In 1937, composer Marc Blitzstein, director Orson Welles, and producer John Houseman made theater and labor history. The Cradle Will Rock–music, book, and lyrics by Blitzstein–was set for production by the Federal Theatre Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, a federally funded New Deal agency. After months of rehearsal with orchestra and elaborate sets, the opening was cancelled abruptly by the WPA. The theater was padlocked and guarded; the cast and crew were not given access to costumes or sets or even the stage. The show would have to go on somewhere else, with actors in the audience and Blitzstein’s orchestration replaced by piano. Another theater was located, and the actors and audience marched off through the streets of New York. With Blitzstein at the piano playing from memory and Welles narrating from the stage, the show began. As Blitzstein launched into the first song, “Moll’s Lament,” cast member Olive Stanton, seated in a box, stood unprompted and began to sing. Blitzstein’s biographer described it as “one of the most riveting moments in the history of the American theatre.” Following Stanton, other singers sprinkled throughout the audience sang their numbers, and against all odds and opposition, a new show was born.
It was the middle of the Depression. Organized labor battled management all across America, and there was no doubt of Blitzstein’s left-wing sympathies, which had obviously alarmed the bureaucrats. But the daring of the cast won the day, and the work soon took its place in the canon. A semi-staged version opened on Broadway later in 1937, and the piece has been revived regularly since. A 1999 film by Tim Robbins passed the story on to a new generation. Blitzstein’s tale of workers and ordinary people struggling to survive pitted against the wealthy and entrenched was contemporary then, and it is every bit as contemporary today.
Set in fictional Steeltown, USA, Blitzstein’s allegory of corporate corruption and greed pits Larry Foreman, who is trying to unionize the town’s workers, against rapacious steel tycoon Mr. Mister and a group of prominent anti-union agitators. The good-hearted prostitute Moll and down-and-out Harry Druggist get caught up in the struggle, which culminates in the workers’ rising up in a passionate finale. Blitzstein’s score blends arias and recitative with popular song, jazz, chorales, and marches.
New York City Center will start a summer spin-off of its long-running and highly successful Encores! series in 2013, and the very first show will be The Cradle Will Rock. The series, Encores! Off-Center, will present musical shows with orchestra and minimal staging. The cast for Cradle features a host of Broadway luminaries, including Danny Burstein, Raúl Esparza, and Anika Noni Rose. Sam Gold directs; Chris Fenwick conducts. Composer Jeanine Tesori is the series’ Artistic Director. The Cradle Will Rock will open on 10 July and make history once again.
John Houseman recalls the premiere (video)
Meet the cast (photo feature)
Interview with director Sam Gold
Linda Winer’s column on the new series (Newsday)
Essay on Cradle by Peter Filichia
Essay on Cradle by Scott Miller
Photos from opening-night cast party
Learn more about The Cradle Will Rock
“The production mostly treats Blitzstein’s work honorably, both dramatically and musically, with Chris Fenwick attentively conducting a 14-piece orchestra in artfully jazzy orchestrations by Josh Clayton. The across-the-board excellent cast also includes Peter Friedman as a corrupted but conflicted drugstore owner; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, giving a powerful turn with a thunderous song asking when the exploitation of the average Joe will end; and an aptly fiery Raúl Esparza, portraying the union organizer who responds to that question in the rousing title song.”
—New York Times
“Cradle has been less known for Blitzstein’s marvelous score and his surprisingly witty fist of a book than for the tabloid-ready  premiere . . . The songs, driven by unsettling rhythms, play ironically and lusciously with popular tunes and dance forms . . . a devastating finale.”
“When Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who’s been sitting stage right doing less that the others, steps forward as Ella Hammer to sing “Joe Worker” about her deceased husband, she delivers an 11 o’clock number (in a 90-minute, intermissionless work) that puts many another 11 o’clock number to shame. As impressive as Randolph is, she’s also an example of how well this Cradle Will Rock has been cast. You can’t do too much better these days than round up musical veterans [Raúl] Esparza, [Danny] Burstein, [Judy] Kuhn, [Anika Noni] Rose, [Peter] Friedman, [Matthew] Saldívar, [Michael] Park, [Aidan] Gemme, David Margulies and Robert Petkoff. . . . When the entire cast sings together, not only the cradle rocks. So does the room.”
“This searing, hilarious and deeply affecting production resurrected a show that had been regarded as a famous but historical agitprop curio from the depths of the Depression. The all-star, multi-talented cast exposed the rich theatricality of Blitzstein’s 1937 attack on the evils of unrestrained capitalism. This semi-staged version . . . had no need of sets to turn the work into a relevant and vital powerhouse in its swift 90-minute arc.”
—Jewish Daily Forward
“An uncommonly powerful concert production . . . 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.”
“Though [Anika Noni] Rose is touching as the tough but naïve Moll, she’s better framed in her comical turn as the culturally dim but politically savvy Mrs. Mister, who slips generous contributions to Reverend Salvation (a nicely slick Matthew Saldívar) in exchange for sermons promoting the politics that best serves the steel industry and funds the careers of concert musician Yasha (Michael Moran) and painter Dauber (Henry Stram) in exchange for their social patronage. . . . [Danny] Burstein is excellent as the brash and bullying Mr. Mister, but the perfectly cast [Raúl] Esparza completely dominates the room once his character enters in the late stages of the game.”