Search This Blog

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blowing in the Wind

“WHY DON’T YOU WRITE a piece about all kinds of prostitution – the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system?” This was Bertolt Brecht’s reaction when Marc Blitzstein played for him a song titled “Nickel under the Foot,” a streetwalker’s lament, that Blitzstein had written as part of an unproduced sketch. This was in1936, when the American labor scene was about to undergo its most visible transformation, and Blitzstein was at its artistic center, bringing an awareness of history, a social conscience, and an immense talent to bear upon his ill-fated musical “The Cradle Will Rock.”

John Tibbetts and Scott Purcell
Photo by Gary David Gold
Blitzstein did exactly as Brecht suggested, finishing the piece in five weeks. It was true to its time. It was prescient. At the very end of 1936, workers at the Fisher body plant in Flint, Michigan, staged a sit-down strike that would lead, six weeks later, to the affirmation of the United Auto Workers to bargain for the strikers. It made national headlines.

While occupying the factory, the workers put together their own band and sang songs old and new. One of the new ones, “Sit Down,” is quoted in “The Cradle Will Rock,” along with folksongs like “Go in and out the Window,” the Yale fight song, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, and even a Bach chorale. Believing in the power of theater to influence middle-class thinking, Blitzstein fashioned a giddy polemic that tears into capitalist greed with a Depression-era perspective, but in a tuneful, witty way. So appropriate was it for its time that the Federal Works Progress Administration, spooked by right-wing threats, shut it down just before its opening night.

No such controversy attended the recent production of the piece by Opera Saratoga, but the opposition now works on a larger canvas: there’s no need to pick on individual events when you can pull the plug on the National Endowment for the Arts. And so “The Cradle Will Rock” remains a piece for our own times as well, sorely needed to combat a level of ignorance that has 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents maintaining that higher education has a negative effect on the country.

Thanks to “Cradle’s” unusual birth, productions often mimic its piano-only premiere performances. Opera Saratoga gave us the piece with full orchestra, and enlisted legendary Broadway and opera conductor John Mauceri to bring it to life. Martin T. Lopez’s set opened the constricted space at the Spa Little Theater using staircases and platforms, and effectively suggesting a jail cell at center.

There’s an organizing effort underway in Steeltown, USA, and a gang of troublemakers has been imprisoned. But there’s been a mistake: this is the Liberty Committee, a handpicked bunch of stooges chosen to do the bidding of Mr. Mister, who effectively runs the town.

Much of the story is told in flashback. Thus we go back to the earlier war years to see Mrs. Mister (Audrey Babcock) persuade Reverend Salvation (the dynamic Justin Hopkins) to preach in support of that war and thus enrich her husband, and Babcock’s mastery of the character mirrors her character’s mastery of the minions around her.

Blitzstein spares no-one: even fellow artists come under scrutiny, when Babcock returns to patronize the concert artist Yasha (John Tibbetts) and painter Dauber (Scott Purcell), who compete to see how far each can go – and how much artistic integrity can be given up – to maintain her favor, even as they revel in contempt:
“Oh, there's something so damned low about the rich,
They're fantastic, they're far-fetched, they're just funny;
They've no impulse, no fine feeling, no great itch.
What have they got? What have they got? Money.”
Thus it goes along the line, with academics, a physician, and a newspaper editor also targets of satire. The dilemma of Editor Daily (Brian Wallin) hits close to home: he learns that Mr. Mister now owns the publication, and will be calling the shots. The two of them sing a vaudeville duet:
“O the press, the press, the freedom of the press,
You've only got to hint whatever's fit to print;
If something's wrong with it, why then we'll print to fit.
With a he-diddly-dee and a ho-nonny-no
For whichever side will pay the best.”
... and we see the rise of Fox News prefigured. Keeping it even more current, Daily is enlisted to help get the cloddish Junior Mister (Spencer Viator) out of the way – and out to Honolulu. The inept scion of the Mister estate languishes in a duet titled “Croon Spoon,” sung with the ebullient Sister Mister (Heather Jones) as their parasitic ways are set to a pop-song sensibility.

Also occupying the night court shop are Moll, a prostitute (Ginger Costa-Jackson), and Harry Druggist Keith Jameson), each a victim of a society twisted to keep on enriching the already-rich. “Nickel under the Foot” usually is a showstopper for Moll, but Costa-Jackson kept it quieter at the performance I saw, something I later learned was done for purposes of the recording being made (see below). The moment was muted to serve the greater good, which is entirely in the spirit of the piece.

The standout number was “Joe Worker,” a lament by Ella Hammer (Nina Spinner) to her late husband, killed by factory goons.
“How many frameups, how many shakedowns,
Lockouts, sellouts,
How many times machine guns tell the same old story,
Brother, does it take to make you wise?”
It sets the finale in motion, as Larry Foreman refuses Mr. Mister’s bribes and blandishments and welcomes the bugle calls signaling successful union votes. Christopher Burchett played Foreman with a splendid sense of everyman, making his possible temptation all the more believable. It’s a triumph, but we know that Mr. Mister will only be slowed, not stopped.

Opera Saratoga artistic director Lawrence Edelson directed and choreographed the production with a sure hand for satire, keeping the edge sharp without overdoing it. When the Liberty Committee shuffles from place to place like Keystone Kops, we’re witnessing their submission and conformity. When they all appear, at the end, wearing bright red pumps, it’s a satisfying acknowledgment of their true occupations.

 “The Cradle Will Rock” was created to get under the skin, to goose a too-placid intelligentsia into more socially conscious action. If you missed it and would like some of that inspiration, the production was recorded for a commercial release, and will have a welcome place on my playlist.

The Cradle Will Rock
Music, Book, and Lyrics by Marc Blitzstein
Conducted by John Mauceri
Directed by Lawrence Edelson
Opera Saratoga
Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, NY, 13 July 2017

No comments: