01 August 2013

'The Cradle Will Rock'

Now and then, I get the impulse to see a show not because of the play, the plot, the writers, the company, the actors, the director, or even the theater. ‘ What’s left, then?’ you ask.  The historical context.  I can’t off hand think of the last show I saw because of its history, but on Friday evening, 12 June, my friend Diana and I went to New York City Center to see the Encores! concert production of Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock.  As Diana pointed out when she broached the idea of seeing Cradle, it’s a play we’ve read about (most notably in my case in Run-Through, John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography) but never actually seen.  (As it happens, I saw the Tim Robbins 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, that recounts the semi-fictionalized story of the play’s politically-infused première production, but I don’t have much of a memory of it.)

Cradle was Blitzstein’s first musical play even though the author, already 32, was an internationally respected classical composer. The play’s set in Steeltown, U.S.A., where greedy puppetmaster Mr. Mister controls the factory, the newspaper, the church, the college, the arts, and the social establishment.  His only opposition comes from Larry Foreman, the working-class hero, who’s trying to unionize the plant workers.  Foreman has been arrested at a union rally for “inciting to riot” after having been beaten by the police.  The plot reveals how Mr. Mister has tried to subvert Larry’s activities.  At the same time, Moll, a prostitute, had been rousted for rejecting a police officer’s advances.  In night court, she meets Harry Druggist, arrested for vagrancy.  Because of a mistake by a cop, the Liberty Committee, a board of prominent citizens formed by Mr. Mister to block the union, have also been brought in.  Harry tells Moll that the Liberty Committee are worse whores than she is.  In a series of flashback scenes, the druggist shows Moll how each of them, and he himself, has sold out to Mr. Mister, who finally arrives himself to release the Liberty Committee.  Mr. Mister proposes to buy Foreman out and offers him a seat on the Liberty Committee.  Foreman refuses, and everyone hears the music of the union meeting outside, organizing to oppose Mr. Mister.  By the end of the play, the victory of the workers over their avaricious boss has been won.

The characters in The Cradle Will Rock, as well as other aspects of the setting, are allegorical in name—like Steeltown, U.S.A., itself: along with Mr. Mister, the boss, and Larry Foreman, the union organizer, the town’s physician’s name is Dr. Specialist, the pharmacist is Harry Druggist, the painter is Dauber, the minister is the Reverend Salvation, the newspaper editor is Editor Daily, and the president of College University is President Prexy.  But Blitzstein hasn’t treated the characters as mere archetypes; he's given each of them a distinct, if somewhat one-dimensional, personality and, in a few cases, backstory.  (For instance, Harry Druggist’s young son was killed in a bombing arranged by Mr. Mister’s henchmen to which Harry is coerced into turning a blind eye in order to keep his drugstore.)  In the end, Cradle, in the words of New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood, “is nothing if not schematic in its mechanical dissection of how thoroughly the desire to get ahead of the other guy poisons society.”

A word or two about the play’s period: I’m not positive, but from some lines and lyrics, the play seems to be set during or just after World War I rather on the eve of World War II.  As far as I can find, no critic or analyst makes a point of this and the published script doesn’t set a year for the story.  However, the few dates that are mentioned in the text are all around the First World War and there are several references to “The Hun,” the derogatory name Allied soldiers called the Germans in that conflict.  (By World War II, the German enemy was more likely to be called “Jerry” or “Kraut.”)  Though Cradle is predominantly an anti-capitalist and pro-unionist drama, there’s a unmistakable strain of anti-militarism and anti-war running through the script as well.  (In “Faculty Room,” Scene 8, the professors sing a song about military training at Steeltown’s College University and Professor Scoot loses his post because he doesn’t support the course, which Mr. Mister wants to expand.)  Incidentally, Cradle wouldn’t be the only Second World War-era anti-war musical set during the Great War.  In 1936, the year before Blitzstein’s musical had its historic début, the Group Theatre staged Paul Green and Kurt Weill’s Johnny Johnson (the company’s only musical) on Broadway.  (I’ve never posted it on ROT, but I have published a reconstruction of “The Group Theatre’s Johnny Johnson” in The Drama Review of winter 1984.)  The years around World War I were also the period when unions and the labor movement were making their first important inroads into America’s capitalist economic structure, meeting with strenuous and often violent resistance from industrialists; by World War II, unions were fairly well established (until, that is, recent attempts to disenfranchise them again).

Blitzstein identified The Cradle Will Rock, the first American musical written from a working-class point of view and the first to address the controversial subject of the labor movement which was becoming part of the American political landscape, often in the midst of bloody conflicts, as “a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, and agitprop.”  Like his theatrical model, Bertolt Brecht, to whom the composer had dedicated Cradle (“[T]o Bert Brecht: first because I think him the most admirable theatre-writer of our time“), Blitzstein rejected the concept of “art for art’s sake.”  (Blitzstein’s wife, Berlin-born writer Eva Goldbeck, had been a translator of Brecht’s works and introduced her husband to them.  The composer, who studied in Berlin under Arnold Schoenberg, later translated and adapted the Off-Broadway version of The Threepenny Opera as well as English versions of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and of Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children.)  Blitzstein’s feelings about this notion are clearly laid out in the song “Art for Art’s Sake” in Cradle, sung by the characters Dauber, a painter, and Sasha, a musician.  He believed theater, music, and the other art forms should take on important social issues and not simply entertain.  As demonstrated in Cradle, a piece of unabashed agitprop theater (which some compare to a musical Waiting for Lefty, presented by the Group Theatre two years earlier), the composer wasn’t afraid to create a play that’s preachy and brimming with stark political and social commentary.  The script takes on a number of wonkish labor issues head on, including, for instance , the distinction between a “closed shop” and an “open shop.”)

The original version of Cradle, directed by Orson Welles and produced by Houseman, was a production by Project #891 of the Federal Theatre Project.  It was supposed to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on West 39th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue on 16 June 1937.  But the show was tied up with labor and theater politics involving Blitzstein, the fear of communism (which in a decade would break out in the HUAC witch-hunts and the Hollywood blacklist), and suspicion among conservatives that the FTP itself was a hotbed of leftists, and the Works Progress Administration, the parent agency of the FTP, judged the show too pro-unionist and politically radical and cancelled the production four days before the scheduled previews.  (The stated reason was budget cuts.)  Forbidden from performing on the stage—the Elliott, which had been leased by the FTP and was therefore government property, was padlocked and security guards were posted at the entrances—Welles and Houseman looked around for another house to accommodate the spectators who’d already bought tickets. 

On the spur of the moment, Welles, Houseman, and Blitzstein rented a piano and the Venice Theatre on 7th Avenue at 58th Street just in time for the 16 June preview and walked the gathered audience and the cast the 20 blocks (about a mile) from the Elliott over to the Venice.  The musicians’ union wouldn’t allow its members to play without a guarantee of their full salaries and Actors’ Equity forbade its members to appear on stage unless the show’s producers, which is to say the federal government, agreed.  Houseman and Welles planned for Blitzstein (not an AFM member) to play the whole score on the piano, but made no other arrangements.  Spontaneously, however, the actress playing Moll stood at her seat in the house and began to sing her role.  Little by little, as the composer continued to play the music, other actors joined in from the auditorium and the company performed the whole play from their seats in the audience to the accompaniment of a lone piano.  Blitzstein gave an oral commentary and Welles filled in with narration for actors who didn’t appear and action that couldn’t be presented.  The New York Post reported the next day, “About 1,000 persons, including 100 standees, listened in mild astonishment but with frequent applause at this method of play production.”  Unlike the standard Encores! stagings, Welles’s production of The Cradle Will Rock had been conceived with an elaborate set and lighting scheme, as well as full orchestrations, which were never used.  The sets, along with the costumes and props, were, of course, locked inside the Maxine Elliott.  But the effort had been so successful that the company repeated the impromptu performance 13 more times (and then at the Mercury Theatre on West 41st Street for five more performances in December), attempting to recreate for a short run what they had done spontaneously on the night of 16 June.

Houseman determined that there was no legal prohibition to another production of Cradle with an independent producer and set about putting one together.  Under the auspices of the Mercury Theatre, which Welles and Houseman had formed after Houseman was fired by the FTP and Welles resigned over the outcome of the Project #891 Cradle production, members of the original cast, directed by Blitzstein, remounted the show at the Windsor Theatre on West 48th Street for 108 performances from January to April 1938. The play was revived  a decade later at the Mansfield Theatre (16 Dec. 1947-10 Jan. 1948) and the Broadway Theatre (28 Jan.-7 Feb. 1948) for 34 performances.  The ’40s production, directed by original lead actor Howard Da Silva (who played Larry Foreman) starred Broadway superstar Alfred Drake (Foreman) and Will Geer (who reprised his role of Mr. Mister from 1937 and ’38).  Other members of the cast included Vivian Vance and Jack Albertson; Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the pit orchestra, appeared on stage in a small role.

The Cradle Will Rock was revived Off-Broadway twice, once in 1964-65 at Theatre Four on West 55th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, directed once again by Da Silva.  With Jerry Orbach (fresh from his Off-Broadway breakout role as El Gallo in The Fantasticks) as the play’s labor hero, the production ran 82 performances and won the Obie for best musical.  In 1983, the Acting Company, the traveling troupe made up of graduates of the Juilliard theater division established by John Houseman, staged the play for a 24-performance run at the American Place Theatre on West 44th Street.  (The presentation premièred the summer before at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York.)  Directed by Houseman with a cast that included Randle Mell (Foreman) and Patti LuPone (Moll), the Acting Company tried to recreate the atmosphere of the 1937 performance at the Venice, with a bare stage and minimal props and no formal period costumes.  (Many of the Acting Company cast revived the play in London in 1985, winning an Olivier for LuPone.  Another London staging was mounted in 2010 in one of the city’s Off-Broadway-level theaters.)  In 1964, the Off-Broadway staging was televised  on Camera Three on CBS, and in 1985, PBS broadcast the Acting Company production as a segment of American Musical Theater. 

Despite its renown as an artifact of theater history, the play is seldom performed and even Blitzstein’s music is rarely heard.  (In his New York Times review, Charles Isherwood described Blitzstein’s play as “more revered for its status as a stormy passage in theatrical (and social) history than performed.”)  The New York City Opera did a radio broadcast of the score with Tammy Grimes in 1960 and it’s been recorded about a half dozen times, including the first cast album ever made, a recording of the 1937 FTP company.

The Encores! hour-and-forty-minute, intermissionless presentation of the historic musical had a very brief run at City Center on West 55th Street: Wednesday, 10, to Saturday, 13 July—five performances in all (including a Saturday matinee).  Directed by Sam Gold, it was presented as part of Encores! Off-Center, the concert-theater producer’s new summer series of Off-Broadway musicals.  The company also tied Cradle to current political and social movements, namely the Occupy Wall Street “rebellion against corporate greed.”  With that activism as background, “Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 battle hymn to the proletariat,” as the company’s publicity characterized the play, “is a powerful political document, a funny, potent satire, and an extraordinary piece of theater history.”  (Encores! Off-Center, directed by Jeanine Tesori, presented three musicals in the 2013 season, of which Cradle was the inaugural production.  It was followed by Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet, 17 July; and Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, 24-27 July.  Tesori is a veteran musical theater composer and a four-time Tony and five-time Drama Desk Award nominee; she won Drama Desks twice.  Her credits include Shrek, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change, and the new Fun Home, which opens at the Public Theater in October.  Tesori has signed on as artistic director of Encores! Off-Center for three years.)

The production at City Center was stripped down even by Encores! standards.  There were no sets or props and Mark Barton’s lighting was entirely straightforward and pragmatic.  (For whatever reason, the program did credit Andrew Lieberman with the scenic design.)  The actors, who sat across the proscenium in simple black chairs and carried black-bound scripts, wore evening clothes: the men in black tie and tuxes and the women in brightly-colored long gowns.  (There were three exceptions in costume designer Clint Ramos’s scheme: Danny Burstein’s Mr. Mister was dressed in white tie and tails; Eisa Davis, who played Dr. Specialist, the court’s clerk, and Professor Scoot, was wearing black tights, stilettoes, and a bolero-style tux jacket with a white blouse and a black bowtie; and 10-year-old Aidan Gemme, who played a cop—yes, that’s right!—among other roles, was dressed as . . . well, a uniformed policeman.)  The attire made no nod to the ’30s or any other period other than our own.  As each of the ten scenes, announced in Brechtian style with a placard that tiny Gemme carried across the proscenium (almost entirely obscured by the signboard!), the actors stepped up to mics down front on stands (which they occasionally removed to hold in their hands for mobile bits).  They sometimes shared mics or one actor would shift from one stand to another to suggest movement.  A few non-musical scenes were read from the seats, but all the songs were performed completely presentationally, standing center looking out at the audience.  Props, if necessary for a scene, were mimed.  In other words, Gold made no attempt to approximate realistic acting or behavior.

Of course, the first performance of Cradle was famously without props or staging, as you’ve heard, but I doubt Gold was making a deliberate reference to the Houseman-Welles presentation.  Aside from the obvious fact that this company was on stage, not in the audience, they were wearing (admittedly non-character and non-period) costumes rather than street clothes.  (I have to admit that the idea of the working-class characters dressed in evening clothes, evoking the 1%, was disconcerting.  The multiple casting—most actors played more than one role—may have made any kind of class-specific attire impossible, but I wonder if Ramos couldn’t have devised a more neutral unit design.  If this was an attempt at irony, I missed it.  Maybe it was just me.)  In the 1983 Acting Company revival, which deliberately tried to recreate the atmosphere of the 1937 presentation, Houseman didn’t use period-accurate costumes, either; instead he asked the cast to look for suitable apparel for their roles and the nature of the production.  The 1983 revival also performed with a single piano like Blitzstein’s in ’37, but Gold employed 14 musicians under the direction of music director and conductor Chris Fenwick.  (The orchestra at City Center was positioned on stage above the actors on a slightly raised platform.)  So, it seemed that Gold made a vague allusion to the 1937 presentation (which, along with some of the prominent revivals and derivations, was described in the program) without actually emulating it.  (On the other hand, though, this could just have been the inauguration of what will soon be recognized as the Encores! Off Center concert style.)

Gold’s directing was mostly efficient and non-invasive.  (In my opinion, Cradle is one of those shows that won’t stand up well under idiosyncratic directorial interpretation.  It’s innate style, part Brecht-Weill-Eisler, part Odets, part Schoenberg-Boulanger, part jazz-infused ’30s pop, is too unique and embedded in the script to allow tampering with impunity.  Brecht’s and Ibsen’s plays are in this category, too, I think.)  His staging for the most part was perfectly straightforward, without frills or furbelows.  He did make a couple of decisions about which I wonder, though they hardly had much impact one way or the other.  Why, for instance, did he close the curtain in Scene 6 (“Hotel Lobby”) so that Moll sang “Nickel Under the Foot” on the apron?  There’s no set to change behind the drape and outside of that instance, he never used the curtain anywhere else in the production.  At the end of the play, the stage hands start dismantling the mic stands and other performance equipment and carrying them off stage.  Does this have something to do with the fact that stage hands are all union workers?  (So are actors, of course—100% of them in this production, as a program insert proudly notes—as well as musicians.)  If that’s what was going on, the significance went by me, though Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News seemed to find this Gold’s “sly last bite” (it wasn’t clear what the News reviewer was referring to): “a nod to what life minus union workers looks like.  Of course, I say that if there weren’t a union, IATSE in this case, then there wouldn’t have been a stage set-up at all—or if there had been, it would have just sat there until long after the actors and musicians had left the theater!

As you probably caught, Gold used some peculiar non-traditional casting.  One cop and Professor Mamie were played by a young boy, and Professor Scoot and Dr. Specialist were played by a woman—but without altering the script to reflect the gender switch.  Editor Daily was also portrayed by an actress, Judy Kuhn, who mannishly smoked a big cheroot (making a kind of joke I don’t think was either intended or necessary, but which did no real harm).  Sister Mister, Mr. Mister’s daughter and Junior Mister’s . . . umm, sister, was played by Martin Moran in drag (he wore a pink evening dress—until he and Henry Stram, as Junior Mister, exchange clothes in one scene).  Okay, I get that drag is funny—but I don’t think this was the kind of caricaturish gag Blitzstein had in mind even if it, too, did no damage.  I can only add that Blitzstein’s script has enough innate humor and satire, including outrageous characters, that adding extraneous jokes is completely unnecessary.  For example, in the number “The Rich” (also in “Hotel Lobby”), artist Dauber and musician Yasha (Moran), wearing bowler hats, did a vaudeville-inspired soft-shoe shuffle that so contradicted the message of the song (“Oh, there’s something so damned low about the rich!”) that it’s brilliant comedy even without embellishment.  (The clever and spot-on choreography at City Center was by Chase Brock who used the limited space and pared-down circumstances perfectly.)

I can’t say much about the musical performance in Cradle because my music background is nil, but I can affirm that it seemed fine in all respects.  Blitzstein’s score, in a new orchestration by Josh Clayton, is reminiscent of Kurt Weill, as I’ve said, as well as another Brecht collaborator, Hanns Eisler.  Linda Winer noted in Long Island’s Newsday that Blitzstein’s “score turns out to be a missing link between the distancing grip of Brecht/Weill and the sentimentality of Leonard Bernstein,” which I found an interesting take. (Bernstein served as musical director for several revivals of the play.)  The review-writer went on to affirm that the songs, “driven by unsettling rhythms, play ironically and lusciously with popular tunes and dance forms,” which was accurate to my musically-uneducated  ear.  The play is almost entirely sung, making it operatic.  (Apparently you can’t call it an opera, however, because Blitzstein incorporated too much pop and jazz influence in the music.  I don’t get that really.  I mean, Porgy and Bess is a folk opera, Treemonisha is a ragtime opera, and Tommy is a rock opera, but The Cradle Will Rock can’t be a jazz-and-pop opera?  Who makes these rules?  Ultimately, as with the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, the label doesn’t matter because, like the Gershwin-Heyward, Joplin, and Who pieces, the work still exists and we can enjoy it—or not, as we wish.)  In any case, the orchestra carried the performance along like the string holding the beads, and the actors all executed Blitzstein’s songs with both personality and technical skill.  What little I know about music suggested that Blitzstein’s compositions range from relatively easy, like a good pop tune, to pretty hard, like some of his mentors’ innovative works.  I should also add that because there’s so little spoken dialogue in Cradle, the song lyrics have to carry the whole plot.  That means the company has to make them all clear and intelligible—which this cast did admirably.  (I did come out of the show with the desire to read the libretto.  But that’s not because I couldn’t follow the singing well enough.  It’s because, though the plot is basically simple, Blitzstein’s poetic lyrics are complex and I want to read them to catch the subtleties that passed by too fast in performance.)

The acting, too, was first rate.  Though the doubling sometimes made it hard to catch who was singing, without the help of costume changes to distinguish one character from another (though sometimes a hat or other accessory did the trick), Blitzstein’s script usually makes it obvious what character was on stage and the cast kept each one individual enough to make it clear quickly enough.  Even the director’s gimmick casting was well-carried out, including Kuhn’s cigar-chomping editor and Gemme’s diminutive cop and professor.  (Gemme, already a Broadway and film vet, displayed no sense of irony or self-consciousness playing adult characters.  Gold’s casting motivation may be questionable—the actor also plays the druggist’s young son—but Gemme went about his task “without guile,” as Linda Winer wrote.  If it hadn’t been for his stature—Gemme really looked tiny among all those adults; his feet didn’t even touch the floor when he sat down—it would have seemed perfectly ordinary.  Still, Encores! isn’t the Wooster Group.)  In an odd way, it seemed as if the best way to attack these roles is to play them perfectly straight and let Blitzstein’s writing, both his plotting and his lyrics, take care of the individual quirks and outrageous behavior, and Gold and the actors seem to have gotten this.  Among the standouts were Burstein’s Mr. Mister, who wielded his power over everyone in such an understated manner that it was truly sinister (TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart called him “David Koch incarnate”); Raúl Esaparza’s Larry Foreman, with a clear, strong tenor, everyman looks, and unshakable self-confidence; Peter Friedman’s anguished, self-punishing Harry Druggist, and Anika Noni Rose’s naïve survivor, Moll.  Moran’s and Stram’s Yasha and Dauber, in the scene I noted earlier, performed a wonderful Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee routine (they reminded me a little of Bill Irwin and David Shiner of Old Hats—see my report of 22 March) while simultaneously conveying the condition of the arts under a capitalistic oligarchy, and David Margulies presented a President Prexy as obsequious and sycophantic as any toady ever depicted on stage.    

In a way, these actors stand out principally because their roles were salient.  All the performers did fine work and I can’t fault any of them in the least.  But though all the actors sang outstandingly, it was obvious that Da’Vine Joy Randolph was cast as Ella Hammer just so she could bring down the house in her unsettling rendition of “Joe Worker,” her chilling lament for her steelworker husband whose death under suspicious circumstances has been covered up.  It was even a little sneaky in a way since Randolph has almost nothing to do in the performance until Scene 9 (“Dr. Specialist’s Office”) when she steps up and wallops the number out of the theater.  In the song, Ella sings, “It takes a lot of Joes to make a sound you can hear,” but, as the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli declared, “[I]t only takes one actor to stop a show.”

(Stram, incidentally, is a veteran of the Acting Company revival of Candle, having appeared as Junior Mister both on stage in 1983 and in the 1985 PBS broadcast.  Margulies, whom I’ve seen quite a number of times in recent years, is, as ROTters will remember, a former acting teacher of mine.  He’s featured in two ROT play reports: “Chasing Manet,” 30 April 2009, and The Illusion,” 1 July 2011.  Two other cast members have been in productions on which I’ve reported in the last season: Moran was in the John Guare trilogy of one-acts, 3 Kinds of Exile, on ROT on 27 June, and Randolph appeared in Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, posted on 3 January.) 

With such a short run and no previews, the press coverage at this writing was minimal.  None of the weeklies, including the theater press, had published yet.  (As it was, the print dailies only came out the day before the final performances and the on-line press came out a day earlier.)  In the Post, Vincentelli opened her notice by raising the same quibble I had about the attire: “Nothing says jarring like people in tuxes and gowns praising unions . . . .”  Nevertheless, Vincentelli assured us, “even in black tie, the musical’s radical spirit occasionally burns through.”  Of the casting gimmickry, the Postwoman observed that “the ploy feels distracting” but she concludes that “the cast is in fine voice and some great moments make up for the weaknesses.”  Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News called the concert revival “impeccably performed and richly satisfying,” though he, too, alluded to the “unmistakable feeling of posh celebration.”  Dziemianowicz linked this air to Gold’s “canny move” of hanging a backdrop upstage that read, “In the rich man’s house the only place to spit is in his face,” a quotation, a program insert explained, from Diogenes.  That “elegant invitation” inscribed “in a fancy font” turned Blitzstein’s “storied—but rarely seen” show from a “party” to a “bash” and the Newsman asserted that the play is “as timely as ever” in this day of “the 1% versus the 99%.”  “The show isn’t subtle,” affirmed Dziemianowicz, but “the cast consistently finds nuance in Blitzstein’s score.” 

In the Times, Isherwood dubbed the Encores! Cradle “vibrantly sung if sometimes fuzzy-headed” but noted that it “clearly establishes that Blitzstein’s book retains a biting humor, which helps to soften the stern message mongering.”  Acknowledging Blitzstein’s “debt to Kurt Weill,” the Times reviewer described the score as “supple, eclectic and consistently engaging” whose “skillful blending of musical flavors has its own peppery appeal.”  Though Isherwood felt the score “riffs” comically on the classics of Beethoven and Bach, it “has a jaunty, driving appeal that ultimately owes more to jazz and other pop music forms.”  Though he labeled the cast “across-the-board excellent,” the Timesman also commented on the “jokey” casting that bothered me, concluding that the tactic “sends the conflicting message that we’re not to take things too seriously—an assertion hardly in tune with the otherwise furrowed brow of the production, and for that matter the show itself.”  That’s precisely how I felt, as was Isherwood’s admonition that “embroidering” the composer’s satire “is hardly necessary.”    Newsday’s Winer praised Encores! Off Center which “justified its existence” with “the bar set very high by” The Cradle Will Rock.  She described the performance of “Blitzstein's marvelous score and his surprisingly witty fist of a book” as “wonderfully cast, passionate and simply presented.”  In the end, Winer asserted, “If the production seems a bit slick for the style, a devastating finale catapults us back to the real gritty business.” 

The cyber press was generally in the same vein as the print medium.  On BroadwayWorld, Michael Dale used most of his space to recover the historical backstory (a common thread even among the print reviews), but he did state that although “several of Sam Gold's directorial decisions serve to diminish the musical's power,” the “singing and acting is of consistently high quality,” while the musicians “nicely emulate a period sound.”  Dale also felt that “[d]espite staging choices that keep the actors from emotionally connecting, instances where it's hard to tell exactly who's talking and awkward transitions through the musical's various styles, the talented company . . . allows Blitzstein's moments of brilliance and sharp commentary to burst through.”  The BWW reviewer finished up by observing: “The Cradle Will Rock helped change American theatre, but many will leave the Encores! production thinking little has changed in American politics.”  Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray asked, “Is The Cradle Will Rock better history than it is a musical?”  His answer was that “its edges no longer seem as sharp as once they may have.”  (Ironically, when Murray commented that in 2013, Cradle doesn’t sting the way, say, Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera still does, because our current salient labor dispute is over “right-to-work” laws, which is “a bit beyond Blitzstein's scope,” he appears to have overlooked one fact.  Cradle does tackle “right to work” in Larry Foreman’s title song—though I’m not certain that wasn’t an insertion by Gold and Encores!)  The Talkin’ Broadway writer named the same “heavy-handed” directorial decisions that irked me and declared that Gold’s enhancement “ultimately detracts from absorbing what's on offer.”  “Blitzstein wasn't Brecht,” admonished Murray, and trying to make them “identical artists” meant that “you're not experiencing the show in anything like the way Blitzstein intended it.”  Giving the cast its due praise all around, Murray summed up, “When [Blitzstein’s] songs and scenes are allowed to flourish unadorned . . ., they have no trouble holding their own.”  Finally, in TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart characterized the Encores! Cradle as ”an uncommonly powerful concert production.”  Even as he pointed out some of the incongruities of the City Center presentation, Stewart ended feeling “like we were engaging in something forbidden, hearing truths that aren't allowed to be spoken in polite society.”  Curiously, while Talkin’ Broadway’s Murray felt that despite the director’s decisions “to bring you ‘closer,’ then, Gold pushes you further away,” Stewart thought that Gold’s staging “made the social and political themes of the work that much more present.”  The TM review-writer pronounced, “The takeaway: In 2013, Blitzstein's show feels more relevant than ever.” 

I’m not sure I’d go as far as Zachary Stewart—Cradle’s still a period artifact, irrespective of its artistic achievements—but I also have to report that I was thrilled to have seen it even in Encores! pared-down revival.  I acknowledged earlier that I came out of the performance with the desire to read the libretto, but I had two impulses when I left the theater.  The other is to see a fully-staged production of Cradle some time.  (The Acting Company’s 1985 TV version is on video, but that production was stripped down, too.)  I suppose it’s obvious that my wish to see a complete production of Cradle comes directly from the high quality of this concert version, which was like theatrical foreplay.  I’m now ready for the full monty!  It’s not hard to put myself back into the days of the labor struggle depicted in Blitzstein’s play; as so many of the reviewers and commentators pointed out, we’re not too far from a parallel situation now—just less violence these days perhaps (at least for now).  Like many good allegories, The Cradle Will Rock engaged and engrossed me both artistically and circumstantially.  (I contrast this response with my reaction to the labor background of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, on which I reported for ROT on 6 June 2011.  It seemed tacked on in that play, despite the centrality of unionism to the plot, and it confused me more than engaged me.)  Although I went to City Center because of the historical significance of The Cradle Will Rock, I’m glad I saw it for its own sake, as a piece of American theater art.  Blitzstein died young—he was murdered in 1964 at age 58—but I wonder what he might have gone on to create for the musical theater after having had a taste of it.  Michael Dale on BroadwayWorld felt that “in many ways Cradle can be thought of as the 1930s answer to” 1996’s Rent in the sense that both Jonathan Larson and Blitzstein (who was younger when Cradle had its début than the Rent composer was when his break-out musical opened) created shows “infused with raw energy that makes a loud statement about a rebellious class of Americans.”  Like Larson, who raised hopes of launching a new surge of American musicals for the generation of the ’90s and beyond (but never lived to fulfill the hope), Blitzstein might have reinvigorated the American musical stage with his mix of jazz, pop, classical, politics, social comment, and contemporary sensibilities.  We’ll never know, of course, any more than we can know what Larson might have accomplished if he’d lived, but Cradle, like Rent, is such a palpable achievement that I have to wonder—and be thankful I finally got a taste of it, even if it was something of a tease.

1 comment:

  1. On Wednesday, 13 January 2016, the New York Times published the obituary of actor David Margulies. Readers of ROT may recall that David was an acting teacher of mine in 1975-77 at Rutgers' School of Fine and Performing Arts (later renamed the Mason Gross School of the Arts). David, who appeared on television as well as in films, died of cancer on Monday, 11 January 2016, at the age of 78.

    Aside from his recognizable guest shots on many TV series (most prominently, probably, as Tony Soprano's sleazy lawyer) and in featured roles on the large screen, David was a superb character actor on the stage, both on and off Broadway. I always went to see him work whenever he was in something. The Encores! concert presentation of the labor musical, 'The Cradle Will Rock,' reported above, was just one of the many performances I saw between my Rutgers years with him as teacher and director and his untimely death this week. I was immensely proud of having been David's student and his acquaintance.

    Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!