From The Cradle To The Grave--And Back Again

Frank revives a labor cry, 'The Cradle Will Rock'; 'Urinetown' whizzes through town

 Producing a musical is a hogshead of work--especially when you need a cast of 18, and the piece isn't really a musical so much as a bona fide folk opera, but unlike some other bona fide folk operas, it doesn't even have a hit song to show for its ambition. So that's hard, but staging such an animal in a space better suited to selling lawnmowers and Levis becomes, as Marya Hart puts it while massaging her rehearsal-taxed right forearm, "an athletic endeavor."

Hart is the musical director and pianist for Frank Theater's production of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, which opens this Friday in the former Sears building on Lake Street. Director Wendy Knox seconds Hart's characterization of the show's Olympian challenges. Parked in another section of Frank's sprawling temporary headquarters is an industrial floor sweeper, which was indispensable during the previous day's cleaning party. Blitzstein called his pro-union play a "labor opera"; it's only fitting that putting it on should be laborious.

Above all, this is a big venue for a big play. At 1.9 million square feet, the onetime Sears (which opened in 1928) is the second largest building in Minnesota, outsized only by the Mall of America. The Cradle Will Rock, despite the spare accompaniment it is usually given, is a grand play--both in its robust choruses, and, more important, in the strength of its sweeping idealism.

Hello lamppost, what you knowing? Ruth MacKenzie in 'The Cradle Will Rock'
Tony Nelson
Hello lamppost, what you knowing? Ruth MacKenzie in 'The Cradle Will Rock'

That message (a.k.a. "dirty commie agitating") nearly kept the show from opening in 1937. "One of the things that's so exciting about the piece is the history of the first production," says Knox. "You can't ignore that, and yet you can't copy it."

The Cradle Will Rock was a product of the Work Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project, specifically of Project 891, the classical-theater unit run by Orson Welles and John Houseman. The year leading up to the show's opening had been filled with labor activism and the violent opposition of police-backed management. Fearing the attacks that Cradle was sure to experience from the right, the WPA ordered that none of its arts projects open until further notice--this, five days before Cradle's planned opening. Welles and Houseman were determined to proceed on their own, but found themselves further hindered by Actors' Equity and the musicians' union (long live irony!), which forbid their respective members to appear in any maverick production that might be scraped together.

The show, however, did go on, and just a few hours late. In a hastily rented theater, Marc Blitzstein sat at a beat-up upright, prepared to perform his musical as best he could by himself, in front of 2,000 people. A few notes into the opening song, one of the show's actors, Olive Stanton, rose from the crowd and began singing her part. The rest of the cast, most of whom were in attendance, followed suit, performing an improvised staging of the whole show from different parts of the house.

The story of that original production of The Cradle Will Rock, which was nicely dramatized by Tim Robbins's movie of the same name, is so compelling that it has pretty much eclipsed Blitzstein's show. The play takes place in Steeltown, U.S.A., on the night of a big union drive. In the first scene, a streetwalker (played in Frank's production by the estimable Ruth MacKenzie) is arrested and hauled into night court along with members of the town's newly formed Liberty Committee, whose conservative members have been mistaken for radicals by a slow-witted cop. As the episodic play proceeds, we gather that the moll's vocation is just one explicit manifestation of a citywide tendency. Nearly everyone--the press, the academics, the artists, the clergy--has sold out to Mr. Mister, the town's puppet-master industrialist.

Cradle wears its influences on its rolled-up sleeves, with the same broad strokes it applies to its characters. (Knox says she has latched onto the show's "comic-book" quality). It takes cues from (or takes shots at) Brecht and Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan, Porgy and Bess, crooners, Polynesian exotica, klezmer, Yip Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" and Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets's 1935 agitprop landmark about a New York taxi drivers' strike. There is cynicism in the play, but also an innocence and optimism that today is disarming.

"It's a period piece," says Knox, "but it doesn't feel dated to me." Nor to me. When I first sat down with the cast recording from the 1985, John Houseman-directed revival starring Patti LuPone, I was immediately taken in by the opening number, "Moll's Song," an achingly beautiful ballad that seems to clear a path toward Sondheim during its too-short 90 seconds. Why this song, along with several other neglected gems from the show, is not a standard is a real injustice that I for one am prepared to ascribe to scabs, thugs, and (just in case) Andrew Lloyd Webber.

 

Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman's Urinetown, playing in a touring production at the Orpheum Theatre, is as confident in its snarky nihilism as The Cradle Will Rock is in its lefty idealism. The show abounds with Broadway references--to West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Bob Fosse's choreography, you name it--but its principal models are Brecht-Weill's dark, opulent musical metatheater and Blitzstein's American variation.

Like Steeltown, Urinetown is run by a ruthless tycoon. The bold strokes used here, however, are gray. The noble poor prove to be easily corruptible, and the hero who isn't thrown off a building turns into a shortsighted demagogue. Despite all of his hyperactive villainy, the boss is an effective conservationist.

The book, performances, and choreography are frequently funny (Tom Hewett is hilarious as the corrupt cop/narrator, bringing to mind Phil Hartman and Tom Jones). And there's something great in how lavishly Urinetown invests in its ludicrous premise (let's just say it involves a water shortage). But the music, though studied and adept, is never quite sharp enough as parody or original enough as plain old music. By the time the second hour of self-reflexive jokes has come to a close, the whole concept has sprung a leak.

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