Hollywood director/actor Tim Robbins is in the last days of shooting on a film about one of the most controversial events in Broadway history: the night in 1937 when the federal government locked the doors on a production of Marc Blitzstein's left wing opera The Cradle Will Rock, and the actors marched to another theatre where they defiantly performed the work, under highly unusual circumstances.
The film, currently also titled The Cradle Will Rock, is not a movie adaptation of the opera, but a film about the production and its political controversy. Pedestrians walking down 47th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues the weekend of July 24-26 will not only see numerous film trucks, but a far more unusual sight for midtown: the long-shuttered Biltmore Theatre open and plastered with ads and photos for current and upcoming shows.
Alas, those are all only mock-ups, made specifically for the Robbins film. A banner reading "Vaudeville" has been draped directly under the Biltmore marquee. Along the walls are advertisements for the current bill: "8 Acts Of Vodville" [sic], as well as Ringling Brothers, election posters and boxing matches. Other ads feature upcoming plays at the Federal Work Theatre and the Living Newspaper, both WPA projects.
The beloved Biltmore has been closed and decaying for more than a decade. Its future is still in question. Seeing the facade prettied-up this week has been a pang for those who love Broadway's old theatres and have been campaigning for the Biltmore's rescue.
Also used for the filming is the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, last home to Wait Until Dark and situated across the street from the Biltmore. A production assistant told Playbill On-Line that Cradle Productions would use the Atkinson stage on July 24 to shoot scenes of a "staging" of Blitzstein's musical play itself, The Cradle Will Rock, for use in the film. The Blitzstein film is written and directed by Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, The Player, Bob Roberts) and stars Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons") as Marc Blitzstein, Cherry Jones as Hallie Flannagan, John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller, Cary Elwes as John Houseman and Angus MacFadyen as Orson Welles.
Also in the cast, according to the IMDB: Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro and Emily Watson.
Liz Smith reported that Bill Murray recently was hired for the project. Touchstone declined to confirm anything about the project but the title and Tim Robbins' name. However, dotting the front of the Biltmore are black and white "stills" of Murray -- made up much like his Criswell in Ed Wood, only this time holding a puppet.
The revolutionary theatre rarely saw a more tumultuous happening than Welles's June 1937 production ofThe Cradle Will Rock. Welles, the boy genius, who at age 22 headed the WPA Theatre's Project 891, had already startled the theatrical community with his voodoo production of Macbeth staged in Harlem's Lafayette Theatre. Now, he was producing and directing the young Marc Blitzstein's "labor opera" that was stridently pro-union and that the composer vowed would trigger a revolution.
Since Project 891 was government-financed, Washington took a dim view of backing a work that sanctioned the unionization of the steel industry. In fact, they vetoed the project by announcing that no new productions could be staged at the moment, since drastic cuts were planned in the Project's budget.
Welles ignored the edict and presented an invitational preview of the opera June 15, 1937 at Maxine Elliot's Theatre on West 39th Street (demolished in 1959) The next day, the theatre was sealed by government guards and Welles was warned against further productions of the opera. Members of Actors Equity Association also advised actors that they could not appear onstage in this production. Attorney Arnold V. Weissberger, whose sister Augusta was Welles's secretary, informed Welles that he could legally stage the opera in any theatre that was not located on government ground.
With his inventive genius, Welles came up with some splendid solutions. First of all, the elaborate scenery for the show was locked in Maxine Elliott's Theatre and could not be removed. Orson decided to do the show on the bare stage of the unoccupied Venice Theatre (on Seventh Avenue and 59th Street- later called the Century Theatre) and to have the actors buy tickets for the performance and act their parts off-stage in the auditorium.
Secondly, a large crowd of ticket holders had gathered in front of Maxine Elliott's Theatre and Welles instructed them all to march together for 40 blocks to the uptown Venice Theatre. The marchers were soon joined by others and by 59th Street, there were enough theatregoers to fill the 1,700-seat Venice Theatre and more to view the show as standees. Only Marc Blitzstein was on stage at his piano and the performance, with its novel staging, was a sensation. The opera played 19 times at the Venice before moving elsewhere.
In December 1937, Welles presented the opera as his own Mercury Theatre production at the Windsor Theatre on W. 48th Street. It rocked audiences for 104 performances. Among those in the large cast were Will Geer, Hiram Sherman and Howard de Silva. Welles continued to do the opera without scenery, but with the cast now seated on stage.
A 1947 revival of the opera at the Mansfield Theatre (now the Brooks Atkinson Theatre) was not as successful although it included in its cast Will Geer (again), Estelle Loring, Vivian Vance, Jesse White, Jack Albertson, Dennis King, Jr. and Jo Hurt. The young Leonard Bernstein appeared onstage as a Clerk, and in the pit as the orchestra's conductor for the first three performances. Howard de Silva, from the original company, directed the opera this time. Once again, Brooks Atkinson raved about the production, but it lasted only 21 performances.