The show “The Cradle Will Rock” written my Marc Blitzstein is a piece of work that reflects the struggles and politics of its time. In researching this show and it original production, one has to also know about the events in history surrounding and affecting the lives of every-day Americans. Then one must realize how these experiences influenced and inspired the creativity and brilliance behind Blitzstein’s vision and the creation of “The Cradle Will Rock”. It is in specific events of the nineteen thirties that sparked, what was for its time, a controversial incident in the history of theatre had never before transpired.
When the Depression began Herbert Hoover was the President and then in 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President. Roosevelt, seeing his country in a state of decline, lunched what is referred to as “The New Deal”, a series of economic programs to get American back on its feet. One of these programs was The Works Progress Administration or the WPA which aimed to find jobs for the unemployed. The WPA consisted of five Federal One projects and the Federal Theatre Project or FTP was one designed for employment of out-of-work artists, writers, and directors, with the secondary aim of entertaining poor families and creating relevant art.
Other event s that lead to important plot points of Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” where the forming of unions and labor strikes. In Scott Miller’s “An Analysis of The Cradle Will Rock” he writes:
The political atmosphere in America in 1937 was ripe for a show like The Cradle Will Rock. In 1936 not a single employee at U.S. Steel belonged to a union, but by February 1937, just five months before Cradle’s premiere, the steel workers had unionized and forced U.S. Steel to sign a collective bargaining agreement. In response to this new movement, anti-labor organizations were springing up all over America.”
With all this going on Blitzstein felt the need to express the frustrations of the union workers, but the creation of “The Cradle Will Rock” first began with a single song call Nickel under the foot. It was performed for Bertolt Brecht a German poet, playwright, and theatre director. It was Brecht’s idea to take the song further into a full length show. “Brecht said, “Why don’t you write a piece about all kinds of prostitution – the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system?” (John Jansson)”
While he did not get to work on it right away the idea never left his mind. It was not until the death of his wife that he dove headfirst into the writing of the musical. It took him all of five weeks to complete his work of art, that of which he dedicated to Brecht.
Troubles for Blitzstein came when it was time for him to find a company that would accept his piece. Many companies though it to be too sensitive a subject with the recent troubles in America and its large political statement, all in all for many it seemed too risky. But that would not stop Blitzstein in finding a way to get his play to the people; he would not give up his quest to make his message heard. A message many Americans needed to hear.
The plot of “The Cradle Will Rock” as explained on Musical Heaven is as follows:
Moll, a streetwalker in “Steeltown USA” is arrested and finds herself in Night Court witnessing the arraignment of “The Liberty Committee,” a handful of distinguished citizens who are opposed to organizing activities by the Steelworkers Union. In an ironic twist of fate, they have been mistaken for union organizers and arrested. A drunken vagrant, once a prospering pharmacist, explains to Moll how this minister, newspaper editor, doctor, college president, professor and artist have all sold their principles for money and power. The wealth and authority of Mister Mister, a leading industrial boss, has corrupted the city, and the process is also revealed in the committee members’ furtive dialogues and strained efforts for release.
Ultimately the chief union organizer, Larry Foreman, is brought into court. An uncompromising and charismatic man, he exemplifies how one person can make a difference and gives hope to the bitter prostitute and druggist. When Steeltown’s boss, Mister Mister, arrives at the courthouse to rescue his lackeys, he attempts to buy Foreman’s loyalties but is rebuked. At the conclusion, word arrives that other unions have joined with the Steelworkers’ struggle. Even the Liberty Committee, sensing the drift of things, abandons its rich patron. Mister Mister, cowardly and alone, realizes that working people have finally developed a backbone and that he has met his match.
It was not until Orson Welles, an actor and theatre director who was working for the WPA at the time, had Blitzstein play it for producer John Houseman. This finally gave Blitzstein his big break. Houseman loved the concept and put it into production straightaway.
With Orson Welles as the director the vision of the show started taking shape, perhaps it was a vision that Blitzstein was not expecting. Blitzstein believed in his character’s two-dimensionality. He viewed them more as cartoon characters, larger than life. But with the direction of Welles he wanted a spectacle. As read in the article “The Cradle that Rocked America” Joseph Gustaitis writes:
As director, Welles launched himself into The Cradle Will Rock with characteristic Wellesian style, promising Houseman a grandiose production that would be “extremely elaborate and expensive.” It was. Welles’ vision would expand to include a 44-member chorus, a 28-piece orchestra, and a set design that used large glass carts to shift scenes. (20)
At this time The FTP, and its director, Hallie Flanagan began experiencing pressure from conservative congressmen. Although not directly some congressman had even enquired as to whether there was Communist Ideals in the FTP. It seemed that there would soon be budget cuts made in the WPA Federal theater program.
On June 12 word from Washington came through that budget cut were indeed a reality. It read, “any new production scheduled to open before July 1, 1937, must be postponed”(Gustaitis). This news fell hard upon Welles and Housemen. They then hear news “Actors Equity would not permit any of their members to appear on stage, and that the Musicians Union had imposed conditions making it impossible to have an orchestra in the pit” (Jansson). They believed that they show would now never open. When they arrived at the Maxine Elliott Theater they found armed guards surrounding the entrance and a pad lock on the door. People in the streets gathered to see what all the commotion was all about. Seeing the crowd wells and housemen realized that, as the saying goes, the show must go on. All they needed was a venue and a piano, and since Blitzstein was not part of any union he could play, sing and act out all the parts.
With the Venice theatre willing to open house to them for a small fee and the piano found and on its way, Welles song out to the crowd that “The Cradle Will Rock” will open as planned in the new location featuring Marc Blitzstein himself. The people gathered and begin to follow them some twenty blocks to the Venice Theater. Onlookers joined the parade, and the crowd grew larger. By nine o’clock every one of the Venice theatre’s 1742 seats were filled (Jansson).