Back To Blitzstein, Political Roots Of Cradle Will Rock

Photo by Federal Theatre Project (FTP) – Library of Congress Hope for America Exhibit Collection. Public Domain.
 By Paul E. Robinson

Marc Blitzstein: The Cradle Will Rock. Christopher Burchett (Larry Foreman); Ginger Costa-Jackson (The Moll); Audrey Babcock (Mrs. Mister); Matt Boehler (Mr. Mister); Dylan Elza (Cop); Keith Jameson (Harry Druggist). Opera Saratoga Orchestra, John Mauceri (conductor).

Bridge BCD 9511 (2 CDs), 2018. Total Time: 111:26.

DIGITAL REVIEW – It was 1937, and the Great Depression was still plaguing the United States. Unemployment was soaring above 30 percent. Banks were failing. Adding to the misery, a drought in the Midwest was creating a dust bowl that made farming almost impossible in many areas.

Fortunately, in the face of all these catastrophic developments, President Roosevelt’s New Deal, devised to alleviate the consequences of the Great Depression, was beginning to have a positive effect.

Marc Blitzstein in New York City (January 3, 1938). Photo by Alfredo Valente

Among the New Deal measures taken to reduce unemployment were jobs programs, including the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), designed for artists, actors, writers, and musicians. The opening night of one of these FTP productions, The Cradle Will Rock, a highly political music theater piece with words and music by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), turned out to be one of the seminal moments in the history of the American musical theater. Political pressure nearly derailed the project altogether, and the final production bore little resemblance to what Blitzstein and his colleagues had in mind. Now, more than 82 years later, with this new Bridge release, we are finally hearing a recording of the original orchestration.

An attack on capitalism and its tight grip on all aspects of American life, The Cradle Will Rock was clearly a challenge to the political establishment of its time. The text is on the side of the working man and his struggle to combat oppression by the ruling class. The plot is a somewhat simplistic “them and us” scenario, in which the steel workers, led by a character named Larry Foreman, are trying to unionize, and the company owners and their supporters, led by Mr. Mister, are doing everything they can to suppress them. The Liberty Committee, comprised of affluent political conservatives, uses patriotic and law-and-order memes to make its case against unionization. The title of Blitzstein’s work, revealed in the final scene, refers to the impending collapse of the capitalist system: “And when the wind blows, the cradle will rock! When the storm breaks, the cradle will fall!”

Conductor John Mauceri

Conductor John Mauceri accurately describes The Cradle Will Rock as “a masterpiece of political activism disguised as entertainment.” He also notes that, when the show was produced by the New York City Opera in 1960, some critics thought the plot old-fashioned and dated. But in 2018, nearly two years into the Trump administration, the plot about “a rich man and his family taking over and corrupting every aspect of society” seems strikingly relevant.

Musically, The Cradle Will Rock is heavily influenced by Kurt Weill, and more specifically, by the 1928 Weill-Bertolt Brecht collaboration, Der Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Blitzstein was so enamored of this work that he did a translation of Brecht’s text that has been the standard English language version ever since.

The details of the truncated 1937 premiere of The Cradle Will Rock are recounted in vivid detail by Blitzstein on a recording included as an extra track on this new CD release. Blitzstein reminds us that it was the 21-year-old Orson Welles who was the driving force behind this production and that it was Welles who rallied the cast and crew to go ahead with the premiere, even after they were forced out of their theatre and deprived of their sets and costumes. The premiere eventually took place at another theatre, with the composer playing the score on the piano and cast members playing their roles from seats in the audience.

In this Bernstein 100th anniversary year – Bernstein was one of Blitzstein’s closest friends and a great champion of the work – it is appropriate that a recording of this important score has finally been made available. When he was still a Harvard student, Bernstein gave the Boston premiere of The Cradle Will Rock in 1939, conducting from the piano – and from memory! In 1947, he conducted the first orchestral performance in concert with the New York City Symphony.

This recording is based on live performances given in 2017 by Opera Saratoga, with Mauceri, Bernstein’s protégé, on the podium. Blitzstein’s original orchestration calls for 24 players and includes accordion, saxophones, acoustic guitar and Hawaiian guitar, and a wide variety of percussion instruments. With its basic rhythms and melodies, it is easy for a general audience to understand. Although some of the harmonies are slightly acerbic and the sound of the orchestra is original and affecting, at no time are the vocal lines ambitious enough to be called “operatic.”

Bridge Records is to be applauded for finally documenting Blitzstein’s original orchestration, and for giving us a live performance featuring first-rate singers and musicians. Mauceri holds everything together with his usual aplomb, even contributing a few lines in the role of a Clerk in the courtroom scenes. Ginger Costa-Jackson’s rendition of “It was Tuesday last week” is particularly moving, as is the clever but mournful scene featuring Nina Spinner as Ella Hammer confronting the corrupt Dr. Specialist.

That said, I do question the acting style. While the characters in Blitzstein’s play are clearly stereotypes, lines are too often delivered a little too broadly, as if to make sure the audience gets the point. There is no doubt that in this kind of political theater, it is difficult to find the right tone; played too straight, it runs the risk of becoming mere leftist propaganda, and played for laughs, it is apt to seem dated and silly.

Finally, I would note that the balances on this recording are disappointing, with the orchestra often drowning out the voices. Given that Blitzstein’s text is one of the piece’s greatest assets – this is, after all, musical theatre, not opera – one should not have to strain to understand the words. Clearly, this is the fault of the engineers, not the conductor.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for (formerly