The Arty Semite

Banned Musical Remains Relevant as Ever

By Raphael Mostel

  • Print
  • Share Share
Joan Marcus

If the performance of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” by the “Encores! Off-Center” series, which just ended its all-too-brief five-performance run July 13 at New York City Center, is not recorded for posterity, it will be a major loss. To call it revelatory is an understatement. This searing, hilarious and deeply affecting production resurrected a show that had been regarded as a famous but historical agitprop curio from the depths of the Depression.

The all-star, multi-talented cast exposed the rich theatricality of Blitzstein’s 1937 attack on the evils of unrestrained capitalism. This semi-staged version, choreographed by Chase Brock, directed by Sam Gold and conducted by Chris Fenwick, had no need of sets to turn the work into a relevant and vital powerhouse in its swift 90-minute arc.

The now-legendary premiere of this work in 1937, recounted in Tim Robbins’s 1999 film of the same name, had to dispense with sets too. It was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman for the Federal Theater Project of the WPA. However, causing alarm because of its politics, the production was cancelled before it could open. Uncowed, the cast walked to another theater and put the show on anyway, with the composer playing the piano and the actors performing their parts from seats in the audience — defying yet honoring the injunction forbidding them to appear onstage. Largely because of this show, Congress later killed the whole federal program.

Blitzstein is best remembered these days for writing the original English-language version of “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It was Brecht who gave Blitzstein the idea for the show by encouraging him to investigate how prostitution exists at every level of society. The Weill/Brecht influence is obvious, as is Blitzstein’s melding of classical chops and American popular idiom — which in turn influenced Leonard Bernstein, who became a lifelong champion of Blitzstein’s work. This production showcased the inventive new orchestrations by Josh Clayton for a 14-piece ensemble, reducing the composer’s own version for 32 musicians.

The multi-talented cast was uniformly effective. The show opens with actress Anika Nona Rose as Moll, the prostitute who’s just trying to earn enough to eat. David Margulies plays the Gent, who claims not to have enough money to pay her, but has enough to bribe Dick the cop (Michael Clark), and avoid arrest. In a neat bit of double casting, Ms. Rose later reappears as her complete opposite, Mrs. Mister, wife of Steeltown’s wealthiest man. In a joint tour de force with Matthew Saldivar as Reverend Salvation, she repeatedly transforms his sermons by requiring changes in return for her donations.

Danny Burstein plays Mr. Mister, the man who pulls all the strings in Steeltown. He makes a chilling entrance and maintains the demonic energy of the character throughout, even while he’s arranging his loopy spoiled children to be shipped out of the way in Honolulu, while also forcing Editor Daly (Judy Kuhn) to cater to his demands. The production’s only miscalculation was the 10-year-old Aiden Gemme, who though already a capable pro, is too youthful and distractingly cutesy to make full sense of the adult roles assigned to him.

Raul Esparza, on the other hand, had the most stunning moment of the production, simultaneously displaying both the power of his own performance and as well as that of the whole show. In his final number as the union organizer Larry Foreman, he literally stopped everything just as he was about to sing the line giving the title of the show. Raising his fist high in the air and daring to hold it there in total silence while surveying the audience with his eyes for what seemed like minutes — an eternity in theater time — he challenged us to weigh the significance of Blitzstein’s work. Throughout that shocking halt the packed audience literally held its breath.

That silence proved that the savage humor and brazenness of this show still retains impact. Underlining the argument was a program insert of shocking facts, imitating Harper Magazine’s “Index,” such as that the income of the top 1% of earners in 2007 comprised 23.5% of the economy; that 1929 was the last year that percentage was so high, and that the income inequality has only increased since the 2008 downturn. Blitzstein would have been delighted.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, The Cradle Will Rock, Raphael Mostel, Marc Blitzstein

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.