"In the rich man's house, the only place to spit is in his face." This quote from Greek philosopher Diogenes quite literally hangs over the Encores! Off-Center reading of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock at New York City Center. It is written in a formal script, the type one might find on an invitation to a cotillion or fancy cocktail party, and projected on the back curtain throughout the entirety of the show. This elegant up-yours offers an ideal frame to an uncommonly powerful concert production.
Set in Steeltown, USA, The Cradle Will Rock mostly takes place in a jail cell where the town's "Liberty Committee," made up of the most prominent citizens, had mistakenly been jailed. As the evening progresses, each member of the committee has a song explaining how, in some fashion, he or she serves the interests of Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein), the richest, most powerful man in town. Mister has used his considerable capital to purchase the allegiance of the clergy, the press, academics, doctors, and even artists. No one is spared from Blitzstein's acerbic musical indictment of the elite. Is it any wonder that the original production was barred from taking the stage in 1937?
Produced under the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, The Cradle Will Rock was shut down by the federal government shortly before it was scheduled to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on Broadway. The official reason was "budget cuts," but many have speculated it was because the play's themes were too radical. In an episode that has entered Broadway lore, Blitzstein, producer John Houseman, and director Orson Welles arranged to perform the show at the Venice Theatre with just Blitzstein on stage at a piano and the cast singing from the house as a way to skirt union rules. This moment was immortalized in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.
Of course, this Encores! concert is performed onstage, in a union house, with all union actors, and the backing of several government and private organizations. Yet, even in the rarefied confines of City Center, I couldn't help but feel like we were engaging in something forbidden, hearing truths that aren't allowed to be spoken in polite society. Stripping the show down to just the words and music, without the frills and distractions of a full production, made the social and political themes of the work that much more present. The takeaway: In 2013, Blitzstein's show feels more relevant than ever.
Indeed, as Mr. Mister, Danny Burstein is David Koch incarnate. David Margulies captures the essence of an overpampered university president, the type of which are becoming increasingly visible. The violinist Yasha (Martin Moran) and the artist Dauber (Henry Stram) privately criticize Mr. and Mrs. Mister for their bourgeois taste, but are more than happy accept their financial support. (While it may be producing this big red musical, City Center lists more than a few millionaires in the back its program.) The great thing about The Cradle Will Rock is that it challenges everyone, including the artists mounting the show.
In an inspired bit of double-casting, Anika Noni Rose plays both Mrs. Mister and the prostitute Moll. "Sister, you should be ashamed — an amateur like you in the company of all these professionals?" says Larry Foreman (Raul Esparza in a rabble-rousing performance), the union organizer who is the only person refusing to be bought by Mr. Mister.
While some will undoubtedly find The Cradle Will Rock unnecessarily preachy, too filled with social commentary for an enjoyable evening of theater, Blitzstein would argue that there is no point in doing theater if it does not participate in a greater discussion about society. He completely rejected "Art for Art's sake."
In that spirit, Encores — which offers $25.00 tickets for all its performances of The Cradle Will Rock — has inserted a list of facts in each program including, "Portion of the increase in U.S. corporate profit margins since 2001 that has come from depressed wages: ¾." Also, "Percentage change in the incomes of the top 1 percent of earners during the recent economic recovery: +11.2" and, "Of the bottom 99 percent: -0.4." These statistics will certainly lead to many heated post-show debates this week. I have no doubt Blitzstein would approve.