The Cradle Will Rock, the one-and-only agitprop musical masterpiece, now in a positively perverse staging at Encores, is a stacked deck. The heavy, Mister Mister, is pure evil. The hero, who only arrives half way through, might as well be wearing a white hat. The crudely-wrought scenes don’t paint in shades of gray; the black and white are writ large, as on a hastily assembled placard. As a result, the plot, in and of itself, doesn’t engage your emotions.
But the music does. Wild harmonies, octaves pounded at the lower notes of the piano, processions of minor chords pepped up with jazz age rhythms: all of these combine to grab at your heart with rough-hewn power. This masterful display of what mildly dissonant music can do owes less to Kurt Weill than Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. In both works, the text is painfully obvious: we know exactly how the authors want us to feel. But the music is strong enough to overcome this.
What can I tell you about a 76-year-old musical whose plot doesn’t work, whose dialogue is leaden but still manages to move and to stir? I could encourage you to catch it at Encores, where a who’s who of New York character actors is demonstrating what political vaudeville used to sound like: Anika Noni Rose, Danny Burstein, Raúl Esparza, Peter Friedman, David Margulies, Martin Moran and, strongest of all, Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Unfortunately, certain casting decisions were made that make a weird piece even weirder, assuring the alienation of an even higher percentage of the audience than the Cradle would normally rock.
And there’s a new orchestration, for fourteen players, breaking with Encores’ tradition of presenting a score exactly as it was heard on opening night. As my old acquaintance John Houseman will tell you in this video, there was only a hastily-rented piano accompanying on opening night, as the government had padlocked the theatre where it was supposed to open. Such was the fear of its message.
It’s difficult to imagine theatre striking fear in the hearts of Washington bureaucrats today, isn’t it? I find the ability to make a political statement within an entertaining play to be a fascinating quality that was in flower during the late 1930s. A little over a year ago, I worked on a massive production of Odets’ Waiting For Lefty to which we added a number of songs, and then got the audience to rise up and follow us out of the theatre. The climax, emotionally, was Paula Buresh’s rendition of Joe Worker, from The Cradle Will Rock. This, along with the title song and Nickel Under the Foot, proves author Marc Blitzstein’s ability to craft a rabble-rousing indictment in song-form. If the whole of The Cradle Will Rock is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, at least some of those parts are choice.
I feel a personal connection to some of the people behind the famous pro-union musicals of the 1930s. I knew its original conductor, Lehman Engel, very well; producer John Houseman was someone I knew and worked with, and as a kid I met star Howard Da Silva. Also, as a kid, I met Harold Rome, who wrote the songs to Pins and Needles, the longest running musical of the 1930s – yes, another celebration of the labor movement. In a recent post, I criticized the actors’ union, and so must point out a rich irony behind the story of Cradle’s opening night.
The show is decidedly pro-union, but it was the actors’ union that insisted the cast couldn’t step on the stage of the quickly-rented theatre. Philosophically, I usually stand with workers over bosses, but this is an odd case.
And an agitprop musical is decidedly an odd bird. There’s no room for romance in The Cradle Will Rock. No real moments of beauty. It’s a bleak portrayal of a town run by evil industrialists; decent pillars of society get corrupted right and left. Fans of 21st century musicals should recognize that this is exactly the sort of thing Urinetown is spoofing. I’m no great admirer of that musical comedy, and can’t help noting that many of its young fans have no idea what’s being sent up.
Just the other week, I saw a different piece of sui generis theatre, the long-running immersive experience, Sleep No More. This is another case of I Can’t Describe It To You Because It’s Better You Discover It Yourself. I will say that I had a very good time, and music was used to good effect, using a number of songs I’m fond of. Wear comfortable shoes.