By Marc Blitzstein
Studio One - Walgreen Drama Center
October 5 - 15, 2006
From our newsletter
The story behind the story is almost as compelling as the story itself when the U-M Department of Theatre & Drama presents Marc Blitzstein’s musical drama The Cradle will Rock.
“It is clear to me,” composer Blitzstein wrote in 1935, “that...Music must have a social as well as artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses.” Shattered by the sudden death of his wife Eva in 1936, and in order to escape his grief, Blitzstein threw himself into his work, beginning composition of a political opera, suggested to him by Brecht some months earlier, which would demonstrate the various ways in which people sell “themselves, their art, their ideals.” In a creative frenzy, The Cradle Will Rock was completed in six weeks.
In 1937 producer John Houseman and a 21-year-old director named Orson Welles decided to produce The Cradle Will Rock for the Federal Theatre Project — part of the Works Progress Administration, President Franklin Roosevelt’s jobs program during the depression. Welles had grand plans for the The Cradle Will Rock, envisioning a visually and technically ambitious production design for the show. His expectations for the actors were no less ambitious. It was not uncommon for Welles to start a rehearsal at 10 AM and keep the actors working until 4 o’clock the next morning.
Meanwhile, the labor movement — after nearly 50 years of struggle — was gaining momentum during the months just before The Cradle Will Rock was scheduled to open. In addition to the steel industry, the labor movement was building support with workers from a number of other industries including the auto workers, miners, farm workers, textile workers, metal workers, and seamen. As the number of volatile confrontations between labor and management increased, Congress blamed the WPA and decided to implement financial cuts to the program.
On June 10, 1937, Flannigan was ordered to cut 10% of the FTP budget and all new shows in New York City were forbidden to open until July 1, effectively canceling the scheduled June 16 opening of Cradle. Welles and Houseman pleaded their case to open as scheduled to no avail - over 14,000 advance tickets had been sold for the run of the show. With the governmental edict, both the Actors’ Equity Union and the Musicians Union imposed restrictions on their members performing. Ironically, unions themselves were undermining a show about unions. Welles and Houseman determined that the show would go on - no matter the consequence.
On opening night, hundreds of ticket-holders showed up outside the padlocked and guarded Maxine Elliott Theatre anticipating a night of musical entertainment. As the actors entertained the crowd, Welles and Houseman desperately telephoned theatres all over the city looking for another location to open the show. Finally, after securing the Venice Theatre, they led the audience on a 20-block march uptown, piano in tow, gathering additional audience members on the way.
As the audience filed into the theatre Blitzstein sat alone, at a piano, on the stage. In the true spirit of “the show must go on…” he began to play and sing the score himself. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, actress Olive Stanton began singing her part from her theatre seat. Her voice trembled at first when the spotlight flashed on her. But as she stood and continued her voice grew stronger and louder. Other actors were inspired to do the same and the entire show was performed by a company sitting in the theatre seats and accompanied by a single piano. When the performance ended there was thunderous applause and a theatre legend was born.
The Cradle Will Rock ran for a further 18 performances at the Venice Theatre. It then re-opened at the Windsor Theatre in January 1938, produced by Sam Grisman, although still without props, and with Blitzstein playing the piano, where it ran for 108 performances.
Welles resigned from the Federal Theatre Project over the controversy and Houseman was fired under a WPA rule which forbade the employment of non-American citizens. Blitzstein went on to compose Regina, The Airborne Symphony, and Reuben Reuben. Blitzstein died on January 22, 1964. Aaron Copland wrote of Blitzstein, “His purpose was not merely to write the words and music of effective theatre pieces; he wanted to shape each piece for his own ends, to shape it for human ends. He took a certain pleasure in needling his audiences, in telling unpleasant truths straight to their faces. To sing these truths only gave them greater poignancy. The moral fervor that fired his work in the depression-haunted ‘Thirties resulted in the writing of The Cradle Will Rock. The opening night of Cradle made history; none of us who were there will ever forget it.”
Photo by Peter Smith Photography
|Music Director||Christian Matjias|
|Choreographer||Melissa Beck Matjias|
|Scenic & Lighting Designer||Gary Decker|
|Costume Designer||Christianne Myers|
Cara Akselrad (Princeton Junction, NJ)
Eric Kahn Gale (West Bloomfield, MI)
Sari Goldberg (New York, NY)
Sara Greenfield (Plymouth, MI)
Brian Holden (Traverse City, MI)
Daniel Kane (Northbrook, IL)
Nick Lang (Franklin, MI)
Frank Maiorana (Sterling Heights, MI),
Kevin McCarthy (Atlanta, GA)
Sharif Nasr (Bay City, MI)
Alexandra Odell (Charlotte, NC)
Zoe Palko (Ludington, MI)
Pat Rourke (Port Huron, MI)
Eric J. Schinzer (Portage, MI)
Rebecca Schwartzstein (Bethesda, MD)
Rachael Soglin (Madison, WI)
Daniel Strauss (Washington, D.C.)
James Wolk (Farmington Hills, MI)
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