VINTAGE PLAYBILL: The Cradle Will Rock, 1938

By Brynn Cox
10 Jul 2013

The Cradle Will Rock opens today at City Center, with a cast featuring Danny Burstein, Raul Esparza, Judy Kuhn and Anika Noni Rose. In honor of the Encores! revival, the Playbill Vault looks back on the musical's controversial debut.



As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the broad-scale Works Progress Administration (WPA) created employment for millions of Americans, including a Federal Theatre to relieve unemployed artists.

With the support of Federal Theatre program, Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock was scheduled to premiere in the summer of 1937. But the WPA abruptly canceled the production citing budget cuts, while many decried censorship of the show's radical pro-union content.

In defiance of the WPA's orders, the cast and crew moved to another theatre and performed a stripped version of the musical accompanied by Blitzstein on the piano. The actors performed from the audience instead of on the stage to avoid, on a technicality, the Actors Equity ruling against performing in the unauthorized production. Director Orson Welles called the performance "not a political protest, but an artistic one."

The show found private funding and continued to run for the next several months before a bow at Broadway's Windsor Theatre on January 3, 1938. 

In his New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson praised Blitzstein's work as "a remarkably stirring marching song by the bitterness of his satire, the savagery of his music and the ingenuity of his craftmanship."

Regarding the Federal Theatre's decision to withdraw funding, he commented, "We have proof that a theatre supported by government funds cannot be a free agent when art has an insurgent political motive."

Read the 1938 opening night Playbill in the Vault.