Friday, June 15, 2012

The theater that said "No!" to the feds

Exactly 75 years ago tomorrow, one of the most remarkable events in American theater history took place. Producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles were working on "The Cradle Will Rock," a Broadway musical by Marc Blitzstein, and previews were set to begin on June 16, 1937. The show had been funded by the Works Progress Administration, one of FDR's job-building projects during The Depression, but the WPA decided four days before its opening to reorganize all arts projects and postpone every opening until July 1.

The official reason was budget cuts, but many people felt "Cradle" rocked too many established boats. The hero was a union organizer named Larry Foreman. He was opposed by Mr. Mister, a factory owner who controlled virtually everything in Steeltown -- including a tame newspaper editor, minister, and university president -- and who didn't intend to share power. (Subtle, it ain't. Musically effective, it is. Patti LuPone and Houseman's Acting Company made a fine recording in 1983, with a spoken introduction by Houseman.)

The three creators refused to acknowledge the order to stop and wouldn't announce the postponement. They found a theater and a piano themselves literally moments before the curtain was supposed to go up on the 16th; the audience that had gather outside the Maxine Elliott Theatre traipsed 21 blocks north to the larger Venice Theatre, where Houseman and Welles invited people in off the street for free to fill extra seats. But the musicians' union refused to play unless Houseman could pay their full salaries, which he couldn't. And Actors Equity Association refused to let actors go onstage without permission from the original producer, the federal government. (Yes, a show extolling the value of unions was being undermined by two unions.)

Blitzstein agreed to play and sing the whole score at the piano. When he began the opening number, a plaintive song for the streetwalker Moll, actress Olive Stanton stood up in the audience to deliver her lines. She had found a loophole: It was legal to perform if she wasn't onstage. Other cast members joined in, and the night finished in triumph. The actors got a two-week leave of absence from the WPA, a private backer came on board, and the show kept going. It eventually opened on Broadway in 1938 and ran for 108 performances. (It has been revived three times in New York and once in London.)

You may take issue with the show's social commentary or Blitzstein's songs, which have the flavor of a collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. (I like both elements.) But you have to admire the actors and producers who put their money, reputations and possible economic futures on the line to defy the federal government and produce a work of art in which they deeply believed. How many people would do that today?