Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Cradle Will Rock at Theater Ten Ten: Why Does a Company Choose to Do a Show?

One of the things I find most invigorating about the indie theater community is how purposeful it usually is. The artists and companies working in this sector think carefully about the projects they will devote their scarce time and resources to; they want to say something very specific when they produce theater, and they are generally very articulate about what they're trying to accomplish.

This comes through when we ask artists to participate in our festival preview features on nytheatre.com (our preview of the FRIGID New York Festival goes on line in less that two weeks, and when you read it you'll see what I mean).

I recently got some information about Theater Ten Ten's upcoming revival of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock which provides another strong example of the clear and valuable goals that theatre-makers have in mind when they embark on a project. Today I am sharing with you here on the blog the Director's Note, prepared by director David Fuller and assistant director Carissa Cordes, for this production:

Writer and composer Marc Blitzstein completed his first opera The Cradle Will Rock in 1936, in a torrid frenzy of work just weeks after his wife Eva Goldbeck suddenly died. The seeds for the opera were sown while Eva was alive and translating Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Novel, when Blitzstein played his song “The Nickel Under the Foot” for Brecht himself. Brecht suggested that this song, about a woman forced into prostitution out of hunger, become the centerpiece for a political opera: "Why don't you write a piece about all kinds of prostitution - the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system?” With encouragement from John Houseman (producer) and Orson Welles (director), Blitzstein played his finished Cradle for Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theatre Project of the WPA. Flanagan agreed to allow Cradle to be produced under the Federal Theatre Project #891 on Broadway. It became an unforgettable part of theatre history.

After the success of Cradle, Blitzstein went on to compose music for two revivals of Shakespeare’s King Lear (1950, 1956) and Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic (1960). Two more of his works were produced: the opera Regina (1949) and the musical comedy Juno (1959).

Blitzstein is also well known for his English language adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1954). He was called before The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1958, but while he admitted to having been a member of the Communist Party, he refused to give up any information and HUAC let him go without any further incident. On the night of January 21, 1964 he was stripped, robbed, and beaten to death by three sailors he was trying to pick up at a bar in the Caribbean.

The story of the opening night of Cradle is perhaps one of the most important stories in American theatre history. Fearing a volatile political message in a time of worker strife, the federal government prevented the scheduled opening on June 16, 1937 at the Maxine Elliot Theatre, posting armed guards. Ironically, the actors union, Actors Equity, went along with this and forbade its members to perform on stage.

Determined that the show should go on as planned, and having already sold out the opening, Houseman and Welles managed to find a space and piano. The cast, crew, press and audience marched uptown, just over a mile, to the Venice Theatre. With no actors, no set, and one spotlight, Blitzstein sat at the piano onstage, determined to play and sing the entire show himself. The actors, who had been encouraged by Blitzstein to exercise their freedom of speech, but who were risking their livelihoods in a time when jobs were scarce, one by one joined Blitzstein in singing the show – prevented from appearing on stage, they performed from among the audience!

Cradle’s message endures. During the original production, the US was fully immersed in the Great Depression. Strikes and union organizing were becoming lethal at the hands of the police, as wealthy conservatives were fiercely fighting labor movements favoring the rights of workers. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its theater arm, The Federal Theatre Project, were under fire as hotbeds of Communism and funding for the arts was drastically slashed. Today, the US is again enduring a great economic upheaval fostered by greed. Unemployment is at a high not seen in several decades. We are embroiled in a war that profits the oil barons. Wall Street profiteers make billions at the expense of their shareholders. Now on the verge of finally providing universal health care to its citizens, Congress is assailed by fear mongers not unlike HUAC who equate Socialism with Communism in a red-baiting media barrage. Arts advocates fight annually against budget cutbacks, trying to keep arts education and nonprofit arts organizations alive. Sweatshops endure, migrant workers are victimized.

“Steeltown USA” may be a thing of the past, but change it to “Oil-town” or “Mortgage-town” or “Insurance-town” or “Meatpack-town” and the stories of Joe Worker and Larry Foreman ring true. When Harry Druggist tells his tale, perhaps we may think of a town Wal-Mart took over, or of a dark empty local storefront we passed today. In Cradle we see artists selling out to the wealthy, health care influenced by big money, the press owned by big business, the church controlled by its donors and war encouraged for corporate greed.

With our national election, we began a change that must continue, or, The Cradle Will Rock.

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