Dear Reader: As you may know, I, your humble blogger, teach musical-theater history at The Boston Conservatory. As part of my course, I direct a series of staged readings of historically important but underperformed shows. This weekend, my graduate students are performing The Cradle Will Rock. What follows is an excerpt from the director's note in the show's program. See the poster to the right for performance details. --C.C.
When was the last time a musical made history? The point is no doubt arguable, as there have certainly been many shows over the years that have reflected history and perhaps even influenced the course of human events, as it were.
But to find a show that actually made the history books -- and not just the musical-theater history books -- you'd probably have to go back to 1937 and The Cradle Will Rock. Here's a show that was so angry, so strident, so pointed in its satiric intent that people in high places actually considered it dangerous.
That's right. A musical, dangerous.
The Cradle Will Rock was the only significant musical-theater piece to emerge from the Federal Theater Project (FTP). The FTP was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program, which included the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program designed to get Americans in a wide variety of industries back to work during the Great Depression.The FTP was specifically designed to fund theater works and other performing-arts presentations, and was responsible for providing early employment to such later artistic greats as Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, and Marc Blitzstein.
Welles and Houseman, who at the time were in charge of the Federal Theater Project, chose The Cradle Will Rock -- with book music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein -- for its 1937 season, with Houseman producing and Welles directing. Blitzstein's show is a savage satire of big business, as well as those who were all too willing to sell out to the rich and powerful, and showed no mercy in painting a broad and unflattering portrait of industrialists, the press, the clergy, medical professionals, academics, artists, and the military.
When Blitzstein was working on The Cradle Will Rock, he played the song "Nickel Under the Foot" for friend and mentor Bertolt Brecht. The song is sung by Moll, the prostitute and symbolic heart of the show, and is a heartbreaking lament on the caustic effects of poverty:
And if you're sweet, then you'll grow rotten,
Your pretty heart covered over with soot.
The song also decries the actions of the supposedly upstanding people who surround Moll, and the ruthlessness with which they pursue personal gain:
Go stand on someone's neck while you're takin'
Cut into somebody's throat as you put.
For every dream and scheme's depending on whether
All through the storm, you've kept it warm.
The nickel under your foot.
Upon hearing the song, Brecht urged Blitzstein to use it as the central conceit of the show: prostitution, only not in the literal but rather the figurative sense. The stunning irony at the heart of The Cradle Will Rock is that the prostitute Moll is one of the only characters who doesn't sell out, who hasn't compromised her values, her talent, her dignity.
The Welles production was apparently going to be rather lavish, which was very in keeping with Welles' more-is-more style of directing, but which irked Blitzstein, who feared that his message might get lost amid the hoopla.
What happened next depends on which side you choose to believe. The political dynamic at the time was not unlike the one we see in Washington today, with Democrats pushing for jobs-creating spending initiatives, and Republicans pushing just as hard for spending cuts. When word came from Washington that The Cradle Will Rock would have to shut down, the official line was that Congress had put a freeze on arts spending. But it's also quite possible that even darker forces were at work: specifically the very wealthy industrialists that Blitzstein was attempting to savage in his piece were placing pressure on the government to shut down a production that might prove very embarrassing for a lot of influential people.
When Houseman, Welles, Blitzstein and the cast showed up to work one day, the theater had been padlocked and armed guards were on duty, supposedly to prevent anyone from absconding with the props and sets, which were technically government property.
Undeterred, the production staff secured another theater and a piano, and marched the entire cast and their ticket-bearing audience 20 blocks north in New York City to put on the show in their new location.
Meanwhile, Actors' Equity, the labor union representing actors, issued a ruling barring anyone from the cast from appearing on stage in this production, possibly as a result of pressure from outside forces. (The irony here is that the show essentially deals with attempts to unionize steelworkers in fictional Steeltown, USA and the powerful forces that attempt to stop the union from forming.)
At first, Blitzstein was going to perform the entire show solo, accompanying himself on the piano; since he wasn't an Equity member, the ruling didn't affect him. But as Blitzstein began to sing through the show, something magical and inspiring started to happen: the actors, one by one, began to sing and perform their parts from the audience, thus both defying the Equity edict and adhering to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. (After all, no union member was actually appearing "on stage.")
This compelling scenario was made into the well-meaning but lackluster movie "Cradle Will Rock," written and directed by Tim Robbins. The movie attempts to bring these dramatic events to life, but is marred by Robbins' overly strident screenplay. The movie has a sensational cast (including Hank Azaria, Jack Black, Ruben Blades, Victoria Clark, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Paul Giamatti, Cherry Jones, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, and Emily Watson), but all that talent was unfortunately wasted amid Robbins' ham-fisted direction.
As for the show itself, the score reflects Blitzstein at his most inventive, with haunting dissonant melodies alongside jaunty anxious anthems. Blitzstein was a serious composer who studied with such notable composers as Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. Although many have compared Blitzstein's compositional style to that of Kurt Weill, Blitzstein was openly critical of Weill, as well as other composers whom he felt were compromising their ambition in order to court popularity.
The characters in The Cradle Will Rock might appear to be no more than straw men and women. And, to a large extent, that's true. Blitzstein wasn't interested in portraying fully fledged humans, but rather exaggerated cartoons decrying the venality and hypocrisy that he saw around him. The show does have its tender moments, particularly those involving Moll and the sad druggist she encounters upon her arrest. And the strident, insolent, angry anthem "Joe Worker" ranks among the most powerful and effective songs in musical-theater history.
Given the modern resonance the show has, what with all this talk about the 99%, efforts on the part of certain billionaires to control the media, to influence policy, to create even more privileges for the privileged, it's really quite surprising that the show hasn't received a major New York production in almost 30 years. (Anyone out there care to remedy the situation?)
Care to discover what all the fuss was about back in 1937? Why some people felt that this show was so provocative that it had to be stopped? I'm directing a staged reading of The Cradle Will Rock this weekend at the Boston Conservatory. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm in the Zack Box Theater. If you'd like to attend, email me for details.