The time is right for THE CRADLE WILL ROCK – more’s the pity.
Despite the musical’s octogenarian status, many lines still sound topical. Although they don’t have quite the same meaning as they did in 1937, they’ll resonate with you.
“First thing you know they’ll have you deported” … “Do you think they’ll go to jail?” … “What is this – Russia?”
Nepotism results in two ignorant relatives getting high-powered jobs. The rich man in charge also has his own university. Talk of “The Liberty Committee” may bring to mind today’s “Religious Liberty” committees.
More’s the pity still is that this still-solid show is trapped by an incoherent production at Classic Stage Company.
It’s another slap in the face for a musical whose birthing pains have been well-documented. In short, on June 16, 1937, after the government shut down the show that it had been sponsoring, the undaunted management, cast and crew found another theater in which to have their opening night.
With Equity rules stating that under these circumstances the 59 actors could not as much as step onto the stage, every performer sat with the audience. Each stood when the time came to say a line or sing a lyric. The 32-piece orchestra, no longer under government auspices, would have to be paid Broadway rates, which were beyond producer John Houseman’s budget. So bookwriter-composer-lyricist Marc Blitzstein sat at a piano and accompanied his masterwork.
Those in the audience who weren’t in the show may have been confused in trying to put it all together – especially without the sets and costumes. Chances are, though, that they understood CRADLE better than those who now visit John Doyle’s production.
Doyle – who’s the artistic director of CSC – must be having budget problems. That would explain his relying much too much on that ol’ bugaboo of doubling and tripling.
True, any seasoned theatergoer has long become accustomed to seeing one person play a certain role, make an exit and then return a scene or so later as someone else entirely. Usually, though, these actors are playing less-than-vital characters.
Granted, Doyle’s having David Garrison double isn’t a problem. Although he’ll eventually play the major role of Mr. Mister — the all-powerful, corrupt and unofficial head of Steeltown – Garrison first enters in the opening scene to portray a drifter who’s out to hire a prostitute. Although he has his cap pulled down low over his face so those who know his distinctive profile won’t recognize him, one can argue that many a john takes such a precaution lest he be recognized.
Later we find that Doyle and Garrison have made Mr. Mister quietly evil. He often stands on a perch and observes everyone with a frozen scowl on his face. However, he won’t make the villain arch. Garrison has grown a mustache, yes, but he wisely doesn’t twirl it – even after he comes down onto the stage and takes command of the action.
Blitzstein was careful to show his weakness as a hypochondriac.
Garrison displays a Mr. Mister now beyond his prime – and yet still makes empty promises. This lion in winter is still lyin’.
So that bit of doubling isn’t bad. But having Tony Yazbeck play two important roles without any ostensible change in look or costume and diminishes both characters.
Yazbeck initially plays Harry Druggist, who’s happy to own a modest Steeltown store in which he’s partnered with a grown-son who adores him. All’s well until one of Mr. Mister’s cronies tells Harry that his store has been chosen as the location where his customers Gus and Sadie Polack will be killed. That’s what Gus gets for being an average blue-collar laborer who has been lobbying for a union to protect his interests. Mr. Mister and his associates – Steeltown’s 1% — won’t take any chances that Gus’ goals will be achieved.
Yazbeck effectively conveys Harry’s astonishment and impotence to stop the murder. He’ll pay dearly for that cowardice. Yazbeck is so effective in making Harry take the journey from happy merchant to a destroyed one. He makes such an impression that we don’t want it diminished by having him take on another role – although his Larry Foreman has the power and energy of a WEST SIDE STORY Jet. Yet he would have made an even greater impression had he not been introduced to us earlier.
Because Larry must be saved as much as a prince on a white steed must be in a fairy tale, Blitzstein waited 55 minutes into the hour-and-a-half intermissionless show to introduce him. That’s nevertheless not enough time for us to forget Yazbeck’s look (and much too contemporary haircut) as Harry when he returns.
In an early scene, other performers, while sitting on industrial-strength drums and never moving an iota, go from playing Mr. Mister’s victims to members of his powerful Liberty Committee and then back again to being victimized. What exacerbates matters is that costume designer Ann Hould-Ward keeps everyone in the same blue-collar labor-intensive working clothes there and for the rest of the performance, too.
That’s fine when they’re actually playing characters in those occupations. Editor Daily (Ken Barnett) looks more like his newspaper’s typesetter; Eddie Cooper, playing a detective, appears to be Casey Jones workin’ on the railroad. Liberty Committee members too would wear high-toned duds.
Too bad Doyle didn’t think to have a steamer trunk full of costumes that would help clarify who’s who. Mrs. Mister is a nouveau-riche culture vulture, yet when she goes to see Reverend Salvation, she certainly isn’t dressed for church, not with gloves that look as if they’ve been dirtied by a printing press. If Doyle had her donning a mink stole she’d taken from a box, we’d know that the worker we’d just seen was a different character now.
Mr. Mister, Harry Druggist, Larry Foreman — yes, archetypes all. Blitzstein purposely drew characters in primary colors with no shadings because he first and foremost wanted his message to stand out loud and proud: “Joe Worker gets gypped,” as the sister of a framed victim sings in one of Blitzstein’s best songs (which Reva Webb sings extraordinarily well).
In designing the show, too, Doyle was satisfied by putting those barrels on stage. At one point they’re wittily arranged into a cross to establish the church where Reverend Salvation preaches “peace at any cost” – well, at least for a little while.
You may argue that The Federal Theatre Project, of which CRADLE was a part until it was disowned, often did on-the-cheap productions where much had to be left to the imagination. Yes, but as the revival of FLORA, THE RED MENACE showed in 1987, the best way to go is to announce at the top of the show that this IS supposed to be a FTP production. One can’t assume that 21st-century audiences know that much theatrical history.
Doyle, when staging Sondheim-and-Weidman’s ROAD SHOW a decade ago, had his actors toss dollar bills high into the air and litter the stage. He does the same here as well as having Mrs. Mister actually shove money into Reverend Salvation’s mouth, all the better to manipulate the words that will come out of it.
Who can blame Doyle for this approach? Seeing perfect facsimiles of paper currency on a stage always grabs our attention and the move reiterates one of Blitzstein’s messages: money talks.
Here it sings, which is all to the good, for this is one intoxicating score. Many have alleged that Blitzstein was so highly influenced by Kurt Weill that he aped his composing style. No – Blitzstein was his own man. Weill was more dissonant and while Blitzstein’s music is full of “wrong” notes, they’re always oh-so-right.
The composer was able to write (you should pardon the expression) a tune you can hum; witness “Honolulu” and “Croon,” both of which first and foremost entertain while also spoofing then-current musical conventions.
But let’s say this: even if Blitzstein were a Weill imitator, he repaid the debt in 1954 with his adaptation of Weill’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA. He changed the show’s American fortunes from 12-performance flop into the longest-running show in off-Broadway history in the pre-FANTASTICKS ‘50s.
No, Blitzstein’s score is a marvel, and that includes the lyrics. Dauber, an artist, is told by Yasha, a violinist, that he’s to meet someone important. Dauber doesn’t ask “Is it Mrs. Mister?” as a lesser writer would have him do, but instead poses the far more creative question “Is her Pierce Arrow light blue?”
Whether or not Blitzstein was influenced by Weill, Doyle has borrowed a bit of Weill’s most famous collaborator Bertolt Brecht and his Theatre of Alienation. Blitzstein conceived a tender scene for Gus and Sadie, the recently-married couple that’s still reveling in their good fortune of having found each other. And yet, Doyle positions them one behind the other ten feet apart and ensures that they never once even give the other a fleeting glance.
As they sing “We wonder if anyone could be as much in love as we,” why aren’t they looking into each other’s eyes? Did Doyle fear that that would be too conventional? Changing it to this staging runs the risk of being much too iconoclastic.
Does THE CRADLE WILL ROCK sound audience-unfriendly? To many it will be – but imagine how odd it must have seemed to the 1937 audience. Let’s put CRADLE’s maverick nature in context: the musical that opened on Broadway just before it was SEA LEGS, which took place on “the Sun Deck of yacht Pixie lying off Catalina Island.” The one that opened immediately after it was SWING IT, which dealt with people who wanted to get a showboat built so they could traverse the Harlem River.
And yet, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK found its own sea legs in 1937 and ran more than twice as long as those other two commercially-minded shows combined. The notoriety surrounding that opening night must have helped ticket sales, but the show obviously had virtues, too.
While SEA LEGS and SWING IT are still awaiting their Broadway revivals, CRADLE has had one as well as four off-Broadway ones. That’s a terrific track record for a show that had an opening number that dared to have a prostitute muttering a weary “Jesus!” three times in her first 11 lines.
The sad thing is that when you come out of Classic Stage Company after seeing THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, you too might be muttering “Jesus!” for a different reason.