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The Cradle still rocks


In all of the history of the theater, there's never been an opening night to match June 16, 1937. That was the night Marc Blitzstein's musical, The Cradle Will Rock, opened in New York--an hour late, and in a theater 20 blocks away from the one originally scheduled.

When it finally began, the performance took place in the aisles and audience area of the theater, and not on stage as originally planned. The elaborate sets, costumes and lights all had been jettisoned. The "show" was illuminated by a single moving spotlight. Instead of the original orchestra and chorus, the composer sat in on the piano, accompanied by a rogue accordionist.

Why? The United States government did everything it legally could to keep the show from opening. It forbade the WPA--the Works Progress Administration--from opening it. It padlocked the Maxine Elliott Theatre. It confiscated--and ultimately destroyed--the sets, costumes and scripts inside.

The government tried to censor The Cradle Will Rock. And it almost succeeded.

But since it didn't, a capacity house of 1,700 people saw the work--albeit in a radically different form--at the Venice Theater. And they spread the word. The Cradle Will Rock ran at the Venice for 17 more performances--and then reopened the following January on Broadway, where it ran through April 1938.

Since the government didn't succeed in closing the show before it opened, American musical theater began to undergo a fundamental change. But since the government tried, American theater experienced a momentous change as well. The Federal Theater Project basically died as a result--and Orson Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Players rose from its ashes.

Now that's a backstage drama.

The University of North Carolina examines this fateful moment in political and theatrical history this week in a new production of--and symposium about--The Cradle Will Rock.

A panel on Tuesday examined the historical context of the work. Tim Robbins' 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock--not a remake of the musical, but a dramatization of the behind-the-scenes political intrigue surrounding opening night--will be screened on Wednesday, Nov. 30. Students and faculty from the Department of Music will perform the songs of Blitzstein, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim in a lunchtime performance Dec. 1 at the Johnson Center for Undergraduate Excellence. And the departments of Dramatic Art and Music will restage the Blitzstein musical in its entirety at Historic Playmakers Theater, Friday, Dec. 2 through Tuesday, Dec. 6.

"The Cradle Will Rock has been called the American equivalent of Weill's Threepenny Opera," notes UNC history professor William Leuchtenburg. "Though I'm not sure it's quite that significant, it clearly opened up new opportunities for folk opera, and started American theater in another direction."

Composer Aaron Copeland called Blitzstein "the first American composer to invent a musical idiom vernacular that sounded convincing when heard from the lips of the man-in-the-street. The taxi driver, the panhandler, the corner druggist were given voice for the first time in the context of serious musical drama ... "This," Copeland concluded, "is no small achievement, for without it, no truly indigenous opera is conceivable."

Leonard Bernstein similarly termed Blitzstein "a forerunner of American opera."

The work is social commentary, obviously writ large. In the depths of the Dirty Thirties, Moll, a young woman forced to sell herself on the streets of Steeltown, winds up in the same holding tank at the police station as the high-class members of a "Liberty Committee" protesting a union meeting downtown. Their names indicate their occupations: Reverend Salvation, Editor Daily, self-serving artist Dauber (a painter, what else?), and President Prexy, who heads the local university.

Moll's impressed by the crew, until Harry Druggist, a former pharmacist and now a vagrant, tells her they're in prison for the same crime she's been charged with. All of them have prostituted their talents to the ruling class: "They won't buy our milk white bodies / so we kinda sell out in some other way / to Mr. Mister," the big boss of Steeltown.

The terms of the sellouts are detailed in a series of broad flashbacks accompanied by satires on a number of musical conventions of Blitzstein's day. One song, "Croon," is a slam on the opiate of popular entertainment--and the music of Bing Crosby in particular, according to Dr. Donald Madison, a lecturer on the history of American musical theater.

At the end of the work, Larry Foreman, a union organizer that the Liberty Committee has rallied against, is captured and put in the same jail cell. When Mr. Mister himself comes down to bail his operatives out, the two confront each other, just before steel unions successfully organize and march on the police station.

"It's an artifact of the Old Left and the 1930s," Madison notes. "It celebrates the 'Strike of Little Steel,' an actual historical event. It's 'out there' like Brecht was 'out there.' And Brecht inspired the work. When he heard Blitzstein perform 'Nickel Under the Foot,' that a prostitute sings, Brecht said 'Now do one about the prostitution of the church, the press, the universities.'"

"That got Blitzstein to do the work," Madison says.

Co-director Julie Fishell first saw John Houseman's Acting Company revive the work in Chautauqua, New York. "It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced."

"But we faced a dilemma," Fishell says. "We didn't want it to be a 'museum piece.' And we couldn't pull it out of the 1930s, since it very much belongs to the history of that time."

The solution she and co-director Terry Rhodes, of the Department of Music came up with? Staging the work framed by newsreels and moving images from the period. In the UNC production, Blitzstein--performed here by distinguished professor and pianist Thomas Warburton--comes out of a movie to see the real-life versions of Moll and Harry. He's moved by their plight--and the state of the world they suffer in. Blitzstein then goes home--where he begins to write the musical where their characters appear. The production goes from there.

Is the 1930s musical still relevant to a contemporary audience? Patrick Massey, a sophomore from Black Mountain who plays the druggist, says yes. "Money still rules the world. Those who have it are the rulers of today. The middle class is disappearing. Media like Fox News are so conservative. The churches are splitting--and then there are these 'faith-based initiatives.' With all these things going on, if people don't see the things these have in common, they're just not looking."

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