The Cradle Will Rock
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 15, 2010
In 1937, in the middle of the Great Depression, composer-lyricist-librettist Marc Blitzstein wrote a musical called The Cradle Will Rock that was pretty much explicitly built to be incendiary and a call to action. Cradle was the high(ish)-brow cousin to Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty: an expose of the evils of capitalism and a justification for unionization and the end of the open shop.
The hero of The Cradle Will Rock is a labor organizer named Larry Foreman; his nemesis is a powerful and wealthy industrialist named Mr. Mister, who owns the mills in Steeltown, USA and therefore controls the means of production. Mr. Mister has recently put together a "Liberty Committee" comprised of important citizens of Steeltown who are in his pocket, bought and paid for in various ways: Dr. Specialist (representing the world of science and medicine), President Prexy of the local college, Editor Daily of the city newspaper, Reverend Salvation (representing the church), and, from the arts, the painter Dauber and the violinist Yasha. (It's fascinating to me that Blitzstein didn't put a lawyer or a politician on the Liberty Committee; I think he surely would have if he wrote Cradle today.)
The play unfolds in night court, where the members of the Liberty Committee have mistakenly been brought following a riot outside a union hall where Larry Foreman has given a speech. In a succession of flashbacks, we meet each of the committee members and learn how they got bought off by Mr. Mister—Harry Druggist, an independent store owner who lost his shop and much more at the hands of Mr. Mister, explains to a young hooker named Moll who is also in night court that they rather than she are the whores who deserve to be locked up. Eventually Foreman shows up and the conflict bursts wide open. Foreman sings:
You can't stop the weather, not with all your dough!
For when the winds blows... Oh when the wind blows...
The cradle will rock!
The emotional peak of the show comes soon after. Ella Hammer, the sister of a millworker who was badly hurt in an "accident" after he was discovered to be a union organizer, confronts Dr. Specialist, who is being ordered by Mr. Mister to lie about what happened. She sings:
How many fakers, peace undertakers,
How many toiling, ailing, dying, piled-up bodies,
Brother, does it take to make you wise?
The Cradle Will Rock may be the least subtle musical ever written; even Threepenny Opera, its clear antecedent thematically and stylistically, ranges over much more ground beyond its attack on capitalism and pauses every so often for the odd bit of humor or vulgarity. Not so Cradle: Blitzstein has a message and he conveys it with clarity and passion. As it reached its thrilling conclusion, I thought: do none of the all--too-similar problems facing our country in 2010 resonate so strongly with contemporary composers and playwrights to move them to write something as direct and heartfelt and, yes, rabble-rousing as this?
Theater Ten Ten's revival of Cradle, directed by David Fuller, is stirring, evocative, and brilliantly conceived. It's staged with wondrous simplicity on the plain tile floor of their church basement space (as opposed to the proscenium stage they usually utilize); with the audience seated on three sides of the playing area, the excellent musical director Eric Thomas Johnson seated at a keyboard just a foot or two away from one lucky audience member, and with actors entering and exiting from every available form of egress in the room, it feels like we're at one of those very meetings Larry Foreman gets in trouble for organizing in the story. Production values are limited to period costumes (by Viviane Galloway) and an exquisite stark lighting scheme (by Zack Brown) that lets you stare into the shadows cast onto the floor by the more nefarious of the play's characters.
The music drives this near-operatic piece, and the choreography by Judith Jarosz compliments Fuller's taut, persuasive staging. A cast of 19 has been assembled to portray the story's many characters; they are a fine and forceful ensemble, with particularly memorable work delivered by the two antagonists Josh Powell (as Foreman) and Bill Newhall (as Mr. Mister). Damron Russel Armstrong (Reverend Salvation), Dan Hermann (Dr. Specialist), and Bellavia Mauro (Moll) are also standouts.
There's not an ounce of irony or cynicism in this play, and that feels awfully good in 2010, a time when far too much of the theatre I see simply leaves me drained and depressed. No, this time I left the theatre feeling energized and ready to change the world again, to which purpose I urge any and all reading this to pay The Cradle Will Rock a visit and let its surprising and jolting innocent fervor move you to action!