Monday, August 26, 2013

Broadway says, "Suck it, WPA!"

There are moments in history when a door for massive change blasts open.  Moments that irrevocably, often inadvertently, transform the course of the future.  Moments that signify human spirit, perseverance, and sheer ballsiness.  Once upon a time in New York City, such a moment in live theatre history occurred. Ok, I guess it's more of a footnote than a game-changing life event, but it's still one of the first and more significant occurrences of a group of artists raising a huge middle finger to the authorities that attempted to stifle them.  So that alone deserves a nod!

Show: The Cradle Will Rock
Year: 1937
Book, Music, & Lyrics: Marc Blitzstein (he wrote the English lyrics for “Mack The Knife”!)
Director: Orson Welles (yeah, that Orson Welles)
Premiere: Venice Theatre (originally Maxine Elliot Theatre)

Brief History
The Great Depression.  A rather, for lack of a better word, sucky time.  For you young whippersnappers who can't picture the Great Depression, think of the Great Recession, but about 10 million more people out of work, no internet, and the music was better.  Relief agencies were generated by Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) created the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) to create jobs for unemployed theatre workers, entertain hard up families and maintain the arts. The FTP originally was promised to be “free, adult, and uncensored.”  They basically told a bunch of artists that they could do and say whatever they wanted on stage.  Oops!  (*See Fun Fact below).  This led to a slew of political, leftist (Communism was pretty hot at the time), controversial productions. One of these was The Cradle Will Rock

While the musical itself wasn't necessarily monumentally groundbreaking, its premiere performance was what sent it down in history.  Cradle was a Brechtian political satire that promoted labor organization and sent a biting little "up yours" to the greedy fat cats in power.  

Broadway Sticks It To The Man
The show was originally a WPA-sponsored production, slated to beging previews on June 16 at the Maxine Elliott Theatre with elaborate sets and a full orchestra.  But four days before Cradle’s opening, the WPA shut the production down, citing budget cuts. However, it's widely believed that the musical had been censored, as its pro-union plot was deemed "too radical."  The theatre was padlocked and surrounded by armed guards (whom producer John Houseman allegedly referred to as "cossacks") to make sure no one removed sets, costumes, props, or anything else paid for by the Federal Theatre Project – including actor Howard Da Silva’s toupĂ©e. 

Actors’ Equity forbade the actors and musicians from performing (since the show wasn’t officially sanctioned by the FTP).  Still, Welles and Houseman insisted the show could go on, without sets, without lights, without an orchestra, perhaps even without the cast. They came up with a plan:
1. Find a new theatre
2. Writer Marc Blitzstein would play the whole score onstage (he was not a member of the musicians’ union) and even sing it all if necessary on a lone piano.
3. Any willing actors would sit in the audience and perform their roles from the house. Some of the actors weren't comfortable with this plan, convinced that they would lose their jobs with the Federal Theatre Project

The cast and crew led the crowd of ticket holders 21 blocks uptown to the Venice Theatre, attracting hundreds more on the way. The show began with Blitzstein onstage alone with a rented piano (that had also made the 21 block trip).  As he began singing the first song, a voice out in the house began to sing along. The follow spot swung out in the audience to illuminate Olive Stanton, a novice actress in her first show. Eventually, one by one, the other actors stood when their cues came and ended up playing the whole show in and among the audience, but never going onstage. Blitzstein and some of the actors doubled up on other roles, as some of the cast refused to participate or attend the opening night. 

Finale Extraordinaire!
When the show ended, the audience went wild.  I mean, they went totally nuts.  Not only had they seen the premiere of an exciting new musical by a popular writer/composer, they had witnessed a theatrical event that would reach legendary status.  They saw a group of people who refused to let the powers that be stifle their work and words, just because they didn't want to hear what the show had to say.  They saw rebellion and persistence and guts of epic proportions, rarely seen then or today. But in a time when the show's satirical plot of unions, corrupt steel magnates, and moral prostitution had pretty much come true in America, the musical's premiere was highly significant.  

Broadway had sent the ultimate middle finger to authority in the name of live theatre.  Even when their sets, costumes, orchestra, theatre, and ability to appear onstage were taken from them, even at the risk of losing their jobs just for showing up, these badass mo-fos concocted a way to still be seen and heard. If you ask me, that event - that definitive stand against the Man - is what sums up why live theatre (and art in general) is so wonderful. In a world of spite, greed, cruelty, fear, and darkness, there is still a brilliant shard of light: art. Humankind's ability and drive to create truly reflects the human spirit. The will to make something beautiful or meaningful or inspiring, despite the danger or fear of its outcome, is a stunning paragon of social and cultural bravery. Live theatre gives us the opportunity to create in the here and now, whatever condition that here-and-now may be in. 

*Fun Fact: Funding was eventually cut and the FTP ended a few years down the line, largely due to congress’s objections to the overtly left-wing political tones of the productions. Duh!

And now, a lovely nugget of a Broadway performance, Jerry Orbach singing the titular song: