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 July 5, 2013

Cradle and All

Back in 1998, I was on a Paper Mill Playhouse panel with Clive Barnes of the Post, Howard Kissel of the News and Gretchen van Benthuysen of the Asbury Park Press. One of the questions asked of us was "If you could travel in a time machine, what show would you go back and see?"

Kissel answered first. "The world premiere of Hamlet at the Globe," he said, spurring Barnes to remark that he was just about to say the same thing. Van Benthuysen quickly agreed, and then it was my turn.

Let's jump ahead: the next day when I was relating this story to my friend David Wolf, he, knowing my interest in musicals, quipped "And I suppose you said Rockabye Hamlet." He was referring to the short-lived 1976 rock musical of the Shakespeare classic in which, among other things, Ophelia committed suicide by strangling herself with a microphone cord.

"No, David, I most certainly did not say Rockabye Hamlet," I answered.  "I SAW Rockabye Hamlet."

What I actually said at Paper Mill was "With all due respect to Hamlet, I'd attend the opening night of The Cradle Will Rock -- and not just because I love the show. I would have wanted to be a part of what occurred before the performance."

At Encores! next week, I won't get to see the organized chaos that accompanied the show's premiere. But I will get to see and hear Marc Blitzstein's dynamic, arresting and most successful score. Bless Jeanine Tesori for scheduling The Cradle Will Rock to kick off her new Off-Center series, which stresses "shows that expanded creative boundaries." My, does Cradle qualify!

And look at that cast that director Sam Gold has assembled: Raul Esparza, Danny Burstein, Anika Noni Rose, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Judy Kuhn, Martin Moran, Eisa Davis, Matthew Saldivar and Henry Stram.

You may know the famous story of its fabled June 16, 1937 debut; it was later told time and time again by John Houseman, Orson Welles and Lehman Engel, all of whom worked on the original production.

In fact, at the famed 1983 revival (in which Patti LuPone played Moll, a euphemism for Whore), Houseman showed up before each performance to tell the torturous tale. When this production was recorded, the show itself filled one CD with precious little room for anything else. But the powers-that-be at That's Entertainment Records were so intent on having listeners learn the fascinating backstory of the production that they put Houseman's speech on a separate CD. This disc weighs in at a mere 12:08, but Houseman's speech was deemed worthy of the extra cost.

You might also know the legendary story from Tim Robbins' 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock. (No The.) It's a terrific movie, but it doesn't solely center on the show's endangered opening night. Robbins wanted to relay what Federal Theatre Project head Hallie Flanagan and artist Diego Rivera were concurrently enduring -- and told those stories very well, too. But I would have preferred a film that would have solely told Cradle's story. Welles had planned a film on the subject and got as far as finishing a screenplay (which has since been published), but never got to make the film.

In a nutshell: the government agency known as the Works Progress Administration -- the WPA -- had financed Cradle. But once its powers-that-be saw a late rehearsal, they suddenly began talking of budget cuts and postponements. Many connected with the show, however, suspected that the WPA thought the show was anti-government. Whatever the case, when the cast and crew showed up for its performance, they found the theater padlocked.

Welles and Houseman didn't take this lying down, but stood tall. They'd simply find another theater -- and did: the Venice, 21 long blocks away. All the better to create a makeshift and inflammatory parade as they marched a mile up Broadway to the new venue. Along the way, they told the people they passed that they could see the show for free.

Offer the populace the chance to catch any Broadway musical, and you'll find few individuals who'll say "No, thanks." But those who attended Cradle at the Venice didn’t see a great big Broadway show. The sets and costumes were still at the locked theater; Actors Equity forbade its members to even step on the stage and the musicians wouldn't play ball, either (or even a note).

So Blitzstein went on stage instead, played the piano while actors sat in theater seats. But when time came for them to speak or sing, they stood and played their parts.

Talk about "The show must go on!"

Yes, the musical itself is pure agit-prop. The characters that live in mythical Steeltown are symbols, named fancifully for what they do; hence, Larry Foreman's surname tells us his occupation. He represents the laborers who are furious about their working conditions.

But how do you fight Mister Mister (Burstein), who calls the shots in Steeltown -- and just might have any opponent shot? He can see that Foreman (Esparza) is a dangerous natural-born leader who might organize a strike, so he offers him a great and lucrative job.

You know the drill; once such a powerful person buys a man, he bullies and mistreats him because the employee can't return to the side he betrayed. Frankly, he also becomes too accustomed to the good money every payday. And while Dr. Specialist (Davis), Editor Daily (Kuhn) and Reverend Salvation (Saldivar) aren't actually in Mister Mister's employ, they're certainly in his pocket.

But nothing can dissuade Foreman from organizing a strike. He'll rock the safe cradle in which the rest of Steeltown's power mongers are nesting comfortably. At show's end, the wind of change is inexorably blowing.
Shortly after I turned 17, I vowed to get every record that had the words "cast album" on them. And yet, eight years later, I still hadn't bought the 1964 off-Broadway revival of The Cradle Will Rock recording in which Jerry Orbach played Larry Foreman. Bless my oldest and dearest friend (who sat next to me at Skyscraper, Holly Golightly and Sherry!) who bought Cradle for me as a present for my 26th birthday.

Another friend had bought me a jigsaw puzzle that was a Marx Brothers collage. I decided to spend the next night doing the puzzle while listening to the album. But as soon as I heard the first haunting notes of side one, I was mesmerized and just sat and listened to all four sides of the two-record set -- and then listened to the entire album one more time. The puzzle went, uh, unsolved for a few more nights.

Productions of Cradle now typically use piano a la Blitzstein, although there was a 1960 production at City Opera that used the original orchestrations that would have been used that June night. Here at Encores! we won't quite hear those charts, but the usual piano will be but one of 14 instruments. So even those who know Cradle inside out will have a new experience.

The orchestrations should soar in "Croon, Spoon,” an excellent song sung by Mister Mister's children, teens who are whimsically named Junior Mister and Sister Mister. Children of privilege that they are, they're bored with their lives, although they do find fun in pop music. "Croon, Spoon" is a marvelous if off-kilter parody of songs of the day. A listener can hear both Blitzstein's contempt for Top 40 music but some admiration too for those who can come up with a hummable tune.

On the other side of the tracks, Moll (Noni Rose) sings about the spare change she thought she saw on the floor: "The Nickel under Your Foot" would have made that night's meager meal a bit more festive. Later, when one of Mister Mister's employees is hurt through no fault of his own, the mogul gets the doctor to say the laborer was drunk. That leads Ella Hammer (Randolph), a colleague, to sing the piercing "Joe Worker Gets Gypped."

And yet, Blitzstein sees hope. The Cradle Will Rock has a title song that predicts "when the wind" of change "blows, the cradle will fall."

It didn't happen. Blitzstein wouldn't have been happy to learn since his death in 1964, America has seen its economic picture showing 1% of the country holding 99% of the wealth. Maybe we all need to hear The Cradle Will Rock again. At least we know this time no one will shut it down.

         — Peter Filichia

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