The Cradle Will Rock: Blank Theatre Company, 3/26/11

3 04 2011

Marc Blitzstein created a musical that paralleled real-life union struggles amidst the larger theme of metaphorical prostitution and selling out in The Cradle Will Rock, which, when banned from its theatre for its uncompromising leftist leanings in June 1937, made front-page news in its own time and inspired a popular political movie in ours.

– Geoffrey Block, The Cambridge Companion to the Musical

Most musical theater history texts offer up such an intriguing little blurb on The Cradle Will Rock. (Wait, you mean musicals can be political – and even banned from performance? Gasp!) Unfortunately, most texts discuss the historical event with little to nothing about the musical itself. Musical theater fans can tell you the context of the 1937 production, but very few have read the libretto or listened to the score – and even fewer have ever seen a production. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the work itself deserves some attention, in addition to its incredible historical context.

Enter Blank Theatre Company’s revival of The Cradle Will Rock. Daniel Henning first directed this musical in 1994, and he revisits the landmark piece with playful panache in the Blank’s 20th anniversary season. The Cradle Will Rock features some of LA’s best musical theater talent, who embrace the presentational, Brechtian text with contemporary verve.

After all, The Cradle Will Rock is far more relevant than we would like to admit: archetypal characters such as Mr. Mister, Dr. Specialist, Reverend Salvation, and Editor Daily have their undeniable counterparts in 21st century capitalist society. Although the show’s design places the musical in the 1930s, protest posters in the musical’s final moments – and the show’s logo – point up contemporary relevance by attacking Enron, Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, etc. Henning couldn’t have chosen a more fascinatingly disjunct location to perform this show: the Stella Adler Theatre is tucked away by Hollywood and Highland – one of the most touristy, consumer-driven districts in the city.

After the original 1937 production was banned, the producers “invited the cast to show up wherever Blitzstein was performing Cradle, and to rise from their seats in the audience to play their parts. Some conservative cast members bowed out, as did others afraid of losing their relief-work pay as their only means of support. But by and large few defected from the ranks” (John Bush Jones, Our Musicals Ourselves). One of LA’s most accomplished musical directors, David O takes on the role of Blitzstein in the Blank’s production: he introduces each scene and accompanies, exploiting the full dynamic range of the old upright piano. The bare simplicity of the production is truly staggering. Rather than relying on special effects and elaborate designs, The Cradle Will Rock thrives on the dynamic range and political possibilities of the collective. Actors move through the audience, their powerful, unamplified voices joining in song from all sides of the theater.

I saw both The Cradle Will Rock and The Mercy Seat on the same day. The juxtaposition was a provocative reminder of why I generally prefer musical theater: the dynamic range of a musical and the emphasis on ensemble. This is not to say that “straight plays” or “legitimate drama” can’t achieve a sense of musicality or a sense of ensemble. To be sure, there are countless playwrights with rhapsodic style, whose words are like music; their language can crescendo and diminuendo, overlap in poetic and playful ways. And many plays cultivate ensemble. But the American stage is still dominated by psychological realism, which tends to privilege “natural” conversation and self-enclosed individuals. I don’t generally want to go to the theater to see and hear something “real.” I want to see something imaginary with a more metaphorical, open relationship to the “real.” Or maybe more accurately, I want to consider the possibility that the “imaginary” could one day be an alternative “real.”

Whether it’s obviously political like The Cradle Will Rock or “pure, fluffy entertainment” like a Golden Age hit musical, the musical’s anti-realist imaginary – often placing an emphasis on dynamic range and ensemble – is important and political in its own right. In fact, I left the Stella Adler Theatre that afternoon basking in the glow of an entertaining and political show that had drawn together an alternative theater-going community … in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard.