Book, Music & Lyrics by Marc Blitzstein

INFO:

Opened at the Venice Theater    June 16, 1937    108 performances (The story of its opening light is legendary, and I’ll share it below.)
Original Director: Orson Welles
Original Producer: John Houseman, for the Federal Theater Project, part of the WPA.
Original Leads: Howard da Silva, Will Geer, Olive Stanton, others
Cast Size: Male: 10    Female: 5    Ensemble: Many double as leads. Maybe another 6-10    Total Cast Size: Anywhere from about 15 on up.
Orchestra: 1, a pianist. (Blitzstein created orchestrations, but they are rarely used, as you’ll see.)
Published Script: None
Production Rights: European American Music Corporation
Recordings: There are at least five recordings. I love the 1964 recording with Jerry Orbach, from MGM.
Film: the 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, Directed by Tim Robbins, shows a lot of the show, and how it originally was produced. Very worth while, a great film about doing a great musical!
Other shows by the authors: The Threepenny Opera (English translation), Regina

There’s a terrific site dedicated to this show.  Take a look!

And here’s a thorough telling about the famous opening night.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

This is a truly funny show so long as the comedy is emphasized and the politics are allowed to simply present themselves without emphasis. If a Director elects to push the political end of the show, you can be pretty sure it will stop being funny and start being almost entirely political. I think that’s a way to guarantee the show’s failure as entertainment, the first responsibility of any show.

The Cradle Will Rock is not quite sung through (like opera, where everything is sung), but pretty close. But the singing required is almost all very character driven, making the acting at least as important as the singing. That said, the score, now virtually always performed as it was that opening night, with only a piano accompaniment, is fantastically clever and often beautiful. It moves quickly, and never for a moment ceases to entertain.

But the show is overtly political. Blitzstein was influenced by the German musicals of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (whose compositional sensibilities are VERY similar to this show), and Brecht and Weill encouraged Blitzstein to write this show about American unions vs. big business. (Weill and Blitstein even shared the same birthday, March 2, if five years apart!) This was a timely topic during the depressions, and if anything, seems more timely today. (Only unions are also big business, now, something Blitzstein would have hated.) The show is absolutely not dated. An audience today should be able to perfectly understand what’s happening.

Who should do this show? Theaters interested in a wonderful musical with really fun roles to play. Theaters interested in contemporary issues, who believe that the theater is a good place to discuss such issues. The show is on the small size for a musical, and can be done very inexpensively. The orchestra is just one very good pianist. The singing should be competent, but does not need to be amazing. In short, there are few companies that could not do this show. If you can do any kind of a musical, you can probably do this one. It would be a perfect fit for theaters with smaller stages, no wings or flies, no orchestra pit. (The show can be presented using Brecht’s approach to theater, which I’ll discuss below, and covered as well in the chapter on The Threepenny Opera.) Of course, you can always do a larger production on a big stage, too. Unlike say You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown or The Fantasticks, The Cradle Will Rock is elastic and can easily be made to fill larger theaters as well as small ones.

So, it’s inexpensive, easy to cast, and on the small side. Plus it packs an entertainment punch. How could you go wrong? Public schools should avoid it probably, it’s too political. But it’s certainly appropriate for Little Theaters, colleges, dinner theaters who are not afraid of political subject matter, summer stock, off-Broadway, semi-pro and professional productions.

Be Warned:

Here’s how you might go wrong. If your audience is, let’s say, pro ”big business right or wrong”, they may not care for the message of this show. (And more shame to them if that is so.) if your donors are corporate, this may not be a wise show to present. Also, there are no children in the show, all the characters are adult. And the subject matter is far more adult than most musicals, including prostitution (we don’t see anything at all), hypocritical priests and members of the press, and the like. This show is a brutal comic satire of American capitalism, and seems as germane today as in the late 1930s. If that isn’t your cup of tea, do something else.

Also, there are people who do feel the feel or “tone” of the show is dated, that it’s too strident and “preachy” for a modern audience. I could not disagree more, and I feel that a good Director will unde4rstand that he’s going to need to get the comedy right, that there are softer moments in the show that will need to move an audience (such as Sadie and Gus), and that these elements will soften the stridency of the show and make it easy for a modern audience to “have” the show.

THE STORY:

There is no act break indicated in the show. It is written in ten scenes. Scenes are introduced by an actor or actress announcing the name of the new scene.

We are in Steeltown, a fictional township in the United States, in 1937. A Prostitute, Moll, practices her trade on the street, and a masher tries to take advantage of her. (“Moll’s Song”) A cop “rescues” her and then tries to take advantage of her, when he’s interrupted. There’s a problem – the members of an organization called “The Liberty Committee” have been arrested instead of a bunch of people striking in favor of unionization, the intended victims of the police. Moll is arrested and hurried downtown. In Night Court, the “best” people in town demand their release, and insist there’s been a mistake. Watched by a perennial prisoner in jail, Harry Druggist, and Moll, the Druggist implies that at last the right people are being arrested. He explains to Moll that Mr. Mister, the owner of the steel company and everything else in town, is behind the committee, and that every member is a kind of prostitute, just like her. In fact, she’s an amateur compare to these men. Harry leads us through the history of the committee, all the while insisting he is himself as guilty as anyone.

In Church, the Reverend Salvation delivers several sermons, directed each time by Mrs. Mister. He starts out opposed to war (because that’s good for business), and ends up rabidly in favor (because Mr. Mister insists it’s now good for his business.) He is placed on the Liberty Committee.

In the Mister household, Mr. and Mrs. Mister’s two incredibly stupid and obnoxiously spoiled children, Junior Mister and Sister Mister, chase each other about the mansion, and the implication is that they may be a bit closer than is acceptable. (“Croon Spoon”) In the meantime, Mr. Mister instructs Editor Daily, whose newspaper the wealthy man has just purchased, to smear a man named Larry Foreman, who is organizing the strikers in Mister’s company to form a union. As first the Editor resists, but when he sees that his career is on the line, he complies. (“The Freedom Of The Press”) Mr. Mister wants to get Junior out of the way – he can be an embarrassment. Editor Daily agrees to hire him as a special correspondent, and convinces the venal, self-involved young man to take the job and head off to “Honolulu.” We see Mr. Mister’s method of manipulation, forceful, cold, inhuman. Daily is placed on the Liberty Committee.

Harry Druggist now explains why he also belongs in jail. He had a drugstore which he ran with his son, Stevie. But money was always an issue, and Mr. Mister owned the building. Thugs from Mr. Mister pay him a visit one day, and warn him that there will soon be a big explosion outside his store, which will kill a local Polish man and his wife, and that when it happens, Harry should say that Gus, the polish man, caused the explosion. In this way, Mr. Mister gets rid of another union organizer. Gus and his wife Sadie show up as they do each day, and have sodas and dream about the future. (“Love Song”) They step outside, about to be killed. But Stevie has overheard everything and runs after them, shouting. He is also killed in the blast. Now, Harry Druggist has lost his business, is a drunk, and ends up in jail several times a week. (Note – IF you want an Intermission, this might be the place. But the show is short enough to do without one.)

Two men, one a painter (Dauber), the other a musician (Yasha) wait for the same woman, much to their horror…their patron, Mrs. Mister. (“The Rich”) Embarrassingly self-involved, the two men nonetheless despise the rich and their plebeian understandings of the world. But an artist must eat. Mrs. Mister arrives in her fantastic car and they nearly drool over her until she invites them for the weekend. (“Art for Art’s Sake”) She insists that they join the Liberty Committee.

In Night Court, Moll expresses the life most people were living at the time the show was written, one of desperate poverty, and the dream that one might stumble on a nickel and actually get to eat some food. (“The Nickel Under Your Foot”) It is then that Larry Foreman is finally caught and brought into court. Moll wants to know why he’s been arrested, and he explains that he’s very dangerous. He prints and passes out “Leaflets,” and then people riot! She does not understand,so he explains why so many workers are determined to form a union, to protect themselves from the Mr. Misters of the world. (“The Cradle Will Rock”) He insists that their time is coming.

Mr. Mister visits the head of the local college, President Prexy, looking for a speaker to con…er, talk young men into joining the military. Three “professors” are trotted out. The first is far too wordy and intellectual. The second is (gasp!) a Communist! (He’s fired on the spot.) The third, the football coach who also teaches elementary French, is perfect in his gut appeal, shouting to the boys to “Be a man!” They are placed on the Liberty Committee. Then, Mr. Mister pays a visit to his doctor, Doctor Specialist. He insists that he is ill, but the Doctor (more than a bit of a quack) laugh him off. The Doctor has been placed as the head of the Liberty Committee. We realize that everyone we’ve seen so positioned is now in the group that is held in Night Court. They are paid a visit by Ella, a man named Joe Worker’s sister. Joe recently died in an “accident” in one of Mr. Mister’s factories. She wants the doctor to tell the truth about Joe, that he was murdered for his support of unionization by Mr’s thugs. (“Joe Worker”) Mr. Mister threatens the doctor in private, and then slips out the back door. Confronted by the press, the doctor states that Joe was drunk (a complete fabrication), and hence, caused his own death.

In Night Court, Mr. Mister shows up. He’s been given the authority of the local judge, his brother-in-law, and frees everyone. He tries to con Foreman into coming over to his side, and claims that he means to do right by his employees, even building them a library and a park. Foreman says all they want is a union. Mr. Mister offers Foreman a huge bribe, and for a moment, it appears he might get our hero to turn. But the man laughs and then attacks verbally Mr. Mister and his entire class, even as he hears the sounds of thousands of people drawing near -the workers, who have agreed to form their union.

THE SONGS: Moll’s Song, Oh What A Filthy Night Court, The Sermon, Croon Spoon, The Freedom Of The Press, Let’s Do Something, Honolulu, Drugstore, Summer Weather, Love Duet, The Rich, Ask Us Again, Art For Art’s Sake, The Nickel Under Your Foot, The Cradle Will Rock, Joe Worker

Hits include The Nickel Under Your Foot

MY OPINIONS:

As always, feel free to skip or ignore my opinions and rating.  However if you do and the cradle rocks a bit too much and baby falls, well, not my problem.

This is one of my favorite shows. The score never ceases to amaze, it is endlessly entertaining and rich, a compendium of twentieth century musical modes. The lyrics are just about as clever as any that have played Broadway, and the story works well if a bit simplistically. This is a well-constructed and very effective evening of theater that I believe will thoroughly entertain audiences for a long time to come.

That said, this is less a “Musical COMEDY” and more of a “Musical SATIRE.” To define the difference, you might compare it to The Pajama Game, a charming show authored about 20 years later and also involving unions. Pajama Game focuses on a love story, and the union material is a backdrop, incidental to the musical tale. It is not a show with politics on its mind particularly, and it makes no effort to skewer or make the audience consider any social convention more involved than the congress of birds and the bees. The Cradle Will Rock has no developing love story, and is entirely intended to make us consider the civilization we are a part of. It attacks many institutions, using laughter as it’s primary weapon, along with an amazing amount of wonderful music. Among its targets are religion, big business, artists, and the police state. I like both shows for different reasons, just as their authors intended.

The story behind the opening night of this show is almost as wonderful as the show itself, and is entertainingly presented in Tim Robbin’s 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock. I highly recommend it. It is one of the two best films ever made about what happens during the creating of a musical, the other being Topsy Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan authoring The Mikado. If you are not in love with Musical Theater, see these two films and you’ll find, therein, the cure for your illness.

In brief, the show was first produced by the WPA during the Depression, directed by none other than Orson Welles, and produced by John Houseman! (If you don’t know who these men are, you need to improve upon your education where theater is concerned. The success of this production led to the two men forming the historic Mercury Theater, which led to such triumphs as the first modern-dress Shakespeare on Broadway, and perhaps the most influential of all movies, Citizen Kane.) But given the subject matter, there were objections, and the government closed the fully rehearsed show down on opening night. Not to be deterred, Welles and Houseman found a theater available many blocks away and marched the audience there, along with Marc Blitzstein, the author. It was thought that at least, he could “perform” the show from a piano rolled onto the stage, because (curiously enough) Blitzstein did not belong to any union he could violate the rules of, whereas the actors and musicians in the show did. Blitzstein sat down and began to play…and the first actress with a line in the show, Olive Stanton, stood up in the seats (as she could not be on stage without violating union rules) and started to courageously perform her role. Other actors followed suit, while Blitzstein accompanied alone on the piano. The night is a legend in American theater history, and a triumph for the theatrical community everywhere.

There is a thing that we like to believe developed in the 1960s, called “agitprop theater.” This means “agitation propaganda,” theater that is meant to move an audience to political action of some sort, and it was often associated at that time with Communism. We did not, however, invent it. It’s as old as the hills. Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata, is agitprop theater, and it is about 2,500 years old. There are simply too many historic examples of agitprop to list them here, but one need go no further than George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht’s works to find the 20th century peppered with politically charged evenings of theater. Why anyone would think or believe that the theater should be politically neutral when no one else does so is a mystery to me. Theater should, and in fact it must be able to reflect modern culture in all its rich and varied interests. Such is the raw material of most art. And so the theater has always done.

Accordingly, The Cradle Will Rock belongs to an ancient tradition of this sort of entertainment… meant to entertain AND make you think about how things are. I think the musical does that reasonably well, even it is is a bit heavy-handed and can, in the wrong hands, lapse into almost a cartoon. Emphasizing the politics in the show is to enforce its worst trait, and that is the heavy-handed or preachy quality it can sometime assume. You would be well-advised to allow that to exist, but in your directorial approach to really focus your attention o0n comedy, character drama, and theatrical effects.

Mostly, though, I would consider doing this show because I think it’s just so much fun! Every character is a riot. They all have their moment in the sun. The bad guys, on whom the show focuses, are the funniest characters in the piece. I can’t imagine a cast not flipping over the show. I can’t imagine an ungrateful audience, so long as you place a premium on the entertaining values of the show.

MY RATING: ** (An excellent show, well worth considering.)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:
The music is complex, and you will need a very fine pianist to execute it. The good news-that’s all you’ll need, unless you do what perhaps one production in a thousand does, and either use Blitzstein’s orchestration (which was not ever used in the original production), or someone else’s. The recorded scores I’ve heard of The Cradle Will Rock used piano, and they are terrific.

As described, most of the casting should revolve around getting strong actors who have a decent voice and can carry a tune. There is little harmonizing or difficult vocalize in the score. But the music can get a bit complicated and your Music Director is going to need to be quite skilled at teaching non-musicians. It isn’t a simple score, just one that is relatively easy to sing in terms of ranges and vocal demands. Particularly, rhythms and timing are a workout.

In casting, try to secure a good alto with a belt for Moll, as she has probably more singing than anyone. You’ll need another strong alto for Ella Worker, who sings “Joe Worker,” a piece that should be well-belted and executed with fire. Larry Foreman calls for a strong lyric baritone, but strong in volume and pitch. You do NOT want a “trained” voice, like an opera singer. The acting comes first with Foreman, as it does with nearly all the characters. Mr. Mister needs to carry a tune well, he has a lot of singing, as does Mrs. Mister, though these should definitely be character voices. Sister Mister and Junior Mister must sing moderately well (or loudly and in pitch), be able to spit out a lyric clearly, and be intensely obnoxious.

You can (and should) cast pleasant and even trained, professional theater voices in Reverend Salvation (tenor), Dauber and Yasha (the artists, perhaps a tenor and lyric baritone), and Editor Daily (lyric baritone). But don’t skimp on the acting!

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:
You won’t need a choreographer, most likely, this is the farthest thing from a dance show. Whatever faux-dance you choose to place, the Director and cast should be able to come up with what’s needed. There are no dance numbers at all. So movement is not a casting concern.

CASTING CONCERNS:
See dance and vocal, above.  Cast can and should be multi-racial.

Moll -20s, attractive, worldly but with a sense of vulnerability.

Mr. Mister – 40s-60s, aggressive, threatening, potentially violent, capable of abrupt and unexplained changes in mood. Accustomed to buying what he wants, and intolerant of opposition. Even when he appears “fatherly,” as he sometimes does with his kids, he is playing out machinations in his mind.

SETS:
This show could easily be played on a bare stage, with a neutral backdrop. Each of the ten scenes could be set up physically with just a few props like chairs and the like. The first is a street corner, so use a street lamp that can be carried off by cast members. Night court – a judge behind a simple podium, perhaps a railing behind which various prisoners wait to be hears. This might be your permanent “set”, implying that the world is being tried. Mr. Mister’s house can be implied with some potted plants rolled on and off. The drugstore – use the same railing and place the druggist behind it, since he feels he is always on trial, anyway.

You get the idea. This is a show best left largely to the audience’s imagination, like The Fantasticks. That’s good news for a Director and Producer. It keeps expenses very low. The Director should stage the entrances and exits of these minor set pieces into the flow of the play, so the action never stops for a change.

Blitzstein borrowed heavily from the Brechtian approach to theater in writing The Cradle Will Rock. Actors introduce each of the ten scenes in this show by announcing the scene’s title. This gives us, in each case, the location we’re in, facilitating a bare stage, nearly Shakespearean approach to the settings, while at the same time demanding the audience’s participation. I would use this approach as Blitzstein is asking you to, anyway. To get a better idea of Brecht’s ideas, read the chapter in this book on The Threepenny Opera. You will find useful ideas there for The Cradle Will Rock.

One thought. A recent production used a backdrop with a political statement written large upon it. This would immediately place the emphasis on the political aspects of the show, and as I’ve mentioned above, unless that is your absolute intent, I wouldn’t go that route.

Another thing. You could choose to build full sets for each scene, requiring (I believe) about 6 sets. If you do, you might play the opening street under a streetlamp “in 1”, in front of the main drape on the apron, as well as the drugstore scene. I just think this is a lot of work and expense to create an effect that really may not help the show, and could seriously damage it. But each to his own production.

COSTUMES:
The action takes place during the Great Depression, in 1937. Poverty is rampant. We have no set, no orchestra to speak of. Expenses are low. You should expend some of your wherewithal to get the costuming right. This will create a feel for the period that I think the show requires to succeed.

So, for the men, hats, jackets, ties of the period, you get the idea. Of course, the Mister Family should be dressed in the best the period has to offer. Mrs. Mister should be wildly overdressed, there are laughs to be had at her abundant lack of taste. The same could be said of Junior Mister, and Sister Mister. Professionals like Editor Daily, Doctor Specialist and Reverend Salvation will need specialty costumes befitting their professions, and right for the period.

Moll, Foreman, Harry Druggist, and perhaps Ella Worker, should all look down and beaten, poor, their clothes threadbare. There must be a significant difference between three classes: 1) The Rich; 2) Professionals, and 3) The working man and woman. I’d do this in numerous ways. The rich can wear bright and gaudy colors, and the colors can grow increasingly muted as we move toward poverty. The rich should have clothing that is hardly used. As you move to poverty, the cloths can become somewhat (but not ridiculously) distressed. Harry is homeless, bare that in mind. Holes in his shoes are fine, and a bottle in his pocket, too. His tie may have been lost long ago.

Foreman is special. Though poor, he’s a working man, and it would work best if he did the best he could with his clothes. But he is always working, and you can demonstrate this visually by having his sleeves always rolled up. His jacket must have pockets capable of housing leaflets.

Moll is a hooker, but not great at the job. She is broke all the time, starving. She would be one of those women who did not have money for stockings, and instead drew a black “seam” down her leg to create the illusion.

You should definitely research the Depression to get a feel for the costumes. Get the shoes and hats right! I think costuming may be the most important design element for a production of this show. This is the sort of show you take care of by going through your theater’s large shop, or in a rental shop. You may be able to inexpensively find some pieces in second hand stores. You should not need to build many if any costumes.

PROPS:
1937 is a key to getting the props right, though there won’t be many. Leaflets will need to be manufactured promoting a strike in Steeltown, in favor of unionization. Guns for cops. A gavel for the judge (who might not exist. Perhaps the audience is the judge, and the stage could be laid out to make that clear, so that testimony is played front, to the audience! I like the idea.) Some cans for the druggist to work with, and perhaps soda bottles appropriate to the period. There will be more props, specific to each production and Director’s vision, so you’ll need to work closely with your Director. But this is not a particularly prop-heavy show.

LIGHTING:
We are in bare-stage mode, probably, so lighting must help focus our attention as well as create a sense of mood and even location. Numbers come and go quickly in this show, many of them play in under two minutes. This implies that there may be a lot of cues. A computerized board for this show would surely be a good thing.

The show is going to beg to be played dark and moody. Don’t do it. Play it bright, snappy, like a Musical Comedy in both the colors and intensity of lighting used, as well as the frequency of cues. Emphasize the fun, the comedy. There are moments you can get more serious, such as the Drugstore scene, and “Joe Worker”. But these should act as contrast, as earned moments of emotion amongst the brighter, more fun incidents. You might even go the uber-theatrical follow spot way with some of the more comedic numbers, emphasizing the show’s relation to Musical Comedy.

This is also the kind of show that might benefit from a few creative lighting effects. At the end of the show, thousands of people are supposed to be marching. A gobo or special effect of some kind against the walls of the theater, in motion, people on the move? Could be fun! Just don’t get specific, roll down TVs and show scenes of people striking through the decades. Unless politics is what you want.

MAKE-UP:
I think it best to avoid pointing up the comic-bookishness of the show. Keep it simple, real. Homeless people should look something like homeless people, wan, pale, but stay away from ghoulish.

Where you will want to focus some energy is on hair. This is a period piece, and just as the costumes need to reflect the period with authority, so must the hair. You will probably need wigs for Mrs. Mister and Sister Mister. The men’s cuts should reflect their social position. Do some research. If the hair is wrong, it can sink the look and credibility of the show.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):
Director, Music Director/Pianist, Costume Designer, Set Designer, Moll, Larry Foreman, Mr. Mister, Mrs. Mister.

MY THOUGHTS:
Given the small size and expense of this show, I really do not understand why it isn’t done all the time. I get why public schools can’t do it – it’s just too political. But every adult group could do it. I don’t think many people know about it, and that should be remedied. Done well, there are few shows potentially more entertaining or fun to do. If I had a theater focused on doing musicals, this would be one I’d consider doing. It will get a lot of attention, and help define your involvement in your community.