Wednesday, April 3, 2019

201 (2018-2019): Review: THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (seen April 2, 2019)

“When the Bough Breaks”

(Note: this review is followed by an entry on the original production of The Cradle Will Rock from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1930-1940.)

The theatrical bough breaks for the Classic Stage Company's (CSC) revival of Marc Blitzstein’s controversial 1937 musical, The Cradle Will Rock, and down comes baby, cradle and all. This is the show’s first regular revival since the Acting Company version of 1982, directed by John Houseman, who was intimately involved in the original. (A minimally staged, concert version, in formal attire, was given a limited run by the Encores: Off Center series in 2013.)

An idea of Houseman's approach, which reproduced, not the 1937 production but a more polished version created shortly after (described in the postscript), can be gleaned from a couple of video clips, like this and this, featuring the young Patti LuPone.  
Rema Webb, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As what follows will make clear, Blitzstein’s Depression-era, agitprop musical stands out in modern theatre history not so much for its artistic qualities as for the circumstances of its first production. Those made it such a cause célèbre that it inspired reams of writing and even a major 1999 motion picture recreating its premiere. Watch this invaluable documentary for a look at the show’s background, narrated by Houseman, with clips from the movie.
Ken Barnett, David Garrison. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Seeing it in the CSC's problematic, 90-minute version, directed by John Doyle, reveals that, regardless of what were once admired but now seem questionable artistic qualities, the show’s political issues remain relevant. Think capitalism, unions, the news media, organized religion, law enforcement, the legal and academic systems, and so on, as viewed from a left-wing, revolutionary perspective. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, the work is cast in the form of an allegory, with many characters given symbolic names, as in the old morality plays. Steeltown, U.S.A., is the locale and the city is in the hands of Mister Mister (David Garrison), super-capitalist, and his wife, Mrs. Mister (Sally Ann Triplett), and children, Junior Mister (Eddie Cooper) and Sister Mister (Karen Mikula). 

When the steel workers, incited by Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbek, who also plays Harry Druggist), attempt to organize and strike against the exploitative magnate, the latter uses his power to band the forces of the university, church, law, newspapers, and the local liberty league against the union threat. These folks have names like Editor Daily and President Prexy (Ken Barnett), and Reverend Salvation (Benjamin Eakeley).
Lara Pulver. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The play also has a subplot about the Moll (Lara Pulver), a prostitute, whose story is ironically counterpointed by the theme of the prostitution of the workers, of the professions mentioned above, as well as such arenas as art and music. The latter are represented by those patronized by the vain Mrs. Mister. The final moments, as Larry tells off Mister Mister, rock the cradle (of liberty), and express the meaning of unions to their workers, bringing the piece to what should be an uplifting conclusion.
Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe, Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One would have thought that The Cradle Will Rock would be catnip for Doyle, whose signature directorial approach is to strip away the traditional visuals associated with conventional musical revivals. As is well known, the 1937 original was forced to forgo a full staging and settle instead for an improvised concert version. A single onstage piano accompanied the actors, who played their roles by standing up at various places in the auditorium.
Benjamin Eakeley, Sally Ann Triplett. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Doyle uses only 10 actors to play the multiple roles. Apart from only the most minor adjustments, he has had costumer Ann Hould-Ward dress nearly everyone in period factory-worker garments—the women resembling incipient versions of World War II's Rosie the Riveter—regardless of who they’re playing. 
David Garrison. Photo: Joan Marcus.
If you don’t know the script, or can’t make out the lyrics as they’re being overpowered by the piano pounding of the four actors who also serve as accompanists (Ken Barnett, Benjamin Eakeley, Ian Lowe, and Kara Mikula), you’ll have considerable difficulty in making out who’s the plutocrat, the cop, the druggist, the hooker, the foreman, and so on. Nor will it be easy to separate the different characters played by actors wearing the same garments for each. Clearly, more character-specific costuming would have helped.
Tony Yazbek, Lara Pulver, Rema Webb. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Doyle, using a three-quarters round configuration, follows tradition with a simple,non-specific set (which he designed) of a polished floor over which float dozens of cables leading to a telephone pole. For scenic units he deploys only a wide variety of industrial steel drums in different colors and sizes; in a church scene, for example, seven yellow ones form a large cross at the heart of the acting area. Jane Cox and Tess James’s lighting goes far to establish some sense of mood in this otherwise abstract environment.
Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbek, Ian Lowe. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s a lot of talent involved in the ensemble, which stars the terrific Tony Yazbek as Larry Foreman, and has standout work from artists like Eddie Cooper, David Garrison, Kara Mikula, Lara Pulver, and Rema Webb. Several moments are imaginatively staged but Doyle overdoes a few things; especially annoying is the hammer-handed way money’s power is continuously represented by having paper currency never handed to anyone but instead showered about, forcing people to get to their knees to shovel it up. 

But the brief clips of LuPone's Moll, referenced above, show more nuance and character expression than you'll find anywhere in Doyle's fast-paced but monotonous production, so one-note that my plus-one couldn't help saying: “It had a certain ring. Bo-ring.”
Eddie Cooper, Kara Mikula. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Just as Doyle's production reeks of Brechtian influence, so does Blitzstein’s music have an ersatz Kurt Weill sound, clearly influenced by the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera of 1928, which Blitzstein himself turned into a long-running Off-Broadway sensation in the 1950s. It favors dissonant chords and angry rhythms with barely any of the sweetness or sentimentality that Weill employed, even when the lyrics stood in stark contrast to the tunes. One well-sung number, late in the CSC production, performed by Rema Webb, offers a limited but nonetheless melodic line. It comes as such surprise, it gets the evening's only applause.

The wind is blowing at the CSC but down has come baby, The Cradle Will Rock and all.

Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street, NYC
Through May 19


The following is an edited version—cuts include the plot summary—of the entry for The Cradle Will Rock from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1930-1940.

The Cradle Will Rock: Book/Music/Lyrics: Marc Blitzstein; Director: Orson Welles; Lighting: Abe Feder; Theatre: Venice Theatre; Opening: June 16, 1937; Performances: 19.

The Cradle Will Rock has gone down in history not only because of its innate excellences as a satirical musical built around a propagandistic anticapitalistic theme but because of the extremely controversial events that surrounded its inception. (An excellent account is in John Houseman’s Run-Through.) The production was initially sponsored by Project 891, a Federal Theatre Project (FTP) unit headed by Houseman. It was scheduled to be the FTP’s first musical, one that would more easily fit into that subsidized program’s schedule than into that of the commercial Broadway theatre, which—as composer-writer-Blitzstein’s experiences in trying to get it produced there demonstrated—was uninterested in such incendiary material.

Inspiring the show’s creation was the then extremely topical subject of the Committee for Industrial Organization’s (CIO) efforts to organize industrial labor unions, beginning with the steel industry, a subject on newspaper front pages almost daily.

Houseman accepted the work for his unit and it was scheduled to open at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on 6/16/37 but bureaucratic and economic pressures on the FTP’s leader, Hallie Flanagan, demanding that she cut the New York segment of the project by 30 percent, forced her to issue an injunction prohibiting the opening of any new shows before 7/1/37. This meant that Project 891 could not occupy Maxine Elliott’s for their opening, despite the advance sale of 14,000 tickets. Flanagan recognized Washington’s interference as a devious form of censorship (the show was looked at warily by conservative politicians), and tried to gain an exception to the ruling for Cradle, but failed. With an audience gathering outside the theatre, the angry young director, Orson Welles, determined to take the show and audience elsewhere, despite an Actors Equity ruling that the show could not be done on any other local stage, and a Musicians Union decision that its musicians would have to be paid Broadway scale wherever they performed.

Welles came up with a brainstorm in which he convinced his cast to move en masse to some other theatre and to perform their roles, not on the stage, but from their seats in the house, with Blitzstein providing a piano accompaniment from the stage. The owner of the Venice Theatre, being present by chance, offered that theatre to the actors. Soon, cast, crew, and audience began the trek from 39th Street east of Broadway to 59th Street and Seventh Avenue. When they arrived at the Venice, there were twice as many spectators as before as word spread through the streets.

The show went on according to Welles’s new scheme, with a single spot picking out Blitzstein at his piano on the bare stage, and with the cast performing their roles in boxes, balcony, aisles, and orchestra seats, each picked out by a spotlight on their cue whenever possible.

After a couple of weeks in this style, the show folded, was revived on 12/5/37 (actually, on 11/28/37 but the critics were asked not to come because of the need for more rehearsal) for a series of Sunday night performances at the Mercury Theatre (formerly the Comedy) under the auspices of Welles and Houseman’s new Mercury Theatre company (they having abandoned the FTP). They finally settled in for a regular run at popular prices ($1.65 top) at the Windsor Theatre (formerly the 48th Street Theatre) on 1/3/38 for 104 showings.

These later presentations retained the scenery-less and costume-less look (the technically complex original—given a dress rehearsal on 6/15—had employed illuminated glass wagons), but the actors were now onstage and not in the auditorium. Wearing street clothes, they sat before a blue backdrop in three rows on bentwood chairs upstage of Blitzstein’s piano, each of them introduced by character name at the beginning, coming downstage to act their scenes, and returning to their seats when finished. Blitzstein acted as announcer, introducing each locale, and playing several bit roles.

This simplified staging served to enhance the message orientation of the piece. Ironically, the use of a single piano didn’t absolve the company from following the Musicians Union’s rule for Broadway musicals about paying a minimum of 10 musicians to be present, even though they weren’t playing.

The Cradle Will Rock won wide approval for its dynamic power and earnestness although it was readily agreed that the 10-scene text was two-dimensionally melodramatic, depicting the characters as all black or white. “Written with extraordinary versatility and played with enormous gusto, it is the best thing militant labor has put into a theatre yet,” enthused Brooks Atkinson in the Times. Although the story was a familiar one, said the critic, Blitzstein “has transmuted it into a remarkably stirring marching song by the bitterness of his satire, the savagery of his music and the ingenuity of his craftsmanship.” There were only a few serious disclaimers, such as that of Grenville Vernon in Commonweal, who found the work “a bore” because Blitzstein’s book “has nothing fresh in material and he writes clumsily and without wit.”

When the show reopened on 1/3/38, much note was made of the fact that, 15 minutes after it began, four fashionable first-nighters rose from their seats in the second row with their noses in the air and trooped off down the aisle to the accompaniment of catcalls and boos.