REVIEW: “The Cradle Will Rock”

reviewed by Guy LIVINGSTON on July 16, 2017

Music and book by Marc Blitzstein
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Conducted by John Mauceri
Lawrence Edelson, Director & Choreographer
SPAC, Saratoga Springs, New York

Marc Blitzstein’s “Cradle Will Rock” is one of the seminal pieces of the American theater. Ironically, it is more famous for the unplanned elements of its premiere than for the planned ones. Director Orson Welles and composer Marc Blitzstein had intended the 1937 show to be performed with elaborate sets, costumes, lighting, decor, and 24-piece orchestra, on a stage, in front of an audience. But the federal government shut down the theater at the last minute, for political reasons. It was a WPA project, and the never-stated, but always understood reason for the shutdown was that the show was far too liberal, and pro-union, to be supported by the Federal Theater Project.

And there is no question, the script reads like propaganda: against greed, against corruption, pro-union, and pro working-class. On the day of the performance, the actors arrived to discover armed guards blocking the theater. With just a few hours to go, producer John Houseman, backed by Orson Welles’ powerful personality and reputation, managed to locate a piano and an alternate theater. Borrowing money from members of the press who were relishing this reversal of fortune, he rented the Venice theater, had a piano trucked in, and invited the bewildered but excited audience to bring their friends for an impromptu reading of the show.

Since their own union rules prohibited the actors from entering the stage, and the musicians from entering the pit, they asked Marc to play and sing the entire show from the stage by himself. But most of the cast, engaged politically, and charged up by this powerful injustice, were present at the performance, and began to declaim their parts and sing their songs from their seats, scattered throughout the audience. In a few minutes, and entirely unannounced, Blitzstein and his team destroyed the fourth wall, transforming Broadway forever. For better or worse, they also transformed “Cradle Will Rock” which has mostly ever since been presented without sets and costumes, and usually without the orchestra. Myself included, most Blitzstein fans have never heard the orchestral version, and are so used to the sparse piano arrangement that we take it as the urtext. Not so, insists conductor John Mauceri, one of the movers and shakers behind this stunning production from SPAC. After many years of trying to get this work onstage, he has finally succeeded in recreating the show that Blitzstein intended.

As an aside, I regret considerably that Marc put the fourth wall back in subsequent creations, and though his music remained some of the most adventurous and daring on Broadway, he did not continue in the direction of a more avant-garde or participatory theater. But that doesn’t matter here.

What does matter is that this show for me was a revelation. Because of the intense subject matter (unions, justice, prostitution) Cradle Will Rock attracts actors more than musicians. The history of the show (which every theater student knows) overshadows the actual content (which is mostly unheard). It is way underperformed, and underappreciated. Indeed, I never heard any musicians remark on the quality of the score. That should all change soon, as SPAC will soon release a CD of this marvelous performance, making this available to the wider public. Indeed, I wish they would also release a DVD. Not only is the music great, powerful, beautifully orchestrated, and full of humor, but this is a musical which should be seen as well as heard.

Calling it a musical may get me into trouble. Marc spent years trying to explain to people that he felt it was political theater, or a play with music, or some such nonsense. Not his fault: in those times, genre-hopping was taboo, and audiences wanted to know what they were getting. Now, even mainstream Broadway flirts with operatic arias and styles. But personally, as I watched the show a few days ago, presented by an opera company, in an opera theater, I was convinced this is really a musical. I hope the next version of the show I see will incorporate dancing (many of the tunes would make ideal show-stopping choreographed numbers) and more theatrical elements. Anyway, that is my own personal preference. In a pre-concert lecture, conductor Mauceri made a strong case for not labeling the show, pointing out the resemblance to various musical productions like Carmen and even finding a connection to Puccini’s La Bohème; works that we call operas now but which at the time of their premiere were flirting with popular musical theater. So of course he’s right: these distinctions don’t matter. Still, I want to see this show on Broadway, with song and dance and some spectacular scenery.

Marc’s vision is so much bolder and cohesive than what I had imagined. Despite flaws in the SPAC production, this came through loud and clear. What did not come through loud and clear, alas, was the sound of many of the singer’s voices. The appallingly bad acoustics of the hall mean that I will be particularly eager to hear the recording – because I missed so much of the live show. Sitting in a good orchestra seat on audience right, I could barely understand the singers standing on the opposite side of the stage, only 50 feet away. Let us cross our fingers that the microphones were well-positioned enough to capture the fine work of what I know to be an excellent cast. And when this recording comes out, run, don’t walk, to buy a copy.

Probably the most revelatory moment for me was the arrival (surprisingly late in the show) of the central character, Larry Foreman. In a world of charlatans, prostitutes, and sell-outs, he is the sole voice of reason. Dressed down in jeans and a checked shirt, he has only his height (a skinny 6 foot 6?) and his voice to defend himself against the aggressions of the police, the so-called Liberty Committee (anything but) and the dreaded Mr. Mister, boss of the town. And as he declaimed his feelings for the steelworkers and for America, for the downtrodden and the oppressed, it was all the more remarkable for what had gone before and for what is happening now in today’s political world, in today’s Steeltowns across the USA. His passion became Marc Blitzstein’s passion, and for a moment I felt he had reincarnated the composer. Do the striking steelworkers win their fight? Does the Liberty Committee go home with their tails between their legs? Not really. I think Marc was too smart for that. Even while the workers march down the aisles to the sounds of trumpets and the shouts of “The Cradle Will Rock”, we all understand that the struggle just continues.

Highlights from the cast were: Christopher Burchett, brilliant, as the working man, the activist, and perhaps the voice of the composer; Keith Jameson, moving and insightful as the Druggist; and Justin Hopkins, a stunning voice, a charismatic preacher with a dead-pan sense of humor, as the Reverend Salvation. And also of note: John Tibbetts and Scott Purcell, deliciously tap-dancing and backstabbing as the ‘sophisticated’ artists; Nina Spinner, tough and powerful as Ella Hammer, singing “Joe Worker Was Pushed”; Spencer Viator, perfectly lazy and perfectly ridiculous as Junior Mister; and Ginger Costa-Jackson, holding the whole show together musically and sexily, as the Moll.

Link to the Saratoga site: http://www.operasaratoga.org/the-cradle-will-rock/

Photos by Gary David Gold courtesy of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Coming next month on Concertzender: a radio interview with Justin Hopkins.

 

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