The Cradle Will Rock
still rocks today
McGill presents a legendary American musical play at Moyse Hall
By Byron Toben
For years, I had heard of the legendary music play The Cradle Will Rock but never had occasion to see it. Finally, thanks to the English Department of McGill University and its theatre professor/director, Myrna Selkirk, I had the opportunity to do so. Great enlightening fun.
While McGill does not have any degree in Theatre performance or production, as do the excellent programs at Dawson or Sir John Abbot Cegeps, it does harbour some good talents that pop up in the Players’ Theatre, the Tuesday Night Cafe and, as here, the English Department.
When it was to open, political pressure caused padlocking of its theatre due its ‘communistic’ message.
When Marc Blitzstein, then a 32-year-old classical composer, wrote this show in 1937, he arranged for the 21-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, (fresh from his Voodoo Macbeth and 2 years before his radio War of the Worlds) to direct.
There was a lot of labour strife going on in that Depression era with violence going on of the sort not replicated until the race riots of the 60s and beyond.
Thus Cradle was set in a city called Steel Town controlled by an arch capitalist Mr. Mister whose carrot-and-stick money allowed him to control the local doctors, police, clergy, journalists, cultural supporters and other normally ‘liberal’ types, who coalesce as a night jury to judge recently arrested strikers and a prostitute caught up in the sweep. Mr. Mister is offset by strike organizer Larry Foreman who refuses his bribes to sell out.
The whole is admittedly cartoonish, but a breath of fresh air in the theatre of the time. It is influenced by Becht / Weil, of course, and presumably by its contemporary Clifford Odets’ rabble-rouser Waiting For Lefty.
Ms. Selkirk has cleverly introduced some contemporary touches into the production… the chorus clanks on pots and pans as they sing the finale, reminiscent of the student marches for free tuition…
When it was to open, political pressure caused padlocking of its theatre due its ‘communistic’ message. The initial company managed to put it on last minute at another theatre without an orchestra that Welles had championed and only Blitzstein himself on stage with a single piano.
The show was revived on Broadway in 1947, then again Off Broadway in 1964 (starring Jerry Orbach, who was a musical guy before his famous TV detective days) and again Off Broadway in 1983 (starring Patti LuPone). Below you will find a video of Mr. Orbach voicing the title song.
In 1999, Tim Robbins wrote and directed a semi-fictional film version that can be found on the Internet.
Its anti-establishment slant can be seen in Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theatre of the late 50s extending into the 80s, the musical Hair, some works of Sondheim, the Bread and Puppet and other agitprop groups. It also had a life in many amateur groups around the country.
It became the first racially integrated play ever to perform in the Deep South. It was also the first original cast album to be released. The show features 22 songs with styles from Weil to Jazz to Tin Pan alley. The title song is sung solo by the character Larry Foreman and again by him together with the whole ensemble at the finale.
Ms. Selkirk has cleverly introduced some contemporary touches into the production. For instance, the chorus clanks on pots and pans as they sing the finale, reminiscent of the student marches for free tuition of 5 years ago. Moll, the female prostitute who opens the show, soliciting a passing Gent, but refusing an arresting Dick, is here a transvestite or maybe a trans-sexual.
Many of the co-opted middle class jury wear pig noses. Mr. Mister sports a more elongated add-on nose. Someone in the crowd post show said it was a penis replication, which, with my bifocals, I had not noticed. Had I, I would have related whether it was circumcised or not.
The Cradle Will Rock resumes at Moyse Hall at 7:30 pm on November 30, December 1 and 2.
Only $12 admission
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Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.