The original production of the 1937 play with music, “The Cradle Will Rock” by Marc Blitzstein was almost as significant as the show itself. The play, which was funded under the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. However, the program was shut down days before it was scheduled to open. The company found a local theater, but since it violated the union to appear onstage, the singers sat in the audience while a non-union member, Blitzstein sat at the piano on stage playing the music. Whether planned or spontaneously, the actress playing Moll, the prostitute, stood up at her seat and began to sing her part from the audience, and the other actors followed suit.
The play begins when, by mistake, all of Steeltown, USA’s most noted citizens are thrown in jail where they sit and wait for Mister Mister to get them released. Also in prison are Moll, the prostitute who rejected Mister Mister’s advances, and Larry Foreman, the union organizer. Mister Mister exerts control over everything in the town, including the church, the press and even the arts. The characters’ names lack subtly, with Reverend Salvation representing religion, Editor Daily running the newspapers and President Prexy of Steeltown University in charge of the college. Despite social class and wealth distinctions, the top-citizens are like Moll, since they, too, sell themselves for money. When Mister Mister finally arrives to bail out the citizens, he tries to bribe Larry as well, but Larry rejects him, noting that one day “the cradle will rock” and the workers will overcome. Each time Mister Mister approaches someone, he overcomes their resistance by tossing money on the floor so the recipient is forced onto his hands and knees to pick it up.
In a recent revival, the Classic Stage Company, an intimate theater on East 13 known for economy of staging, uses few props, (salvage drums and lots of paper money) and no sets. Directed by John Doyle, “The Cradle Will Rock” is a stripped-down version of the original. Four in the cast alternate playing the piano. The small cast is talented and versatile and plays multiple roles. Tony Yazbeck plays both Harry Druggist, a small businessman who lost his business, as well as Larry Foreman, the union organizer. David Garrison is sinister Mister Mister and Sally Ann Triplett is his wife, Mrs. Mister.
The show is presented almost entirely in music which makes it feel somewhat operatic although Blitzstein incorporated many of the popular styles of the times. The songs tell the story, but little is memorable and at times the stories are plodding and uninspiring. The show has a few earnestly-moving moments, especially with Yazbeck as the struggling druggist and Lara Pulver as Moll but the show is little more than a series of events - interactions between Mister Mister and the people he controls.
In watching the show, one needs recall the time in which it was written when 18 million people were out of work. Although the economy is better today, the themes still resonate as the wealthy classes and big business continue to hold sway over all facets of the economy. Foreman’s message, one of hope for the masses, still seems naive and unobtainable.
Classic Stage Company's production of "The Cradle Will Rock" will perform March 21 through May 19, 2019.