Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock Is Compelling Listening, Now

Jason Victor Serinus on July 10, 2018
1909 postcard depicting Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, where The Cradle Will Rock was intended to premiere

Merely 84 years after the nearly-aborted world premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Bridge Records has issued the first complete recording of this agit-prop-meets-Brecht/Weill-meets-grand-opera-meets-musical-theater milestone. Recorded live last July at Opera Saratoga with a crack cast conducted by John Mauceri, The Cradle Will Rock comes across as a thoroughly invigorating, oft prosaic proletarian rallying cry whose libretto style calls to mind productions by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

The astounding story behind the opera’s opening, which Blitzstein recounts in a well-recorded 16+-minute appendix to the two-disc set, is the stuff of legend. In a nutshell, when theater after theater refused to produce the work, John Houseman and director Orson Welles (then 21) convinced the Federal Theatre Project to mount The Cradle Will Rock at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on W. 39th St. in Manhattan.

Given that Blitzstein’s opera about worker oppression was scheduled to open just two weeks after the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, in which Chicago police killed 10 people and wounded many others who were demonstrating against Republic Steel, conservatives in Congress succeeded in canceling the production’s funding and padlocking the theater on the day of the premiere. As up to 1000 ticket holders gathered outside the locked doors, a fast-acting Welles, Houseman, and Blitzstein secured the Venice Theatre 19 blocks uptown.

1938 photo of Blitzstein at the piano, in a performance of The Cradle Will Rock

Once a piano had been found to replace musicians contractually forbidden from performing, Blitzstein decided to both play the score and recite/sing the lines of actors equally forbidden from performing the work onstage. Then the principals led a huge procession up Broadway to the new theater. When Blitzstein finally began playing the piano, he was only able to recite part of the play’s first line before the actor engaged for the part rose from the audience and began reciting her lines. By show’s end, the majority of the cast’s 27 principals had performed from seats scattered around the theatre, while Blitzstein played onstage and filled in for those too intimidated to perform. The chance to hear Blitzstein recite the tale after the fact is, in and of itself, worth the price of purchase.

While Blitzstein and much of the original cast recorded the work with piano in 1938, it took until 1947 for Blitzstein admirer Leonard Bernstein to conduct the first performance with orchestra. Now, 71 years after that, we can finally hear Blitzstein’s brilliant orchestral effects and sense what made the work so electrifying to depression-era audiences.

Musically, The Cradle Will Rock holds no surprises for anyone familiar with the work of Kurt Weill. Blitzstein may have studied with Arnold Schoenberg, but as early as 1935, when he was 30 years old, he used tonal, direct, and decidedly “of the people” musical language to compose a parable about capitalistic corruption and decadence. After Bertolt Brecht heard that work, Sketch No. 1, and suggested that Blitzstein create a full-length work about prostitution in the larger sense, the sketch evolved into the first scene of an opera that addresses corruption, greed, hypocrisy — prostitution of the body as well as the mind and soul.

John Mauceri and Opera Saratoga’s recording is the first with orchestra

The Cradle Will Rock seems especially relevant to an era where the President of the United States is engaged in selling the democracy of the United States, and the body of the planet, for profit. Blitzstein’s libretto is predictable — the crooked stay crooked as the people first suffer and then rise up in triumph — but then, so is almost everything out of the mouth of our current President and his associates.

Still, there are some damn good, show-stopping arias in this opera, including Moll’s (Ginger Costa-Jackson) “Nickel Under the Foot,” Larry Foreman (Christopher Burchett) and company’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” and Ella Hammer’s (Opera Saratoga young artist Nina Spinner) “Joe Worker Gets Gypped.” The high-resolution files that I auditioned sound quite good. I haven’t heard the four other recordings of the work — Blitzstein’s piano-accompanied recording with members of the original cast, the 1985 City Opera version, one from The Actors Company that stars Patti Lupone, or excerpts from the 1999 movie soundtrack — but this is the first complete recording of the score as Blitzstein wrote it. That makes it indispensable.

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