The Cradle Rocks Again at City Center

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22 Jun 2013

Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock has one of the most celebrated origin stories in the history of American theatre. It was written for the Federal Theatre Project to be directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman, but the FTP, responding to intense pressure from Congress, abruptly closed the politically pointed show. The theatre was locked, the costumes seized and guards posted. In defiance, Houseman and Welles marched the entire cast and crew uptown to the Venice Theatre at 59th Street. As a way around a tangle of prohibitions against the legal performing of the work, the actors portrayed their roles from the audiences, while Blitzstein played the score alone on an upright piano on the stage.

Thanks to numerous theatre histories and biographies, as well as the 1999 Tim Robbins film "Cradle Will Rock," most theatregoers are familiar with that dramatic backstory. Ironically, however, few actually know the show itself, or its score.

Jeanine Tesori intends to correct that situation July 10-13, when she presents the musical as part of the inaugural season of New York City Center's new Encores! Off-Center series, which, unlike the regular Encores!, will focus on musical work that was not produced on Broadway.

"I love that piece and have never been able to see it," said Tesori, who is artistic director of Encores! Off-Center.

Tesori said that she felt the invitation to direct the new Encores! series afforded her the opportunity to program shows she (and, hopefully others) had never seen, but had always wanted to.

The Cradle Will Rock has a long history with City Center, having been performed there in 1947 and 1960. The latter production was conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Unlike some musicals of the past, the score of The Cradle Will Rock was not difficult to reconstruct.

"It was fairly easy," said Chris Fenwick, musical director of Encores! Off-Center. "There is an existing piano-conductor score that Leonard Bernstein used when he did it at City Center in 1960. And we did have our hands on the original Blitzstein parts. We got a chance to look at those parts and use those parts and figure out stylistically what he was really going for.

"Sometimes scores can be a real mess," he continued. "Amazingly on this one, with its tumultuous history, they were pretty easy to work with."

Blitzstein originally orchestrated the score for 30 musicians, but it has rarely, if ever, been played by such a large group. For the Encores! staging, an orchestra of 14 will be used.

"The score is so varied, and has so many styles and textures and colors and ideas, that having more musicians is a real gift," said Fenwick.

For the director of this production, Tesori drafted Sam Gold, with whom she in engaged in many political discussions, and whose production of The Threepenny Opera she had seen. Gold did not need much convincing.

"It's the kind of project I had been really itching to do," he said.


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