Musical Drama

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Can you describe the musical The Cradle Will Rock (1937) by Marc Blitzstein?

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In his study of Popular Front cultural production, The Cultural Front (1997), Michael Denning argues that the first performance of the The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles

is one of the legendary events of the cultural front, often overshadowing the musical itself (p. 285).

When the WPA cancelled the premiere of this "proletarian opera" about the effeorts of Larry Foreman to unionize the inhabitants of "Steeltown", Welles and the author Marc Blitzstein were not discouraged. They hired another theatre on the spot and led the audience there. In addition, as actors were forbidden by union rules to take the stage for a cancelled performance, they acted standing among the public while Blitzstein was the only person on stage and played the piano. Denning concludes that

the evening was so successful that they continued staging it in that manner for another nineteen performances (p. 285).

The musical differed from many proletarian art and literary works of the Thirties as its style was less documentary and more avant-garde, building on the theatrical ideas of Bertolt Brecht to which The Cradle Will Rock is dedicated. "An extended conversation with him," Blitzstein claimed, "was partly responsible for writing the piece". In presenting the fight of Larry Foreman against the exploitative capitalist Mr Mister and his attempts to spread Socialist and unionist messages through all social layers, Blitzstein said that he wanted "to present a kind of heroism". At the same time, however, he wanted "to avoid anyting like the heroic manner". Thus, he fused in his opera

recitatives, arias, revue-patters, tap-dancers, suites, chorals, silly-symphony continuums, incidental commentary music, military music, lullaby music (quoted in Denning, p. 289).

Although, the musical has always been hailed as a "proletarian opera" calling the working classes to fight for their union rights, Blitzstein himslef described it as a "middle-class allegory for middle-class people". The Cradle Will Rock subscribes to the popular front alliance between the working class and the middle class as the main character is defined as middle class by his very name (foreman). Significantly, he refuses to sell out to the capitalist Mr Mister and continues to fight with the workers.

In 1999, Tim Robbins directed The Cradle Will Rock, a film on the opening night of the musical and the controversies it raised.


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