ON THE RECORD: Blitzstein's Cradle and Gershwin's Memory

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Blitzstein's Cradle and Gershwin's Memory


With the imminent release of Tim Robbins' motion picture about the highly-politicized events surrounding the 1937 premiere of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, Jay Records has, not illogically, decided to reissue the cast album of the 1985 London production ("featuring Patti LuPone as Moll"). This production was originally mounted off-Broadway by The Acting Company in 1983.

The Cradle was quite astounding in its day, and scandalously so. No one expected musical theatre to address labor unionism, strike breaking and other such antisocial socialist behavior back in 1937. (Just two weeks before the opening, police had opened fire on striking steelworkers in Chicago, killing four and injuring dozens.) This was the most serious musical Broadway had ever seen, and the fact that it was initially mounted by the federally-funded W. P. A. -- which pulled the plug and tried to block the opening -- created an uproar. While clearly a propagandistic protest piece, The Cradle was nevertheless theatrically riveting. Not surprising, as it was directed by twenty-one year old wunderkind Orson Welles.

"When the wind blows, the cradle will rock" goes the familiar old nursery rhyme; so goes Blitzstein's title song, but he had something else in mind altogether. Being an astute showman, he very cleverly fashioned his labor opera in a style which fell, by his own description, somewhere between "realism, romance, satire, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, Weill, and agit-prop." The Cradle has dated over the years, certainly, and its devices are somewhat transparent; but the heart and passion of the piece still shine through.

This album includes a second CD containing John Houseman's twelve minute introduction to the 1985 production, recounting the events on that sweltering opening night in 1937. (Houseman, who produced the original Cradle, directed this revival.) This tale has been oft-told, in contrasting versions, by the various participants, and will be told in yet another contrasting version in the upcoming film. Houseman's tale, delivered in ringing, stentorian tones, is nevertheless arresting; he delivers more dramatic tension, I'm afraid, than many of the performers. The cast is led by a fellow otherwise unknown to me, named Randle Mell. Ms. LuPone, a famous graduate of The Acting Company, returned to offer the group some star power in the role of the streetwalker with a "Nickel Under the Foot" (although she somewhat overpowers her otherwise non-stellar cast members). As far as I can tell this album is being priced as a single CD, and the prior release was at unduly high import prices; thus, this Cradle is now considerably more affordable. There is, however, another Cradle which those of you who are already fans of the score might wish to search out. The 2 CD set "Marc Blitzstein" (on the Pearl label, which is distributed by Koch International and unlikely to be found in your local record shop) includes the original Cradle, recorded during the show's 1938 return engagement. (Yes, everybody thinks Oklahoma! was Broadway's first original cast recording, but the Blitzstein piece predates it by five years.)

The sound quality of this Cradle, recorded by the long-defunct Musicraft label, is primitive; you need to concentrate to get the lyrics. But the recording has tremendous inner strength. Blitzstein himself provides a driving piano accompaniment, hammering away at the keys and rushing the performance as if he's afraid the police will come in and haul off the cast. (Which was indeed a distinct possibility at the opening night performance.)

Central to the power of this recording is Howard da Silva's performance as Larry Foreman. This role is, perhaps, more identified with "real" singers; Alfred Drake played it in Leonard Bernstein's 1947 Broadway revival, while Jerry Orbach took the role off-Broadway in 1964. Da Silva sounds less like a leading man, more like a longshoreman -- or a steelworker. True musical comedy enthusiasts will recognize his voice, from Oklahoma! (as the villainous "Pore Jud") and Fiorello (as the "Politics and Poker" politico.) Da Silva brays his way through the title song -- with Blitzstein crashing his left fist down against the helpless keyboard -- and the effect is that of a revolt. Which is, after all, the point.

Either way, unless you like your musicals sunny and sweet, you might want to make The Cradle's acquaintance.

THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT: Gershwin on Broadway & in Hollywood (Managra)

The trouble with having an intimate knowledge of both George and Ira's many hundreds of published songs is that it can be awfully difficult to bring yourself to listen to yet another disc of Gershwin hits. Even when it comes from such accomplished and personable musicians as Mary Cleere Haran and Richard Rodney Bennett.

As it turns out, I needn't have feared "The Memory of All That." Haran and Bennett give us twenty-two of George's songs, from very early (the 1918 "Real American Folk Song Is a Rag," which was Ira's first song to be publicly performed) to very late ("Love Walked In," which was copyrighted in July, 1937, the month George died). You know you're in good hands from the start, when they are able to make the former -- clearly not one of the brothers' best -- sound good. They soon go into a delightful "Nashville Nightingale" -- one of those rarely-sung Gershwin songs that I especially like -- which is capped by Haran's extra-fine, smoky rendition of "The Man I Love." I needn't take you through the whole list, except to say that they mix in many of the big hits with several welcome rarities (like "Boy, What Love Has Done to Me," "Sweet and Low Down," and "Wake Up, Brother, and Dance"), and that they do it all with charm and talent. As a bonus, several songs ("Fascinatin' Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me") include additional lyrics culled by Robert Kimball for The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin.

Ms. Haran is a refreshingly no-nonsense singer. She has the voice and the ability, but she doesn't feel the need to give you a "performance"; she just sings the songs for you, for your pleasure, and for her pleasure. (And for the pleasure of the songwriters, lest they be listening in from above). As for Mr. Bennett, he clearly knows his Gershwin, and he does not hesitate to reproduce George's own fascinating arrangements on occasion (as in a lovely "Who Cares?"). But he does not slavishly stick to trying to sound like George. Bennett knows what he is doing, and his instincts are invariably well considered. He sings, too. Put Haran and Bennett together with George and Ira, and you have what the latter might call a "Delishious" hour's entertainment.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com

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