Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock with Leonard Bernstein, 1964

Poster for the Maxine Elliott Theatre production, cancelled by the WPA before opening
(George Mason University Libraries, Special Collections)

Here's an extraordiary performance of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock that was given as the second half of the Blitzstein memorial concert on 19 April 1964, and the recording of it is in very good sound.

According to a note in the programme, it was given "in the manner of the original production with Leonard Bernstein directing from the piano".

Programme for the 1964 performance (from http://www.marcblitzstein.com)

This was indeed how Blitzstein had played the piece on 16 June 1937 at its famous première. Blitzstein's Brechtian "opera" (according to the title page of the Tams-Witmark rental score), or "play with music" (according to Blitzstein himself – but never "musical" as it's often described) used just a piano played by the composer, despite plans to use a 28-piece orchestra that was to be conducted by Lehman Engel. Funding for the project had been withdrawn by the Federal Theater Project of the WPA at the last moment, and the Maxine Elliott Theatre, where the show was supposed to open, was barricaded by guards, the producers (John Houseman and Orson Welles) were ordered not to continue, and the actors were forbidden to perform by Actors' Equity as the production was no longer a WPA project. In this chaotic environment, Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein remained determined to find a way of letting the show be performed.

The frantic hunt for a new theatre on the afternoon and early evening of opening night finally came up with the empty and unloved Venice Theatre, twenty blocks uptown from the Maxine Elliott Theatre. Jean Rosenthal – one of the most innovative lighting designers in the American theatre, whose later credits included West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret – had been sent out to track down a piano. She'd found an upright and had been driving around New York on the back of a truck with it for hours, awaiting instructions about where to take it. She arrived first at the Venice, and was soon followed by Blitzstein, John Houseman, Orson Welles and members of the cast. The preview audience made its way to the theatre and by 8:30 the theatre was starting to fill, and by 9:00 iit was packed.

This extraordinary night was recalled by Houseman in Run-Through, the first volume of his memoirs, published in 1972:

"Marc [was] in his shirtsleeves ... sitting pale and tense at his eviscerated piano. ... The Cradle Will Rock started cold, without an oventure. A short vamp that sounded harsh and tinny on Jean Rosenthal's rented, untuned upright, and Marc's voice, clipped, precise and high-pitched: 'A street corner – Steeltown, U.S.A.' ... It was a few seconds before we realized that to Marc's strained tenor, another voice – a faint, wavering soprano – had been added. It was not clear at first where it came from, as the two voices continued together for a few lines. ... At that moment the spotlight moved off the stage ... and came to rest on the lower left box where a thin girl in a green dress with dyed red hair was standing, glassy-eyed, stiff with fear, only half audible at first in the huge theatre but gathering strength with every note ...

It is almost impossible, at this distance in time, to convey the throat-catching, sickeningly exciting quality of that moment or to describe the emotions of gratitude and love with which we saw and heard that slim green figure. Years later Hiram Sherman wrote to me: 'If Olive Stanton had not risen on cue in the box, I doubt if the rest of us would have had the courage to stand up and carry on. But once that thin, incredibly clear voice came out, we all fell in line.' ... Nothing surprised the audience or Marc or any of us after that, as scenes and numbers followed each other in fantastic sequence from one part of the house to another. ...

Just before leaving 39th Street I had made a last round of the theatre, thanked the members of the chorus for their loyalty and urged them not to take any unnecessary chances. It was all the more startling, therefore, in Scene Three, to hear ... two dozen rich negro voices. On their own, without consulting anyone, they had travelled uptown and found their places behind their conductor. Now, as their first cue came up ... taking their beat from Lehman Engel, they sang like angels ... And then, finally, the showdown: Larry Foreman confronting Mr Mister and his Liberty Committee in the crowded night court. Only this night they were all on their feet, singing and shouting from all over the theatre as they built to the final, triumphal release ... [with] Marc's pounding of an untuned piano before a wrinkled backdrop of the Bay of Naples. As the curtain fell and the actors started to go back to their seats, there was a second's silence – then all hell broke loose. It was past midnight before we could clear the theatre. We had rented it till eleven and had to pay twenty dollars extra, but it was worth it. ... We got our notices not in the drama section but in headlines on the front pages..."

Leonard Bernstein's association with the piece went back to soon after that historic première. In May 1939, as an undergraduate at Harvard, Bernstein put on performances of The Cradle Will Rock at the university's Sanders Theatre.

Permission slip from the Harvard authorities allowing Bernstein to put on The Cradle Will Rock at the Sanders Theatre in 1939 (Library of Congress, Leonard Bernstein Collection)

In 1947, Bernstein gave another performance, at New York's City Center in November 1947.

The March 1964 performance at the concert put on in Blitzstein's memory (he had died on 22 January 1964) includes some members of the original 1937 cast: Will Geer (Mr Mister), Hiram Sherman (Reverend Salvation) and Howard Da Silva (Larry Foreman), who also staged this performance. It also includes a remarkable array of Broadway talent – the likes of Betty Comden (Mrs Mister), Adolph Green (Dauber) and Phyillis Newman (Sister Mister) – as well as Bernstein himself, who narrates the story, plays the piano, and takes two small roles (Clerk and Reporter).

Finally, then, here is the link for this performance, comprising 8 mp3 tracks in a zip folder. Track 9 is Blitzstein himself singing "The Nickel Under Your Foot".

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (Bernstein et al, 1964):

Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein in 1943 (Library of Congress)

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