There was a time in New York when theater really mattered. Plays reverberated with the life of the city, its passions, its politics, its hunger. During the 1930s and 1940s, productions ran the gamut from melodramatic depictions of poverty like Dead End to penetrating social criticism like Death of a Salesman. Many of these galvanized public opinion when they opened, but one show in particular became legendary by virtue of having opened at all: Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.
An unabashed, left wing attack on big business, the musical nearly closed before it opened when the theater in which it was supposed to premiere was padlocked in a shocking attempt at governmental censorship. But there were giants in the theater in those days--resourceful, defiant men who had something to say and would damned well say it. Men like John Houseman (who produced The Cradle Will Rock) and Orson Welles (who directed it).
The story of how The Cradle Will Rock got to the stage and thereby made theatrical history is ultimately a much better story then the one told in the musical itself. Tim Robbins directed an extraordinary film, titled Cradle Will Rock, that presents a somewhat fictionalized version of these events. The critical success of the movie rekindled interest in Blitzstein's musical, but there is great danger in remounting a famous show when the show itself might well pale against the film that describes its creation. It is therefore very much to the credit of the Jean Cocteau Rep that it has produced a gritty and engaging version of this 1937 landmark piece of theater. Under the energetic and creative direction of David Fuller, The Cradle Will Rock gives modern-day audiences a sense of what made the show so exciting in its own age.
We're in Steeltown, U.S.A on the night when the local unions are going to either collapse or join together to fight the corrupt capitalist, Mister Mister. (You can tell by the names of the characters in this show that Blitzstein wasn't aiming for subtlety.) During the evening, we meet a starving young woman forced into prostitution, a former druggist turned lush who harbors a terrible guilt, and a bunch of Mister Mister's yes-men. We also meet Mister Mister and his family, as well as the one union man who might just bring down the big boss.
You can't say Blitzstein didn't know how to grab an audience: the show starts with sex and violence. Our hooker heroine is desperate for a trick, willing to sell her body for 50 cents, but her prospective john has only a nickel. The cops bust the prostitute, and they brutally nab the union man after an exciting chase scene. We're hooked.
Though the show wobbles from time to time, too often becoming strident in its polemic, it still works. That's because the one thing it fundamentally has going for it is its utter sincerity. This Off-Broadway production captures that emotional honesty; there is a sense of commitment on the stage that enhances the drama and sweetens it. It certainly helps that there are some very fine actor/singers in the large cast. In particular, Elise Stone creates a world-weary Moll (the prostitute) and sings with a burning anguish. Taylor Bowyer stands out in several roles, but especially as Reverend Salvation. Though he's barely on stage until the end, Jason Crowl as Larry Foreman (the union man) gives an exceptional performance; the expressions that cross his face when he's tempted into betraying the union movement are a play in themselves.
Blitzstein was fundamentally a composer, not a librettist. Some of the music in The Cradle Will Rock is beautiful and powerful, some of it rather embarrassing, but every note of it is passionate. And there is something haunting about this show. That feeling comes, in part, from its own history (you really must rent the Robbins movie). It also comes from the realization that, despite substantial changes in this country since 1937, Mister Mister is still with us. In fact, when we left the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, a long, white, stretch limo was parked right out in front. Talk about heavy-handed symbolism!