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Written during the Depression, 'The Cradle Will Rock' resonates with today's struggles

In January 1964, openly gay composer Marc Blitzstein was enjoying a much-needed vacation on Martinique when he made a decision that would cost him his life.

Blitzstein, then 58, decided to winter on the Caribbean island in order to escape the strain of several years of persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his one-time Communist Party membership and the pressure to complete several one-act operas.

After a night of heavy drinking, Blitzstein picked up three Portuguese sailors. Traveling between bars, he coaxed one sailor into an alley for a sexual tryst. The other two followed, and the three sailors severely beat and robbed Blitzstein, leaving him with only his shirt and socks.

Police found the crying composer and took him to a local hospital, but physicians failed to diagnose massive internal injuries. Blitzstein bled to death internally the next night.

Although long past being a household name when he died, Blitzstein had a celebrated career as a classical composer and music commentator. He made his musical debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 21 performing one of Franz Liszt’s piano concertos. But it was “The Cradle Will Rock,” Blitzstein’s first and only political “opera,” that forged his legacy. 

The “play with music,” as the composer called it, is the next production of the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theatre. “The Cradle Will Rock” will run for 11 performances Nov. 16–Dec. 8 at the Mitchell Theatre on the UW campus. 

Reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s work, the musical’s tale of corruption, corporate greed and class struggle is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1937, according to director Norma Saldivar.

“The Cradle will Rock” is an allegory, and there are sentiments in the play that are part of the current political discourse,” says Saldivar, director of the UW-M Department of Theater’s graduate directing program. “The play asks very hard questions and challenges us.” 

The narrative revolves around efforts to unionize workers in the fictitious “Steeltown, U.S.A.” and to combat the influence of the greedy Mr. Mister, a character who owns just about everything in the community. The dialogue is recitative, meaning it is sung throughout the production, and the music blends pop and jazz with more complex styles.

“I think of this as a period piece from a time when the world and our country were quite troubled,” Saldivar says. “(But) iconic characters like Moll and Mr. Mister are representative of types of people who are still present in our society.”

The work was originally created as part of the WPA Theater Project. It nearly didn’t happen, because its themes were considered incendiary and a little too close to home. Produced by John Houseman and directed by Kenosha native Orson Welles, “The Cradle Will Rock” was scheduled to begin previews at the Maxine Elliot Theater on June 16, 1937. 

However, WPA shut down the production and padlocked the theater four days before previews were scheduled. The government agency cited budget cuts as the reason, but many felt the show was censored due to its radical content.

Not to be deterred, Houseman, Wells and Blitzstein rented the Venice Theater for June 16, then walked the entire audience 21 blocks from the Elliott to see the performance. 

The contracted musicians refused to play unless they received their full salaries, something Houseman could no longer afford, so Blitzstein performed the entire score on an upright piano. The Actors Equity Association would not allow the cast to perform on stage without approval of the producer, which was the federal government. So many of them performed from seats in the audience.

The work received critical acclaim, and Houseman eventually overcame the legal hurdles and staged the show as it was originally intended. “The Cradle Will Rock” ran for 108 performances. The experience is credited with leading Welles and Houseman to form the Mercury Theater.

“Our production isn’t attempting to top that amazing experience of perseverance and determination, but we are using it as inspiration,” Saldivar says. “We have a wonderful scenic design that brings the audience closer to the story’s action, and we keep the production in the original period because no time is more rooted in struggle.”

Despite Blitzstein’s sexual orientation, Saldivar sees no gay subtext in the play. But the director says the struggle of the play’s disenfranchised characters to be heard perhaps echoes the composer’s experiences as a gay man.

“For me, the heart of the play are the people who are innocent and have no voice or ability to be heard,” she says. “I think this can apply to any group seeking to be acknowledged.”

The medical needs of Blitzstein clearly were not acknowledged on the night that he died in January 1964. Close friend Leonard Bernstein, who had directed a production of “The Cradle Will Rock” while a student at Harvard, learned of Blitzstein’s death in his dressing room as he was preparing to conduct a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Eroica.” He dedicated the evening’s performance to his late friend. 

Blitzstein’s personal papers are housed in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison. For more information, call 608-264-6534.

On stage

“The Cradle Will Rock” runs 11 performances Nov. 16-Dec. 8 at the Mitchell Theatre on the UW campus.

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