A Message for Our Times: History Repeats Itself

Problems with unions. Union busting. The power of the privileged class to control the media and the message. These are concerns currently in the news today (cough, Wisconsin, cough), but they are nothing new. Back in 1937 there was a musical called “The Cradle Will Rock” about the subject written by Marc Blitzstein, produced by the Federal Theatre Project. The musical was a Brechtian allegory of corruption and corporate greed. Set in “Steeltown, USA”, it followed the efforts of Larry Foreman to unionize the town’s workers and otherwise combat wicked, greedy businessman Mr. Mister, who controls the town’s factory, press, church, artistic, medical, and educational organizations. It portrays a whole panoply of societal figures: Mr. Mister’s vicious, outwardly genteel philanthropic wife and spoiled children, sell-out artists, poor shopkeepers, immigrant families, a faithless priest, and an endearing prostitute named Moll. The point was demonstrating the power of the union against corporate greed. Timely subject, isn’t it. So, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Blank Theatre produced a revival of its 1994 revival of this musical, which we saw this afternoon at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood.

This musical was very controversial when it first opened. It was directed by Orson Welles, and produced by John Houseman. Originally set to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York in June 1937 with elaborate sets and a full orchestra, the production was shut down due to political pressure and budget cuts within the Federal Theatre Project. The theatre was padlocked and surrounded by security to prevent anyone from stealing props or costumes, as all of this was considered U. S. Government property and could not be used in a for-profit theaterical production. According to The New York Times, “Within three days their theater the Maxine Elliott…was invaded by a dozen uniformed W.P.A. guards bearing strict orders prohibiting the removal of such Government property as scenery, props and costumes.” after receiving a memo prohibiting the performance of the play. The production was targeted by the government because of its leftist politics. The production was forbidden to be performed onstage, with the government threatening arrest to any actor appearing onstage. On the spur of the moment, Welles, Houseman, and Blitzstein rented the much larger Venice Theatre and a piano, for a performance on June 17, 1937. They planned for Blitzstein to sing/play/read the entire musical to the sold out house which had grown larger by inviting people off the street to attend for free. Cast members sang their lines from the audience, so that they wouldn’t run across union rules for performing from the stage. Just after beginning the first number, Blitzstein was joined by Olive Stanton, the actor playing Moll, from the audience. During the rest of the performance, various actors joined in with Blitzstein and performed the entire musical from the house. Actors sang across the theatre to one another. The success of the performance led Welles and Houseman to form the Mercury Theatre.
*: Historical information and synopsis from Wikipedia

Luckily, today we are free to present works such as this, uncomfortable as their message might be for some. The question of government funding of political art is still a relevant question, so it is worth being reminded that it is nothing new.

So what is “The Cradle Will Rock” about? As noted above, it is an allegory. It opens with Moll, a worker forced into soliciting due to only having work two days out of five. She is arrested and jailed for refusing her services to a police officer loyal to Mr. Mister, the owner of the steel factory — and everything else in town. Members of the Liberty Committee, a group of prominent citizens who oppose the union, are also arrested because a policeman misunderstood his orders from Mr. Mister and thought they were union organizers. At night court, Moll meets Harry Druggist, who is continually arrested for vagrancy after having lost his drugstore because of Mr. Mister. Harry tells Moll that the Liberty Committee are bigger prostitutes than she is; he explains how they, and even he himself, has sold out to Mr. Mister. In a series of flashbacks, we see this happen: Reverend Salvation is convinced by Mrs. Mister to make sermons on World War I that are convenient to the profits of the steel industry, Editor Daily of the Steeltown News runs stories against union organizer Larry Foreman and gives Junior Mister a correspondent’s job in Honolulu. Harry’s son Stevie is killed trying to save Gus Polock, an immigrant steelworker, from a bomb planted by one of Mr. Mister’s henchmen, after Harry had agreed to stay quiet in order to keep his store. More flashbacks show other Liberty Committee members selling out to Mr. Mister. For example, we learn that the painter Dauber and the violinist Yasha work for Mrs. Mister, using their art to support her husband’s ideals. In the present, Larry Foreman is beaten by the police and jailed for “inciting to riot”. He explains the principle behind unions, and says that the time is coming when “the cradle will rock” and overthrow Mr. Mister and others like him. In another flashback, Mr. Mister has President Prexy and other faculty at College University get students to take extra military training to be anti-union thugs. Doctor Specialist, Mr. Mister’s personal doctor as well as the one that treated a worker who died in a machine accident, is threatened with the loss of his chairmanship of the Liberty Committee if he does not report that the worker was drunk. Ella Hammer, the worker’s sister, knows that he was pushed, and angrily confronts the doctor. When Mr. Mister arrives at night court to release the Liberty Committee, he offers Foreman a place on the Committee if he will give up his union activities. Foreman refuses: though a common man, he stands up to the corrupt forces of Mr. Mister. Mr. Mister feels that his monopoly may be slipping away. He confronts Foreman, but as the musical ends the workers are rising up.

The Blank production was excellent, building upon musical direction and staging of the previous award-winning 1994 production… which was easy, as the original director (who is now the Artistic Director of the Blank), Daniel Henning was involved. The cast also included individuals who were involved with the 1994 production, and was uniformly strong. In fact, it was so strong as an ensemble that it is hard to single out individual performances (hmmm, perhaps that’s the strength of a union). So let me at least introduce you to the cast and share some observations.

Tiffany C. Adams (Moll) was the first character we see, and she exhibited just a timeworn character, who was soliciting not because she wanted to, but because she needed the money. She represented the audience: the downtrodden public who didn’t understand why unions were important. Helping to narrate the allegory was Jack Lauferæ (Harry Druggist). Forming the Liberty Committee were Christopher Carrollæ (Reverend Salvation), Rob Roy Cesaræ (Dr. Specialist), Matthew Patrick Davisæ (President Prexy), Jim Holdridge (Yasha), Roland Rusinekæ (Dauber), and David Trice (Editor Daily). All were strong and seemingly slightly crazy, with some exaggerated characteristics fitting the allegory. This made them appear more comical, knocking them down a peg. The Mister family consisted of Peter Van Nordenæ (Mr. Mister), Gigi Berminghamæ (Mrs. Mister), Adam Wylieæ (Junior Mister), and Ashley Adleræ (Sister Mister). Again, all were strong. I particularly enjoyed Van Norden’s portrayal of the capitalist, and Wylie and Adler’s portrayal of the children. Rex Smithæ portrayed Larry Foreman, the union leader, with a clear strength of conviction. Rounding out the ensemble were Matt Wolpeæ (Gus Polack, Gent, Mamie, Reporter), Penelope Yates (Sadie Polack), Will Barker (Cop/Bugs/Trixie), Mikey Hawley (Dick/Stevie/Scoot/Reporter), and Lowe Tayloræ (Ella). I particularly enjoyed Taylor’s singing and the comic portrayal of Walpe, Barker and Hawley as the university professors—especially WIll Barker’s hilarious portrayal of Prof. Trixie!
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Music was provided by David O, who played the piano onstage and introduced scenes.

Technically, the production was very simply designed. The scenic design by Kurt Boetcher was primarily a bare stage with a few props. Most of the scenic design came from the properties by Michael O’Hara and the excellent costumes of Maila Aladdin Sanders. The lighting design by J. C Gafford was equally creative, combining traditional leikos with scrollers (which were a bit noisy)… as well as the stage ghost light, harsh overhead florescents, and bright halogens. As noted earlier, the production was directed by Daniel Henning, assisted by Caitlin Eckstein and Tamara Williams. Irma Alejandra Gomez was stage manager, assisted by Tamara Becker. I’m not listing all of the numerous producers.

The Cradle Will Rock” continues at the Stella Adler Theatre through March 20, although I understand many shows are sold out. Tickets are available through The Blank (use the code ADLER to save $5), and may be available through Goldstar.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: March 19 brings “Having It All” at the NoHo Arts Center. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April 2 will hopefully bring Glory Days” at the Lillian Theatre (pending ticketing). April 9 will bring the Renaissance Faire. April 16 brings “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, with Lust N Rust: The Trailer Park Musical” at the Lyric Theatre on April 17. April 23rd, which is during Pesach, brings the last show of the current Colony season, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre. The last weekend of April is being held open (i.e., pending ticketing) for Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center. May 7 will bring God of Carnage at the Ahmanson Theatre (pending Hottix). The weekend of May 12-14 will bring the “Collabor8 Dance Festival” at Van Nuys High School, which is always excellent. The third weekend in May is currently open, but I expect that to change. The last weekend of May brings Cabaret” at REP East on May 28, and (pending ticketing) Dear World” at the Lyric Theatre. June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, with the rest of June being lost to Confirmation Services at Temple and a college visit trip (but who knows — we might hit a show in Nashville or St. Louis). Lastly, July should hopefully start with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2 (pending hottix).