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MARC BLITZSTEIN’S The Cradle Will Rock was inspired by U.S. labor unrest of the 1930s. However, its story and the tale of its 1937 production are timely today.
Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock is set in an imaginary Steeltown, USA, allegorical in the tradition of John Bunyan’s 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Cradle Will Rock includes characters such as union organizer Larry Foreman, prostitute Moll, greedy businessman Mr. Mister, and defeated shop owner Harry Druggist. Reverend Salvation and Editor Daily are in Mr. Mister’s pocket. Gus Polock, a newly elected union rep, is killed in a car bombing.
Mister’s rule of the town is seemingly unshakable. Larry gets busted and beaten for distributing union leaflets. Urging others to rise up against Mister, Larry says that, in time, “the cradle will rock.” Mister tries to buy Larry off, but the play ends with Larry defiantly declaring that Mister’s power over Steeltown will soon come to an end.
The Cradle Will Rock is called a “play with music,” very much a precursor of modern musical dramas. Its 22 solos, duets, and ensemble pieces define the action, with next to no spoken dialogue.
Of a 1938 The Cradle Will Rock recording, Wikipedia notes that “It was the first original cast recording ever made.” An original cast tidbit: Will Geer, the original Mr. Mister, was later to portray Grandpa in the 1970s TV series The Waltons.
A digital version of the 1938 recording, for streaming only, is available through the Internet Archive. According to marc-blitzstein.org, there are reissues by American Legacy (LP T1001) and Pearl/Pavilion (CD GEMS 0009) as well.
The Welles Cradle. Orson Welles conceived of an elaborate production of The Cradle Will Rock as part of his involvement in the government Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project. Previews were scheduled to start on June 16, 1937, at the FTP-supported Maxime Elliott’s Theatre in New York City.
However, coming so recently after the Memorial Day Massacre, the play aroused the ire of steel-company-friendly conservative members of Congress. Four days before the scheduled preview, the Works Project Administration claimed that budget cuts precluded all openings of plays, musicals, concerts, and art galleries until the next fiscal year beginning on July 1.
Coincidence or what?
The Maxime Elliott’s Theatre was padlocked, ostensibly to prevent anyone from making off with props or costumes, which were deemed U.S. government property.
Composer Blitzstein, director Welles, and producer/Welles business partner John Houseman found a non-FTP-supported venue for The Cradle Will Rock at the Venice Theatre, 21 blocks north of and larger than the Maxime Elliott’s. However, under pressure from Washington, D.C., the Actors Equity Association ruled that its members could not perform onstage at any new venue without approval of the original producer, i.e., the U.S. government.
On June 16, 1937, signs at the padlocked Maxime Elliott’s directed theater-goers to the Venice. There, they were met with a stage empty but for a battered upright piano. Orson Welles spoke briefly and Marc Blitzstein began a piano introduction to The Cradle Will Rock.
Then the production’s single spotlight focused on a woman in the audience: Mezzo-soprano Olive Stanton stood and sang the opening solo of Moll, the prostitute. The Cradle Will Rock continued with Blitzstein playing the score and the spotlight shifting appropriately to cast members positioned throughout the audience.
It was theatrical magic. And political protest at its best. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018