. Larry strips him of his power, a power that comes only from fear, merely by not being afraid. Larry doesn’t have anything to lose, any favors that need doing, any business to run, so in his presence, Mr. Mister’s power disappears. The audience sees that when fear is absent, so is Mr. Mister’s control over others. Mr. Mister is reduced to a sputtering old man to whom no one will listen in the end. Once the anthem, “The Cradle Will Rock,” starts in the show’s final moments, Mr. Mister has lost the war. Now, not just Larry, but everyone in town has found their courage in standing up to the great tyrant. There is courage in numbers. Through his very public fearlessness, Larry has given the whole town courage, much like the real life Olive Stanton (the original Moll) gave the rest of the original Cradle cast courage on that first night in 1937 when she stood up at the beginning of the show to sing, refusing to give in to the implied threat of losing her job with the WPA.  

            Blitzstein sets up Larry Foreman as a kind of preacher and to that end, he loads Larry up with lots of Biblical references. In Larry’s first appearance, he sets himself up in opposition to Reverend Salvation by joking that his Aunt Jessie has learned “big words” like cheats and whores from the Bible, making the point that the Bible can be prostituted itself, just as it has been used to justify murder, torture, theft, and war throughout history. His invocation of thunder and lightning in the title song invokes images of an angry and vengeful God. The fact that Reverend Salvation is on the Liberty Committee does not give it God’s imprimatur. Larry also tells the crowd that unions will make “onions grow all over the land where nothin’ but cactus grew before.” This is a reference to the story in the Bible of the ancient Israelites in the desert, longing for the onions and garlic they had had in Egypt. Larry is drawing a parallel between union-less workers and the wandering, homeless Israelites, and therefore between unions and the Promised Land. Larry also says President Prexy’s crime is “maintaining a disorderly house” – conceivably a reference to proverbs 11:29, which says “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind” (in other words, trouble is on the way).

 

Rock Music

            The Cradle Will Rock departed greatly from both operetta and musical comedy. It departed from opera and operetta by dramatizing ordinary people in ordinary situations and it departed from musical comedy in treating those ordinary people and their lives seriously. But Blitzstein wasn’t just writing about unions and the prostitution of the professional classes; he was also commenting on American music itself, and the ways in which it can be used and prostituted.

            The show was  meant to be a “workers” story, a new kind of theatre (and music) for “the people.” Blitzstein sought out untrained singers (just listen to the awful singing on much of the 1937 cast album), to avoid the falseness of an operatic sound. He wanted these characters to sound like real people. Brecht called his style of singing misuk. Because of that first performance at the Venice theatre, the show was almost always performed with only solo piano, often with the actors out in the house, forever annihilating the separation of actor and audience, forever discarding the “suspension of disbelief” that most theatre asks. This was a show that admitted its artifice. Following in the philosophical footsteps of Brecht (though perhaps accidentally) the show denied the audience the comfort of escapism, never allowing them to get lost in the “reality” of the story. Instead, the show constantly reminded the audience that this is a play, that these are actors, forcing the audience to react intellectually as well as emotionally. Cradle became what Brecht called a Lehrstück, a piece of music that teaches its audience.

            Blitzstein’s score uses American pop music, but elevates it, complicates it, twists it and adds dissonance and chromaticism to suggest that things aren’t as simple or happy as pop songs paint them. There’s always something “wrong” with this pop music, this moment, this sentiment, as illustrated in the song “Croon Spoon” where the melody keeps hitting “wrong” notes. Even the title makes fun of the simplistic rhymes and vocabulary of pop songs. This is a song that ridicules itself and the characters who sing it. And giving this song to the lazy, spoiled Mister siblings, Blitzstein suggests that mindless pop music has no legitimate purpose in society. Likewise, the song “Honolulu” is a parody of the dozens of south seas songs at this time, as the U.S. was taking over Hawaii, songs that tried to make it all seem romantic and exotic  instead of imperialist.

            Blitzstein uses a number of musical quotations, usually as subtle jokes, throughout the score. He quotes the “Star-Spangled Banner” (the tune of “by the dawn’s early light”) in the middle of the instrumental night court theme that recurs many times throughout the show. He quotes Bach in the Reverend Salvation’s sermons. And Mrs. Mister’s Pierce Arrow horn is a quote from Beethoven’s overture to Goethe’s play Egmont. Blitzstein is showing us with this musical quote how rich people can debase art by throwing money at it without any genuine appreciation for it (a significant theme in the movie version of Cradle). He even quotes a popular children’s song (“In and Out the Window”) in the college faculty room scene, perhaps to show the immaturity and shallowness of the professors.

 

Change, Change, Change

            Like the greatest of the musical theatre artists who came after Blitzstein – and unlike the “serious” music theatre (i.e., opera) composers before him, Blitzstein understood that something has to happen, something has to change within a theatre song in order to make it strong and compelling, in order to hold an audience’s attention. Songs that simply restate what has already been stated in dialogue don’t hold an audience’s interest or emotions with nearly the force of songs in which characters and/or situations change. This was a lesson other theatre composers didn’t learn until after the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution of the 1940s, but Blitzstein already knew it in 1937.

            Almost every song in Cradle illustrates this point. In the opening number, Moll starts by lamenting her situation, then finds hope in a potential customer, then gets rejected him, then meets up with a police detective, gets harassed by him, then taken to jail. Within the span of a few minutes and one musical number, she goes through several changes. In Reverend Salvation’s musical sermon, he slides from a confident “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to a more lenient pronouncement on killing, then finally to an outright celebration of killing in the third verse. With each verse and each contribution from Mrs. Mister, he and his sermons change. In the course of one song, we see the good reverend’s gradual, three-year descent into hypocrisy, mirroring the sliding attitude of most Americans scrambling to justify war and killing as the country jumped into World War I. This song takes on even more uncomfortable irony today as America moves into an even more morally gray, intentionally vague “war” with unseen terrorists.

            “The Freedom of the Press” also illustrates Blitzstein’s skill. Again, Editor Daily starts out a responsible journalist, even openly admiring Larry Foreman. He even goes so far as to offer a veiled threat to Mr. Mister, when the rich man suggests Daily abandon his journalistic integrity. But at the end of the song, he’s on board with Mr. Mister and has sold out as well. Harry Druggist, also in one musical scene, goes from contented family and business life to complete ruination and despair. The artists, Yasha and Dauber, go from utter contempt of the rich at the beginning of their song to full and eager membership in the Liberty Committee by the end.

            It’s a tribute to Blitzstein’s writing and composing abilities that he can write such fully dramatic songs that also manage to be terribly funny, often moving, and also tuneful and musically satisfying as well

 

The Reel Story

            Tim Robbins’ 1999 film Cradle Will Rock tells the story of Blitzstein’s musical (interestingly, before he died, Orson Welles was trying to raise financing for a film about Cradle’s historic first performance) and the movie places the musical in a social and political context, but like the controversial musical Assassins, Robbins’ movie aims for thematic and psychological truth more than historical accuracy. In fact, the film begins with the words, “A (mostly) true story.” Robbins plays fast and loose with a number of historical facts and brings together events that actually happened years apart to reveal a larger context for Blitzstein’s remarkable musical. Robbins is not making a documentary. Not only is he not interested in the accuracy of minor facts, he is very much interested in making an entertaining movie. And he uses the conventions of the time to paint his pictures, using the devices and style of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, and classic films by Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and their contemporaries.

            In Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, bookwriter John Weidman created a scene in which all the presidential assassins from throughout American history appear in the Texas Book Depository in 1963 to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy. Weidman’s point is not to suggest that Oswald saw ghosts; he is showing us in theatrical terms that Oswald’s knowledge of past assassination attempts and his dreams of assassinations to come exert a powerful influence on him. He knows how famous John Wilkes Booth was and he hopes for the same notoriety. He wants to belong to something, to be counted, to be appreciated, to be remembered. And he lets all that influence his decision to kill Kennedy.

            In much the same way, Tim Robbins uses the ghosts of German director/playwright Bertolt Brecht and Blitzstein’s wife Eva. In Robbins’ movie, Brecht and Eva appear to Blitzstein, talk to him, makes suggestions and offer criticisms of his musical. Again, Robbins is not suggesting that Blitzstein saw ghosts; this is a dramatic device to show the influence of these two people on Blitzstein and his work. In real life, Eva read almost everything Blitzstein wrote. Though he was gay and their marriage was largely non-physical, she was his muse and his most strident critic. Even though she had died by the time he wrote Cradle, her influence over him and his work no doubt continued.

            Similarly, though Blitzstein had harshly criticized the work of Brecht and composer Kurt Weill early in his career, he later came to admire their work and even emulate it. in fact, The Cradle Will Rock owes a great debt to Brecht and Weill, especially in its eventual bare-bones presentational style. Blitzstein actually met Brecht in 1936 and played for him the prostitute’s song, “Nickel Under the Foot,” before any plans were made for the musical into which the song was eventually put. Brecht was quite impressed with the song and told Blitzstein that he should write a piece about all kinds of prostitution, not just the literal kind – the prostitution of the press, the church, the courts, the arts, government, and money. The idea would percolate in Blitzstein’s brain for months before Brecht’s suggestion would inspire the creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Soon after that, Blitzstein heard Brecht and Weill’s song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera and he loved it. When Blitzstein wrote Cradle, he dedicated it to Brecht, and Blitzstein later wrote the most famous English translation of The Threepenny Opera. So it makes good dramatic sense in Robbins’ film, to dramatize Brecht’s influence by having his ghost hanging over Blitzstein’s shoulder, making suggestions, challenging him, ridiculing the cheap, easy moment, and pushing Blitzstein to be the best he can be.

            Robbins also ties his movie to the stage musical thematically.  The musical is about prostitution in various professions, the prostitution of the clergy, the press, artists, doctors, merchants, educators, and others, all set against the one actual prostitute, Moll, who is drawn with more integrity than any of the “respectable” characters. Robbins riffs on this theme by zooming in and focusing even more specifically on the prostitution of various kinds of artists. In the film, the painter Diego Rivera prostitutes himself to Nelson Rockefeller, the ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw prostitutes himself by agreeing to tutor no-talent kids in exchange for a performing job, and the Italian Margherita Sarfatti prostitutes her national art treasures by selling masterpieces by Da Vinci and Michelangelo to rich Americans in order to finance Mussolini’s war machine. Just as famous artists of the past “prostituted” themselves (though some might call that too harsh) by securing royal patrons and dedicating their works to these moneyed folks, the same thing happens in the Cradle Will Rock film. To underline that point in one scene, Robbins presents the rich characters costumed as royalty of the past, at a costume ball to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These rich men discuss how they can control and shape with their money the kind of art that is created in America. It’s both a funny juxtaposition and also chilling because, to an extent, it’s true. They do have the power to shape what is seen and therefore, what is created.

            The other parallel in the movie is the use of one label-name like those Blitzstein uses in the musical. In the stage show, Blitzstein calls his characters Mr. Mister, Harry Druggist, Reverend Salvation, Editor Daily, Dr. Specialist, the immigrants Gus and Sadie Polock, the oppressed worker Ella Hammer, and the union organizer Larry Foreman. He even names the painter Dauber, a label referring to an amateurish painter, and he names the musician Yasha (after the famous violinist Jascha Heifetz). Similarly, Robbins sneaks one label-name into his movie, so subtly that most people probably don’t even notice. He calls his one of the few fictional character in the film, a rich businessman, Gray Mathers, a pun on gray matter, a hint that Mathers is a very smart, very successful businessman but he has no aesthetic sense, no heart. He clearly couldn’t care less about the Da Vinci painting he buys from Margherita Sarfatti. His world is a cultural wasteland and the “matters” he deals with are “gray” and colorless.

            One of Tim Robbins’ most brilliant moves during filming of the movie was to save the shooting of the history-making, renegade Cradle performance until the end of the shooting schedule. Before starting, he explained to the audience of extras the background of the event, but did not tell them that the actors would be performing the show out in the house. Instead, he let the surprise of Olive Stanton rising to sing the first song register naturally on the audience. As the show proceeded, he just let the audience react naturally to each surprise and found that they laughed and cheered and applauded just as their 1937 counterparts did, sometimes in completely unexpected places. The incredible excitement of the evening built realistically and actor Hank Azaria (who played Blitzstein) said it was a night he will never forget.

            The film works on so many levels all at once. For example, the opening shot of the film is one very long, uninterrupted shot that moves from inside a movie theatre, down a steep staircase, backwards through an alley out onto the street, up onto a crane that rises up to the second story window of Blitzstein’s apartment, then in through the window, across the apartment to the piano, finally resting on a close-up of the sheet music Blitzstein is working on. But this isn’t just a stunt or a joke, as it is at the beginning of another Tim Robbins’ movie The Player. There’s a point being made here – the connection between the people on the street, the disenfranchised poor, and the social themes of Blitzstein’s musical, between the popular entertainment of the movie theatre with Blitzstein’s work, and also between the political events being shown in the movie theatre newsreel with the poverty of the everyday American on the street. Blitzstein was writing a musical for the people, a musical of issues, a musical about the real world, and the opening shot of Robbins’ film shows us all the important connections in concrete terms.

 

Poetic License

            To make certain points, Robbins condensed a few historical events into one moment in time, to compare and contrast those events and allow them to comment on each other. In reality, Diego Rivera painted the mural for John D. Rockefeller in 1933 and Rockefeller had it destroyed in early 1934. Italy actually invaded Ethiopia in 1935. And the Federal Theatre wasn’t closed down until 1939. But by moving all those events to 1937 to coincide with the opening of The Cradle Will Rock, Robbins makes clearer the connections between them.

            Most of the characters in the movie are real people. The only fictional characters in the film are Gray Mathers and his wife Countess La Grange, the Countess’ protégé Carlo, the actor Aldo Silvano (and his family), the ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw, and his hapless students Sid and Larry. Everybody else in the movie is a real person. Two actors from the real Cradle Will Rock were changed. The fictional Aldo Silvano replaced the real actor Howard Da Silva, who played Larry Foreman in the actual original production. Likewise, in the movie, the actor Will Geer played Junior Mister, but in real life, he played Mr. Mister. In real life, Houseman and Welles knew they were being closed down for several days, and only one musician (an accordion player) actually showed up at the Venice Theatre on opening night.

            Of course, the strangest things in the movie are all real. There really was a children’s musical called Revolt of the Beavers, and it really did cause an uproar and get the hostile reviews quoted in the movie. Hazel Huffman, the disgruntled Federal Theatre worker was also real. In real life, she was fired from the Federal Theatre for opening and reading Hallie Flanagan’s mail, after which she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee with no real evidence but plenty of allegations against Flanagan of “communist sympathies.” The testimony by other witnesses of ‘racial mixing” in the Federal Theatre was also real and caused great upset among Southern congressmen.

            The funeral procession for Crickshaw’s ventriloquist dummy at the end of the film really happened but in another context. In real life, it happened at the end of the last performance of Yasha Frank’s Pinocchio in Los Angeles (the show that inspired Walt Disney to make the animated feature), and it didn’t really happen until June 1939 when the announcement was made that the Federal Theatre Project was being shut down.

 

Is Cradle Dated?

            Karl Marx said history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. When the New York City Opera revived Cradle in February 1960 for four performances, it was done as Blitzstein had originally created it, fully staged and with full orchestration. But would it hold up twenty-three years after its premiere? In the program notes, Blitzstein wrote, “By now, of course, the theme and the treatment – the rise of unionism in America, seen from a brash, exuberant, idealistic viewpoint – make the work something of a period piece. But I still feel as I did about the subject; and I have nothing to apologize for in the music. Let it take its chances, say I; let it prove whether it remains an engrossing and entertaining musical stage piece.” In The Nation, critic Harold Clurman reminded his readers that Cradle was no more dated than the popular opera La Boheme, going on to say that the show is “the poor man’s Bronx cheer against the complacency that we hear on any city street…”

            No, The Cradle Will Rock is not dated. Perhaps in the 1940s or 1950s it felt dated but we’re far enough away from the show’s time period now that it has become simply a story set in another time, a period piece just like The Music Man, Cabaret, or Chicago. And like Chicago, the fact that it’s set in the 1930s and still speaks so eloquently, so savagely, and so truthfully about our country in the new century makes it even funnier and even more disturbing. The prostitution of politics, religion, art, and science has not stopped. In fact, as our society gets more complicated, as new technologies offer new ways to make money and gain power and new ways for people to prostitute themselves for that money, Cradle gains even more relevance. As writers have known for centuries, the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. The worldwide success of Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables, and other shows set in very specific times and places is proof. Audiences in Japan embraced the first Japanese production of Fiddler because they found it to be “so Japanese.” Important human themes transcend cultures and time, and the themes of Cradle are no exception.

            Many critics over the years, and still today, are tempted to reduce Cradle to no more than a simplistic rant that Labor is Good and Management is Bad. But Cradle is more interesting and more complex than that. After all, Mr. Mister mentions calling out the National Guard to crush a union rally. We see Gus Polock, an innocent, good man, killed in an explosion, along with his pregnant wife. We find out that Joe Hammer was maimed by a ladle and then the accident covered up. All those things were real. Whatever one might think about unions today, it's hard to argue they weren't needed in 1937. Things had to change. Nothing back then was as simple or as benign as Management is Bad. Management was, in many cases, killing people, and nearly every segment of society was helping. The theme of the play isn't Labor Good, Management Bad – it's that most people will eagerly sell their souls for a little security or a lot of power, even if it hurts others. And like Ben Franklin said, anybody who gives up his liberty for a little security deserves neither liberty nor security. Harry Druggist learns that in the most painful way possible. And that's the theme of Cradle, which is far more interesting and far more relevant today. Only Larry Foreman, who risks everything – his job and his life – accomplishes anything of value in Cradle, and that’s a lesson for us all.

 

Déja Vu All Over Again

            Over the years most productions of Cradle have imitated the second production, with only the piano and chairs onstage for the actors to use, but some productions have recreated that first night at the Venice Theatre in June of 1937, with the actors playing the entire show out in the audience. One production took this conceit as far as it could and ended up with a thrilling night of theatre. In the fall of 1999, the American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia produced The Cradle Will Rock and took their audiences on quite a ride. As audiences arrived outside the theatre, the producers told them they had been locked out of their theatre due to a dispute with the state, the courts, and the Blitzstein estate. For forty-five minutes they pretended to try to break into the theatre, all while the actors performed for the audience outside to keep them occupied – just as it had happened in 1937. They then “found out” that the musicians and some of the actors had been told the show was cancelled that night. They pretended to have numerous phone calls with missing cast members, county and state officials, and others.

            They “found” their way into the theatre (on some nights, through a window) and finally let the audience in, only to “discover” that the set had been demolished and the props and costumes stolen. They hurriedly found make-shift props and costumes, reassigned roles to cover the “missing” actors, and even recruited one volunteer from the audience each night to play a small role. Even though the opening night reviews described the whole charade, Jack Marshall, the company’s artistic director and the director of the show, said they fooled about three-fourths of the audience each night, sometimes including prominent directors and critics. A few people came to the show who had seen the original in 1937. One of them, aged 94, turned to his companion, and said in all seriousness, “Boy, I have the worst luck with this show!”

            But the American Century Theatre didn’t stop there. While Cradle ran on their mainstage, they produced in their black box theatre a play about the musical called It’s All True by Jason Sherman.

 

Other Resources

            There are five cast recordings of The Cradle Will Rock. The most dramatic and funniest of them is the 1994 Los Angeles cast album. It conveys the biting satire and wacky humor of the show better than any other recording. The original 1937 cast album is almost too painful to listen to. Many members of the original cast were terrible singers and the sound quality (even though it’s been put on CD) is poor. It’s interesting to hear for historical purposes but isn’t easy on the ears. Both the 1964 and 1983 off-Broadway cast albums are strong, but not as much fun as the 1994 recording. The 1999 movie soundtrack contains only part of the score, but it has some excellent performance, most notably Audra McDonald’s rendition of “Joe Worker.” The videotape of the film Cradle Will Rock is commercially available and beautifully portrays the incredible excitement of that first night, as well as the political and social forces in which the show was written and performed. They’ve also published a nice coffee table book with the film script and articles on the pertinent historical events – but be careful, some of the historical material contains factual errors.

            Some collectors may have a videotape of the PBS broadcast of the 1983 production with Patti LuPone, which is interesting since it was directed by Houseman and apparently recreated the second 1938 production, but it also lacks the excitement and the humor of the original. It includes Houseman telling the story of that first night. Creative Arts Television in Kent, Connecticut sells videotapes of various arts related television programs and they sell one video with three programs about Cradle. The first of the three programs features the 1964 cast performing excerpts from the show and an interview with Howard Da Silva, the original Larry Foreman. The other two programs feature interviews with composer Aaron Copland, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (both close friends of Blitzstein’s), Howard Da Silva, and others, as well as Da Silva performing the title song from The Cradle Will Rock and others performing other Blitzstein songs. Eric Gordon’s book Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein is a magnificent biography with tons of detail on Cradle. It’s out of print at this writing, but still pretty easy to find. Also out of print is Hallie Flanagan’s book about the Federal Theatre Project Arena and it’s much more difficult to find. Also, Orson Welles himself wrote a screenplay for a proposed film about the original production of Cradle Will Rock, but he died before it was ever made. His screenplay, however, has been published and it's fascinating.

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This chapter is an excerpt (expanded and revised) from the book Rebels with Applause: Broadway’s Ground Breaking Musicals by Scott Miller Heinemann Publishing, 2001). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.