Musical Theater Project Presents Depression-Era Classic at Beck Center & KSU


Wed 9/21 @ 7:30PM

Sun 9/25 @ 2PM

In 1929 the country was plunged into a financial collapse. The result was a diminishment of funds for not only food and housing, but the collapse of the arts, including the film and theater industries.

Live stage productions had been diminished even before the crash due to the rise of popularity of films and radio, so the financial crisis was literally the nail in the coffin to the near-demise of commercial theater.

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the New Deal with the intent putting the population to work on federal programs. Included in that legislation was the Federal Theatre Project.

The FTP was created as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors and theater workers, as well as to give low-to-no-cost entertainment outlets to the people suffering from the drastic change in their economic and aesthetic lives. A federation of local theaters was created to encourage experimentation in new forms and techniques, including encouraging millions of Americans to see live theatre for the first time.

Hallie Flanagan, the national director of the FTP, tried to keep the program apolitical, promising “to lay the foundation for the development of a truly creative theater with outstanding producing centers in each region of the country which would have common interests as a result of geography, language origins, history, tradition, custom, and occupations of the people.” Unfortunately, the project ran into a buzz saw of controversy when conservatives contended that the productions were “left-wing political messages.”

One of the shows created by the FTP was Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. It started previews on Broadway on June 16, 1937, with elaborate sets and a full orchestra. It was closed down four days later by a censorship board which declared it “too radical.” The theater was padlocked!

The production team rented the Venice Theater and a sold-out house saw a stripped-down show (the costumes and sets were locked in the Elliott Theater, where the show was to be performed), with only Blitzstein at the piano (the musicians’ union refused to play unless they received their full salaries). The actors, in defiance of their union which had refused permission to allow them to appear on stage, sat in the audience and rose when they were to perform to recite lines and sing. The result was a successful extended run.

The Cradle Will Rock will receive several local performances under the partnership of the Musical Theatre Program of Kent State University and the Musical Theater Project. Directed by Terri Kent, with musical direction by Nancy Maier, the in-concert musical will feature Joe Monaghan and members of the KSU Musical Theater program.

A recent interview with KSU Professor Kent revealed much about the upcoming KSU/TMTP staging and her attitudes about the play.

Q. Cradle was written was written in 1937. Why do you think it is relevant today?

A.  We all struggle with times when we must choose between our principles and the powers that be. Are we selling out, or protecting our well-being and families? With the election on our heels, I think these questions are haunting our country on a daily basis.

Q. The show was part of the Federal Theatre Project. Do you think today’s audiences will know anything about that project and why it was needed?

A. Bill [Rudman] and Nancy [Maier] and I are going to do a pre-show multi-media presentation on the background and controversy of the show. So the audience will have a context in approaching our 60-minute version of Cradle. We think they will be hungry for it! Bill has written the pre-show presentation, which is extremely compelling. Working with Bill is like having a musical theater historian and dramaturge at every rehearsal.

Q. The musical is a Brechtian allegory of corruption and corporate greed and includes references to societal figures of the day. Is the concept too abstract to stage as a reading?

A. Not at all. Yes, Blitzstein [the author] was influenced by Brecht. [Bertolt Brecht developed the concept of the Epic Theatre that proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action, but should self-reflect. He had the actors directly address the audience, used harsh and bright stage lighting, used songs to interrupt the action, displayed explanatory placards, and had the actors speak the stage directions aloud.]

Much of Cradle Will Rock, as Blitzstein said, is a ‘cartoon.’ And in doing it as a reading, we’re coming very close to what director Orson Welles [the play’s original director] did with it for its Broadway run: no sets, street clothes, simple lighting and the actors seated on stage. It focuses attention on the stunning words and music. Welles called it an ‘oratorio version.’”

Q. How are you going to handle the references to the societal figures who are unknown to present day audiences?

A. The satire is so clear for the actors in each of their scenes that no footnotes are needed to enjoy it. But of course, the actors are Googling all those references. The more they understand about the times, the more clearly they can tell the story. Again, with Bill in rehearsal, we have a built in dramaturge!”

Q. There is an operatic quality to the show. Are your students capable of pulling that off?

A. Though Blitzstein admitted he had written an opera, he wanted nothing to do with operatically trained voices. He knew that would work against the piece. Like Brecht and Kurt Weill in The Threepenny Opera, he wanted actors first, singers second, and yes, our students will do full justice to this highly theatrical score.

Bill Rudman, the artistic director of TMTP states in the publicity for the production his belief regarding the purpose of the show: “Cradle goes well beyond the theme of Unionism, challenging all of us to stay true to our principles no matter what the cost.”

The Cradle Will Rock (In-Concert Musical) will be presented on Wed 9/21 @ 7:30 pm at the Beck Center for the Arts’ Mackey Theater (216-245-8687) and Sun 9/25 @ 2pm at Kent State University’s E. Turner Stump Theatre (330-672-2787).


[Written by Roy Berko]


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