PREVIEW: Opera Saratoga’s new, full-out production of Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical masterpiece, The Cradle Will Rock; and
INTERVIEWS: with director Lawrence Edelson and musical director John Mauceri.
Though it’s remembered as a work of social protest and impassioned ideals, “nobody has experienced The Cradle Will Rock the way it was intended,” says celebrated musical director, educator and historian John Mauceri of composer/librettist Marc Blitzstein’s landmark 1937 opera.
“It’s a piece that everybody knows, but nobody’s ever heard!”
Point well taken. Ever since its famously unorthodox premiere, when an extraordinary concatenation of adversities forced a last-minute decision to present the work on a bare stage with the accompaniment of only a single piano, The Cradle Will Rock has been enshrined in productions of ad hoc minimalism.
“The circumstances of the premiere have overshadowed the piece itself in many ways,” says Opera Saratoga artistic director Lawrence Edelson, who also directs and choreographs this new production. “When you hear it with the orchestration, it’s really remarkable.”
Indeed, staging the work fully – and employing Blitzstein’s long-neglected, full, original orchestrations – was from the first Edelson’s sine qua non for this new Opera Saratoga production. And, as it turns out, it’s also what cinched the company’s extraordinary good fortune in securing Maestro Mauceri’s participation.
“We started talking about conductors,” says Edelson. “And they [the Blitzstein property administrators]asked ‘have you considered John Mauceri?’” Edelson thought it a mere pie-in-the-sky notion. “But they said ‘reach out to him; he may be interested.’ And I did. And he was!”
“I got the call,” says Mauceri for his part, “and I said ‘only if we’re doing the original orchestrations.’”
It was a consummation devoutly wished – and reverently received by Mauceri. Only three other conductors have ever had the opportunity to raise their batons over Blitzstein’s full orchestral vision for Cradle – Leonard Bernstein, Howard Shanet and Lehman Engel (the work’s original musical director, who last conducted the score for five rather sparsely documented performances for the New York City Opera in 1960).
Indeed, in conversation shortly before his first orchestral rehearsal for the Opera Saratoga production, Mauceri waxed euphoric.
“Two hours from now will be the first time in 57 years that those orchestrations have been heard anywhere on Earth,” Mauceri reflected. “It’s almost a sacred moment for me as a conductor.”
Mauceri will be helming Opera Saratoga’s precedent-shattering new presentation of The Cradle Will Rock commencing Sunday, July 9 at 7:30 p.m. (with subsequent performances scheduled for July 11 at 2 p.m.; July 13 at 7:30 p.m.; and July 16 at 2 p.m.).
What Becomes A Legend…
For those fuzzy on the details of Cradle’s fabled premiere, it’s a tale worth the hearing.
Dateline: New York – June 16, 1937. A band of federally-subsidized theater people becomes collective Public Enemy Number 1, at least in the eyes of certain reactionary members of the U.S. Congress. Their offense? Daring to perform a new play-with-music entitled The Cradle Will Rock by young composer/librettist Marc Blitzstein.
It’s one of Broadway’s great showbiz yarns.
The Cradle Will Rock had been developed under the umbrella of the New-York-based unit “891” of the Federal Theatre Project (itself an artsy appurtenance to FDR’s massive New Deal economic-stimulus juggernaut known as the Works Progress Administration). And even while it was in rehearsal, rumors of the work’s inflammatory pro-labor philippics and seemingly “un-American” denunciations of capitalism raised certain political hackles. Thus, according to delicious theatrical conspiracy theory, antagonists within the government not only managed to withdraw funding but, on the eve of the first scheduled preview performance, actually impounded the entire physical production – sets, costumes, kit and caboodle (including, it is claimed, one of the leading men’s toupees) – placing it all under paramilitary guard.
Ironically (given Cradle’s pro-union themes), both the actors’ and the musicians’ unions joined the obstruction, issuing fiats against any performance of the work other than as originally planned (at least without prohibitive financial concessions).
Still, there remains dispute as to how much overt “censorship” was involved. A more benign explanation involves mere bad timing, along with typically cloddish but non-ideological government budget snafus.
At any rate, there’s no question that the theater company’s response to the seeming embargo of their work has placed the first performance of The Cradle Will Rock high on a perpetually glittering marquee in Broadway’s institutional memory.
Led by the production’s director (a young midwestern theatrical sensationalist named Orson Welles) and its managing producer (a young, Anglo-Romanian classicist named John Houseman), the company shepherded its peeved audience and rowdy press corps some 20 blocks north to a new theater engaged on the fly. The plan was for the composer, Blitzstein himself, to render a solo performance of his work, seated at a ratty upright piano, in an act of exquisitely makeshift protest.
But what actually happened was rather more surreal, and sublime.
Come performance time, the audience had swollen beyond the theater’s full capacity. And, despite other union proscription, nothing prevented any of the actors from singing or speaking from their places in the audience. Thus, as Blitzstein began performing his score, actress Olive Stanton, cast as Cradle’s prostitute heroine, stood up from her seat and let fly with her opening number. Other performers followed suit, and a uniquely improvised, immersive theater event ensued – an evening that left that first-night audience ecstatic, and reviewers breathless in praise.
Then and Now
One might say that The Cradle Will Rock can be viewed as both a time capsule, and a time bomb.
During a feverish couple of months in the depths of the Great Depression, Marc Blitzstein, the son of a rich Jewish banker from Philadelphia – an avowed communist sympathizer and partisan of the Soviet Union – divided his time between a retreat in Stamford, Connecticut and a drolly bohemian Greenwich Village flat on Jane Street and wrote what would come to be regarded as the quintessential American agitprop socialist musical of the 20th Century.
“There were a lot of very good people who were communists,” remarks Mauceri. “Blitzstein represents a time, in the 15 years after World War I, when people were asking the question: ‘why did we enter that war in the first place?’”
Thus, The Cradle Will Rock, as time capsule, preserves with extraordinary vitality the restlessness, the exuberance, the inquisitive skepticism about everything from class to economics to assumptions about America’s place in the world during what was arguably the most authentic period of radical populism in the nation’s history.
On the other hand, in our current climate of political polarization, Blitzstein’s work might also have the potential to engender new anxieties or advocacies even today.
“I made the decision to do the piece back during the  Democrat primaries,” remarks Edelson, “when the real political debate was between Hillary and Bernie!” But, in recommending this new production to his board of directors, Edelson was chary of emphasizing only a polemical reading of it – and he was gratified to find that he didn’t have to.
“I have a lot board members and donors who are more right-leaning,” Edelson says. “But they’re fascinated by the piece too. This isn’t just a piece for Democrats!”
Indeed, Mauceri places Blitzstein squarely within a grand tradition of theater composers who fearlessly took aim at the political status quo in every age. “Verdi was obviously politically active,” he observes. “There used to be police in riot gear outside his operas. And Wagner would have been arrested and probably killed had he not escaped to Switzerland after the revolution of 1849!”
In short, The Cradle Will Rock as time bomb is still combustible, and Edelson, Mauceri and company seem cheerfully willing to find out whether – and how – it might detonate in our time. “It’s eighty years old,” says Edelson, “and feels as fresh as though it were written yesterday.”
Interestingly, however, while there has been a constant critical tendency to view Blitzstein’s work through the prism of politics, government per se is not directly targeted in The Cradle Will Rock, other perhaps than in the attenuated form of the play’s courtroom framing device. Rather, the corrupting influence of money on every other estate – from commerce to academia to medicine, to the press and even the pulpit – is anatomized brilliantly and ruthlessly.
In short, there really is a bite of the apple for everyone here, whatever one’s particular bugbear of inequity or hypocrisy might be. And, at base, the moral could be construed under a maxim at least as ancient as the Bible: radix malorum est cupiditas – “greed is the root of all evil” – a plaguy human verity surely ripe for continual vigilance, across the philosophic spectrum.
Dare You Not to Laugh
“We talk about the serious themes and underpinning of Cradle,” Edelson says. “But it’s a really funny show. Not only the libretto – the music is so entertaining and engaging.”
Mauceri amplifies the point.
“He was a wonderful, brilliant composer,” Mauceri says of Blitzstein. “It’s a wonderful, brilliant orchestration. Sometimes he uses the piano as a solo instrument to give you a honky-tonk feeling. Sometimes he uses the saxophones to give you the jazzy feeling. We have Hawaiian guitar. The music goes into rhumbas and popular dances of the 20s.”
Then, there is Blitzstein’s use of language.
“In this piece are all the underpinnings of Hamilton!” Edelson remarks. “Sections that are early rap, with highly rhythmic, spoken text over the music. It’s an incredibly entertaining night in the theater.” It’s true. The Cradle Will Rock’s monitory fable of Steeltown, U.S.A. and its corruption at the hands of the impious tycoon “Mr. Mister” (i.e., “The Man”) reels out in lyrics of intoxicating and cocky self-confidence. Hyperactive, sometimes stream-of-consciousness and crazy-quilted rhyme schemes abound. Blitzstein may have been a radical polemicist, but he was a capering and bright-souled one.
We might but wish that any of today’s rabid protest discourse boasted half the wit and levity evinced in any one of Cradle’s colorful, madcap vignettes.
The Forgotten Man?
Given the remarkable renown of The Cradle Will Rock – or at least its legendary first performance, the story of which was vouchsafed to posterity in energetic oral histories by no less than John Houseman and even Blitzstein himself (not to mention Orson Welles, who wrote a screenplay about the premiere that was never produced, thus leaving the tale to be told in a 1999 film by Tim Robbins) – why is the remainder of Blitzstein’s oeuvre otherwise only patchily known today?
Mauceri – who worked with Leonard Bernstein to restore and critically reassert Blitzstein’s opera Regina (based on Hellman’s The Little Foxes) and who has championed Blitzstein’s remarkable Airborne Symphony – believes that, for one thing, much of Blitzstein’s music, written for radio and theater, has been unfairly consigned by music historians to “the great dumpster of incidental music.”
Plus, there is “a lot of unfinished work,” Mauceri concedes.
Then, there is the issue of Blitzstein’s death.
“He was murdered and died young,” comments Edelson of the composer’s death on the island of Martinique in 1964, at the age of 58. First reported as a car accident, the actual circumstances emerged only gradually. Unabashedly and unapologetically homosexual, Blitzstein appears to have been propositioning (or was propositioned by?) one or more of a group of Portuguese sailors in a bar; they ended up inflicting so severe a beating on Blitzstein that he died the next evening.
“He made a mistake,” comments Mauceri. “Who hasn’t made a mistake? But everyone got on their high horses.”
And authorities seem not to have even taken great pains to seek justice. “No one’s ever solved it,” says Mauceri of the murder. “No one even wanted to. It was something you turned away from.” (Though Truman Capote managed to cloud matters by writing a gossipy and fictionalized version of the sordid incident many years later in his “Music for Chameleons” in The New Yorker.)
“He was writing an opera for the Met when he was killed,” says Edelson of Blitzstein. “What did we lose – and would he and his work have been looked at in a very different light had he lived longer? There’s so much about Blitzstein’s work which we should be rediscovering.”
The Socialist Sphynx
Privileged and brilliant, classically trained yet proletariat-minded, Blitzstein is a paradox of passion and coolness, vigor and languor, smile and shadow. And one more thing: for all the cachet of apparently uncompromising Brechtian militancy in his work, there are in The Cradle Will Rock endearing softer touches, too. Like Brecht (to whom he dedicated The Cradle Will Rock), Blitzstein could show the gentler face of the revolutionary. Themes of parent and child, of nurture and a longing for filial redemption glow in corners of the text.
And note, too, that while protest animates the work, an appetite for anarchy does not. The “Cradle” of the title is, of course, America – the classical cradle of liberty, the comforts of which had, in Blitzstein’s view, been coopted by a cosseted too-few. But while that cradle may rock, it does not fall. Blitzstein’s musical missiles are polemical shots across the bow (the bough?). But the bough does not break.
“I’m really hoping that when people have a chance to hear this, they will realize what this piece really is,” says Edelson, “what a wonderful work it is – a work that transcends borders.”
“I wish this production could tour to the steel towns of America,” adds Mauceri. “I would love, of course, to see it in New York, because I think it would play a long time and because it’s a wonderful physical production with a wonderful cast. But wouldn’t it be amazing to play it in Pittsburgh and Allentown and the so-called Rust Belt, and see how people react?”
Opera Saratoga’s new production of The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, conducted by John Mauceri and directed and choreographed by Lawrence Edelson plays at the Spa Little Theater, 21 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs, New York on Sunday, July 9 at 7:30 p.m.; July 11 at 2 p.m.; July 13 at 7:30 p.m.; and July 16 at 2 p.m. Information is available at www.operasaratoga.org.