Marc Blitzstein’s ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ now recorded with full orchestra
Eric A. Gordon/PW

Ten years after its first outing on Broadway in a stripped-down piano accompaniment-only version, Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era musical theatre work The Cradle Will Rock finally achieved what the composer-librettist had always imagined: A fully orchestrated staged production.

It was November 1947 and Leonard Bernstein conducted two non-theatrical performances of the workers’ opera with his New York City Symphony at its home, the 55th Street City Center. Among the stellar cast were Howard da Silva (the original union organizer, Larry Foreman), Will Geer (the original Mr. Mister), Jack Albertson, Chandler Cowles, David Thomas, Jo Hurt, and Shirley Booth. The role of Ella Hammer, who sings the anthem “Joe Worker,” was the splendid African-American Muriel Smith.

Before those performances Blitzstein (1905-1964) published a brief history of the opera and a reflection on it for the Herald Tribune, in which he said he was content to leave it as a “period piece” “without those last-minute emendations or up-to-datenesses which would make it true of neither then nor now.”

The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft–Hartley Act, was enacted the previous June as a federal law that restricts the activities and power of labor unions and for good measure also clamped down on Communists. That law is still in effect. In 1947 Blitzstein was still (until 1949) a Communist Party member. He continued in the next sentence of his Herald Tribune article:

“It is a grim and rather bitter thing to reflect that, doing a ‘period piece,’ you discover you are still in the middle of the period.”

Those performances led to a fully staged production at the Mansfield Theatre that opened the night after Christmas, starring Alfred Drake (of Oklahoma! fame) as the union organizer and Vivian Vance (yes, the later Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy) as Mrs. Mister. Commercially, the show lost money and closed within a few weeks.

It’s a shame that orchestral version was not recorded. With only one other major exception, Cradle was known to audiences only in its piano reduction. Over time audiences forgot that Blitzstein’s original orchestration ever existed. The exception was a 1960 New York City Opera production of the work in an all-American opera season, which featured Howard da Silva as director, and Tammy Grimes as the Moll, alongside the rest of the cast mostly drawn from the opera company. From the NYCO staging a crude documental recording, never intended to be released to the public, slowly crept out and privately became known to Blitzstein aficionados, though the loud footsteps and poor miking made even that rare performance artifact a chore to listen to.

Over the years since the 1937 debut of the show, no fewer than four commercial recordings have been made—rather impressive for a “period” piece and quite a few more than many Broadway shows of its era ever achieved—but all of them with solo piano accompaniment.

And now at last, a professional recording with Blitzstein’s original orchestration has appeared. It’s the 2017 Opera Saratoga production, recorded live (with some laughter and applause, but clearly professionally edited), conducted by one of the composer’s champions, John Mauceri (he also recorded Regina), who was himself a protégé of Bernstein. If the show itself is a landmark in American music and theatre, perhaps the apotheosis of proletarian culture of the 1930s, this new release marks a milestone in recorded Broadway history.

The two-CD set comes handsomely packaged with a booklet containing the complete text, making it easy for listeners to follow along. Disc 2 also contains an almost 14-minute-long narration by Blitzstein himself, taken from a 1956 Spoken Arts LP featuring a few of the composer’s hit numbers from Cradle, No for an Answer and Regina and his elegant spoken commentary. The booklet contains short essays by Mauceri centering Cradle in the arc of the American musical, and by Howard Pollock, Blitzstein’s second biographer (after yours truly).

Astute listeners will discern the many coloristic shades Blitzstein intended in his music once they hear violins, brass, reeds (including saxophones), percussion, accordion, guitar and Hawaiian guitar. Many of these musical nuances to the words simply cannot be expressed by the piano alone. The Moll’s opening scene, “I’m checkin’ home now, call it a night,” is bathed in a soft orchestral moonlight. The Liberty Committee, comprising a hand-picked crowd of Mr. Mister’s most loyal sycophants, has an identifiably tin-pot accompaniment in the pit. As the rhythms heat up more insistently, Blitzstein’s indebtedness to Kurt Weill, especially his Threepenny Opera, and also to the radical Berlin cabaret style and the Communist composer Hanns Eisler, become more audible. All the way through, Blitzstein’s stylistic gestures with the orchestra that would be evident in the 1941 score to the film Native Land, the post-war Airborne Symphony and the opera Regina, are already apparent.

Lawrence Edelson, artistic and general director of Opera Saratoga, and director and choreographer of The Cradle Will Rock, chose a fine selection of singers for this work that he clearly deems worthy of the opera house. The main characters have extraordinary international credits; I have encountered some of them myself in my operatic wanderings in recent years. For example, the Moll is sung by Ginger Costa-Jackson, who recently appeared as Maddalena, another “working lady,” in L.A. Opera’s Rigoletto. The corrupt Rev. Salvation, who from year to year changes his World War I sermons according to the change Mrs. Mister places in his pocket, is sung by Justin Hopkins, the stunning lead Stephen Kumalo in last year’s Lost in the Stars by Kurt Weill in L.A. We also hear Audrey Babcock as Mrs. Mister; she sang the chilling role of the Secretary in Menotti’s The Consul with Long Beach Opera last October, shortly after her Saratoga outing. Many other roles in the 27-member cast are filled out by members of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program.

If following the Brecht-Weill principle of Misuk (basically putting music at the service of text) translated for Blitzstein often as casting actors who could sing, this somewhat more operatic rendition casts singers who can act. At the same time, this is a score deriving from popular music (Broadway and some jazz), so the singers are careful not to sound hooty and pretentious—unless, of course, like Mrs. Mister, they are hooty and pretentious. Even in the crowded ensemble scenes it is possible to discern and understand every word of the libretto thanks to close miking and superb articulation.

An appeal for unity against domestic fascism

The Cradle Will Rock is the story—both text and music by Blitzstein—of a CIO-type union organizing drive in Steeltown, USA, owned by Mr. Mister and his cabal of admirers in the Liberty Committee. Steeltown and the Liberty Committee were examples of the kind of corporate fascism that put up such deeply moneyed resistance to FDR’s New Deal reforms. The composer had initially written a short scene for the Moll including her song “Nickel Under the Foot” (in my opinion, along with “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” among the most emblematic tunes of the Great Depression), sung here slower and more world-weary than I’ve ever heard. On a 1935 visit to America, Bertolt Brecht attended a performance of that scene and suggested that Blitzstein might expand it to encompass all the professions that have prostituted themselves out to Big Capital. Blitzstein dedicated the 1936 score to Brecht.

In Rev. Salvation’s words, “The Liberty Committee has been formed by us to combat socialism, radicalism, communism, and especially unionism. And to uphold the Constitution.” Others of its members, in the arts, medicine, education, the courts, the press, the military, all similarly sell themselves out to Mr. Mister. I’m convinced Donald Trump studied the composition of the Liberty Committee when he set about choosing his Cabinet whores—I mean, secretaries. It seems we’re “still in the middle of the period”—keeping this work ever timely and prescient.

John Mauceri recalls the first cast and orchestra run-through at Saratoga: “Without a single updated text change, and maintaining the story in the late 1930s, we all knew this tale of nepotism, bribery, violence, prostitution on every level, fear of change, the manipulation of news, the suspicion of immigrants, and the buying and selling of the middle-class, were not things of the past. All we had to do was perform it as it was written.”

Perhaps the single greatest achievement in Cradle is that for the first time in American music the real vernacular sound of American speech was rendered faithfully—from the hoity-toity uppah clahss to educated professionals to shopkeepers to reporters to cops on the beat, to prostitutes on street corners, to drunks to union organizers (from the perspective of the Liberty Committee that is running the gamut from top to rock bottom!). Blitzstein found an authentic singing voice for each of them, without homogenizing them all into a fake-sounding “librettoese” which of course no one speaks. Even when his characters speak words without music, he gives them specific rhythms that will match the music just heard or about to be heard. Few composers or lyricists have ever come close to Blitzstein’s genius in that respect.

One of the most memorable numbers in Cradle is the organizer Larry Foreman’s (Christopher Burchett) “Leaflets” speech, a musicated recitation over a crawling noir accompaniment as he describes how he was arrested for inciting to riot by making a pro-union speech:

“Ain’t you ever seen my act?
Well, I’m creepin’ along in the dark;
My eyes is crafty, my pockets is bulging!
I’m loaded, armed to the teeth—with leaflets.
And am I quick on the draw!
I come up to you…very slow…very snaky;
And with one fell gesture—
I tuck a leaflet in your hand.
And then, one, two three—
There’s a riot. You’re the riot.
I incited you…I’m terrific, I am!”

The final ensemble, when the steelworker units (of the AFL type)—the boilermakers, the roughers, the rollers—vote to form one big union (of the CIO type) is nothing short of thrilling in the full orchestra version. The masses taunt all the Mr. Misters of the world with their newfound power:

“That’s thunder, that’s lightning,
And it’s going to surround you!
No wonder those stormbirds
Seem to circle around you.
Well, you can’t climb down, and you can’t sit still;
That’s a storm that’s going to last until
The final wind blows…and when the wind blows…
The cradle will rock!”

More about the Opera Saratoga production and the recording can be found here.

Marc Blitzstein
The Cradle Will Rock
Opera Saratoga, John Mauceri, conductor
Bridge Records 9511 A/B
Purchase from Bridge Records.
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CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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