Thursday, March 13, 2014


Hi, folks...remember me? I haven't been very prolific, as a blogger, in recent years -- but that's just because I've been busy with wonderful projects like these:

MARXFEST: I am delighted to be on the organizing committee for Marxfest, New York City's first Marx Brothers festival, to take place in all five boroughs of this town, throughout the month of May, 2014. There are many exciting Marx-minded events on the schedule, and we haven't even announced some of the most exciting ones yet! If you love the Marx Brothers, do whatever you can to be in the city of their birth this May! And whatever happens, don't let another minute go by without following Marxfest on Twitter and Facebook. Check the official Marxfest site every five or ten minutes!

I'LL SAY SHE IS: All of the Marxfest events are exciting, but this is the one closest to my heart. I've spent the last five years researching, reconstructing, and adapting I'll Say She Is, the 1924 Broadway debut of the Marx Brothers, and the only one of their three Broadway musicals never to be filmed or revived. This year, on the 90th anniversary of the original New York opening, I'll Say She Is returns to the stage -- first with a semi-produced reading, May 23 and 25, at Marxfest (tickets and details here); with a full production this fall. I'll Say She Is is produced and directed by the great Trav S.D.!

I'll Say She Is should be of interest not only to Marx Brothers and vintage comedy fans, but to devotees of American musical theatre -- it's a real 1920s plotted revue, highly characteristic of its era, and full of great stuff that hasn't been seen or heard for almost a century.

Below is a short essay I've written for the I'll Say She Is website. There's more there, and more details soon. I hope to see you in May!


For almost as long as I've loved the Marx Brothers, I've been intrigued by the legend of I'll Say She Is.

We think of the Brothers as figures of the 1930s, when they made their classic films. But they had been major cultural icons of the twenties, too. They began that decade as one of the biggest acts in vaudeville; achieved Broadway stardom with I'll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1925), and Animal Crackers (1928); made films of the latter two -- and then went out to Hollywood and made all those Marx Brothers movies.

The Marx Brothers as Broadway stars in New York in the 1920s -- this is the stuff my dreams are made of. Harpo chumming around with Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker; Groucho writing for The New Yorker in its infancy; the boys performing Animal Crackers every night on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre, then dragging themselves out to Queens every day to film Cocoanuts.

Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers exist. You can read the published librettos, and you can watch the film adaptations. Frequently, you can see them produced on stage. Those two musicals represent the earliest available Marx Brothers comedy. But I'll Say She Is has been just out of reach.

Over the years, my passion for the Marx Brothers has informed almost everything I've done. But I've thought that perhaps it was all in preparation for some big Marx Brothers project, something that served not only to express my love for them and my desire to keep their flame burning, but to contribute something significant to the catalogue, to give all Marx Brothers fans a great big present.

About five years ago, I began a period of intense research into I'll Say She Is. I wasn't entirely sure of my intentions, but I hoped that one way or another, this work could be willed back into existence, seen on stage again, and made to occupy its rightful space on the shelf next to Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.

My primary source was Will B. Johnstone's 1923 rehearsal typescript, which is housed at the Library of Congress. Assisted by Mikael Uhlin, I obtained a copy of this sacred document: thirty-two pages of rough dialogue, with song titles and cues, but no songs. The typescript is more an outline with dialogue than a working libretto. It was committed to paper in the spring of 1923, prior to the Philadelphia opening, a full year before the show reached Broadway. Undoubtedly, it was embellished in rehearsal and performance.

I interpolated material from other extant versions of certain scenes. I filled in moments and details culled from firsthand recollections of the show. I unearthed hundreds of news clippings related to the original production, some of which described scenes and quoted dialogue. I retrieved whatever ad-libs had been recorded, and filled in the gaps with surviving fragments of the Brothers' vaudeville repertoire, the earlier Johnstone revues, and the newspaper prose of Will B. Johnstone. I filled still more gaps with my own Marxist intuition, adding things out of necessity or desire or both.

The new score of I'll Say She Is is an amalgam. I managed to obtain sheet music and/or recordings of about half the songs from the original production. That left a handful of missing numbers, for which I had only the titles, narrative context, and, in some cases, descriptions. I recreated these songs by writing new lyrics to existing music from other Johnstone shows of the period, using phrases and ideas from the Johnstone typescript whenever possible.

In wrestling with the book and lyrics, I was aided invaluably by my great friend and collaborator West Hyler, and by Margaret Farrell, an ethnomusicologist who also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Will B. Johnstone, keeper of his diaries, and a singular source of information and inspiration.

The result is my adaptation of I'll Say She Is. I can't claim that it's a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original. That would be impossible. But when you see it, I hope you'll agree that it feels right, and that you relish as much as I do the thought of being able to say, "I've seen I'll Say She Is."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Raise High the Expectations and Salinger - A Reintroduction

Note (10/21/13): Since this article was published, the documentary Salinger has been recut. This weekend I watched the revised version (which is now available on Netflix), and I'm happy to report that it's improved. Those who hated the film will probably still hate it; my original reaction, detailed below, was mixed. But the things I didn't like about it have mostly been toned down, and I can recommend it a bit more enthusiastically than before.


As you may know from other recent essays, I’ve been stifled lately by an existentially-troubling repetitive stress injury, and temporarily without the use of my right hand. I’m just beginning to bounce back now. This condition has given me an unprecedented surplus of free time, and deprived me of the means by which I generally fill time. So instead of writing and working, I’ve been reading and thinking.

Atop my neglected reading pile, a few weeks ago, was Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (2011), loaned to me by my father. I admired this book, with some reservations. Slawenski, the proprietor of the website Dead Caulfields, is too reverential, even defensive, about his subject. But his analysis of Salinger’s writing is sound, and his account of Salinger’s life is serious and poignant. After finishing the Slawenski book, I picked up Salinger: A Biography (1999), by Paul Alexander, but I gave up on this one after about a hundred pages. If Slawenski is too respectful, Alexander goes much too far in the other direction; his book (at least the first quarter of it) is a leering, sensationalized affront. It reads like a celebrity exposé, and seems strangely unconcerned with Salinger the artist. So I put that aside, and spent some days reading sixty years of articles about Salinger, after which there was nothing left to read on the subject but Salinger himself.

I didn’t revisit Catcher, with which I feel an ongoing familiarity. I reread the later Glass stories, in order of original New Yorker publication – “Franny,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” “Zooey,” “Seymour – An Introduction” – and found them far more meaningful than when I last read them, as a teenager. Now as then, I preferred “Franny” and “Carpenters,” with their rich humor and brilliant idiomatic dialogue, to the formless theological wandering of “Zooey” and (especially) “Seymour.” But that didn’t stop me from tackling Salinger’s last published story, which I’d never previously attempted. “Hapworth 16, 1924” took up almost the entire June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker,and was never published in book form. It consists of a seemingly endless, impossibly verbose letter, written by Seymour Glass at the age of seven. It makes “Seymour – An Introduction” look like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

When my father wrote his thesis about Salinger, he got to “Hapworth” by searching libraries for the 6/19/65 New Yorker. Entering my username and password at the magazine’s online archive was less romantic. Anyway, “Hapworth 16, 1924” is an uphill climb, and not a very rewarding one. But I found it more readable than expected, after all I’d read about its impenetrability. I can’t say it’s good, but I still found it strangely compelling – maybe because the story sort of dares you to find it so, dares you to keep reading, despite offering none of the usual incentives. It’s deliberately unengaging. I know I would find it intolerable if it were not written by J.D. Salinger. But it’s unavoidably a key work, the overture to four and a half decades of silence. It does reward the patient devotee with some interesting puzzle pieces. It’s better to have read “Hapworth” than to read it. I followed it with a much-needed dessert of Nine Stories, in their hilarious, heartbreaking, precision-crafted beauty.


Shane Salerno’s documentary film Salinger, which opened last Friday, is accompanied by Shane Salerno and David Shields’ 700-page book Salinger, which was released last Tuesday.

Salerno is a Hollywood screenwriter whose credits include Armageddon and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. (You may lower your eyebrow.) But he proved his seriousness by spending ten years and two million of his own dollars researching, writing, directing, and producing Salinger. The publicity around the project has emphasized that it’s filled with top-secret revelations, wrought by unprecedented access to sources close to Salinger.

David Shields’ signature work is Reality Hunger, which I haven’t read. According to Wikipedia, “Reality Hunger consists of 618 numbered passages…Approximately half of the book’s words come from sources other than the author. Because of Random House’s lawyers, attribution for the quotes is given in a fine-print appendix at the end of the book, but with Shields’ encouragement to cut those pages from the book so as to preserve the intended disorienting effect.”

Uh-huh. This disorienting effect haunts Salinger, the book. Numerous reviews have described it as “engrossing and exasperating.” It purports to be an oral history, derived from Salerno’s decade of interviews, but along with the transcribed comments there are quotes lifted from books and articles, confusingly presented in the same format. The book has no authorial voice; when Salerno and Shields want to editorialize, they just include themselves in the Rashomon of speakers. Buried near the end of the book, there are brief biographical notes; they tell us, for example, that Richard Stayton is the editor of the Writers Guild magazine, but we’re given no reason to accept his seemingly intimate knowledge of Salinger’s youth. Ironically, the anonymous speakers are better-identified, because in lieu of names they’re given useful descriptions, such as “Childhood Friend.” There is no index. The attributions are paltry. These guys didn’t really write a book; they published their research.

Occasionally, the oral history format takes a welcome break. There’s a highly readable, nicely-structured analysis of Catcher, written entirely by Salerno. It’s not the most brilliant analysis of Catcher I’ve ever read, but at least it’s an analysis of Catcher. On the other hand, the absolute nadir of the Salinger book is an unspeakable chapter in which David Shields rewrites every one of the Nine Stories, in the second person, stopping to ask questions like “Why are you so fixated on very young girls, especially young girls’ feet? Does it have anything to do with using girls as time-travel machines to a period before the war and before you perforce became embarrassed about your own anatomy?” Some of the points Shields makes in this essay are worth exploring, but his presentation is, I don’t know, pathologically presumptuous.

This book takes a few basic insights and beats them to death. Salinger was traumatized by the war; therefore every fucking sentence he wrote must be about that. The basic thesis is compelling – Catcher as a “disguised war novel” – but the bravado is embarrassing. The authors suggest not only that Salinger embedded his war trauma in the novel, but that Mark David Chapman and other Catcher-citing gunmen were specifically responding to this coded violence – thereby, I suppose, in the Salerno/Shields view, interpreting it more accurately than those of us who read Catcher and didn’t kill anyone. Whether or not it’s a valid point, surely it can be made without a long replay of the grisly details of John Lennon’s death. I’ve dutifully endured that horrifying story in biographies of John Lennon, where it belongs; its inclusion here is Salinger’s worst descent into vulgar sensationalism. (The book’s description of the concentration camp liberated by Salinger’s division is much more disturbing, but fair enough, because that horror is directly relevant to Salinger’s story.)

If you find J.D. Salinger endlessly fascinating (I do), don’t let these grievances keep you from the book. Despite everything, there is much to savor. Some of it is indeed new. The number of known photographs of Salinger is hereby increased. Associates who have never spoken about him do speak about him here. The bombshell is that five new books by Salinger will be published, beginning in 2015, but that broke early, and it was old news by the time Salinger arrived in bookstores and cinemas.

Reading the Salerno book, I felt a little bad for Kenneth Slawenski. He’s mentioned only once, on page 25, in what is maddeningly presented as an oral-history “quote” from Shane Salerno. He names Slawenski’s book for the express purpose of decrying its “dozens of errors about Salinger’s war record.” Maybe so; I don’t know, and Salerno only cites a couple, which are mainly semantic. Regardless, it seems to me that Slawenski is Salinger’s important recent biographer, and that his voice belongs among the hundreds here. I mean, Slawenski’s book had its flaws, but it was infinitely better than that hack job by Paul Alexander – who is quoted extensively by Salerno and Shields, is identified as “an advisor to this book,” and on whose book the Salinger film is ostensibly based. Well, shit.

III. PARIS 8, 2013

By the time I was standing in line to see the film, on Sunday, my expectations had been pummeled into oblivion. The reviews, with varying degrees of disgust, have been close to unanimous. In the TimesA.O. Scott writes, “Salinger moved to the woods of New Hampshire partly to escape the intrusions and indignities of American celebrity culture. Salinger is that culture’s revenge.” Dana Stevens of Slate says it “leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders without ever getting to knock on his door and say hello.” In Rolling StonePeter Travers notes Salinger’s “allergy to cliché, compromise, bombast and every type of fame-whoring bullshit,” and asks how Salerno managed “to turn the author of The Catcher in the Rye…into everything he detested.” Between these bitter assessments, and my own feelings about the Salinger book, I bought my ticket at the Paris Theatre on 58th Street actually dreading the film.

And guess what – it’s really not that bad.

Yes, the film, like the book, dwells on Salinger’s personal life rather than his writing. But that seems more acceptable here, film being an excellent medium for storytelling and a poor one for literary analysis. It’s also true that the bombastic score, by Lorne Balfe, is a severe mistake, more suited to, say, Armageddon. But it’s not true that Balfe’s music blares incessantly throughout the whole movie, as several critics have claimed. It’s heavy at times, especially in the early and late sections, but for most of the running time (two hours), it calms down or disappears. Parts of the film are scored, much more successfully, with period recordings. There are too many literal sound effects; Salerno rarely misses an opportunity to punctuate a spoken line with a gunshot or a slamming door.

Critics have savaged the film’s visual devices, with some justice. But if you accept the premise of a documentary film about the life of J.D. Salinger, you have to grant the filmmaker some degree of creative representation. There’s just not much visual material to work with. There’s a handful of still photos, and Salerno found a handful more. Over the course of his ten-year, two-million-dollar investigation, Salerno found not a single recording of Salinger’s voice, and only a tiny bit of film footage – silent – of the young Salinger, in uniform, accepting a rose from a French woman on V-E Day. I found this quite moving.

Other than that, what can Salerno show? There are talking heads, sometimes in significant locations, like Chumley’s. There’s some nice cinematography around Manhattan and Cornish. There are images of book covers, manuscripts, letters, articles. There are archival film clips to suggest place and time. And then there are showier devices – like sped-up footage of a hand sketching portraits of people in Salinger’s life, and, to the loudest critical derision, “reenactments” featuring an actor as Salinger. He sits at his typewriter and pounds away; he moodily smokes while images flash on a giant screen behind him; he storms out of the New York offices of Harcourt; he pulls a fresh page from his typewriter and hands it to a little boy who is apparently Seymour Glass.

Those reenactments are risky, to be sure. But I sympathize with them, and I think that if you grant the premise of this film’s existence, they are necessary. The standard complaint is that this technique reeks of the History Channel, but that’s the point: When you’re making a documentary about Benjamin Franklin, you run out of paintings pretty quickly, and you need something to look at. These sections of Salinger sometimes made me cringe, and in general I think we saw too much of the actor’s face. We shouldn’t have seen his face at all; then we could have played along more easily with the idea that this figure was Salinger. The face is often well-hidden, but not often enough. The most common setup, with “Salinger” at his typewriter, on a stage in an empty theatre, with words and images appearing behind him, has stayed with me. It felt like theatre. It’s the kind of vocabulary a playwright would employ, to visualize a character’s inner life. Sure, it’s over the top. It’s theatre.

I do wish Salerno had made a softer, stiller film – or maybe I wish Ken Burns had made Salinger instead – but I think the critics have pounced with too much vitriol. I guess tearing this film to shreds is irresistible. This film is asking for it. It’s easy to respond with knowing jabs at Hollywood phonies. It’s easy to say Salinger would have hated it – of course he would have hated any documentary made about him, just as he hated every book written about him during his lifetime. It would have been terrible to release this film when he was alive. But he isn’t. Do we all have to hate this film on his behalf? Or can we accept it for what it is – another fascinating, frustrating entry in our culture’s ongoing struggle to understand J.D. Salinger? 


Kenneth Slawenski suggests that Salinger’s World War II experiences destroyed him, psychically, and Vedanta Hinduism healed him. Salerno and Shields write that the war “destroyed the man but made him a great artist,” while “religion provided the comfort he needed as a man but killed his art.”

Salinger’s post-Catcher writing is increasingly preoccupied with “circulating” Vedantic principles. Most of the Glass stories still succeed as literature, but with each story, the religious fixation is amplified. This culminates in “Hapworth,” where Salinger seems to have renounced all of his strengths as a writer: dialogue, behavior, observation, humor, ambiguity, timing. The final published stories feel like the work of an unraveling, disengaged artist, turned utterly inward.

I once heard someone define optimism as checking The New Yorker every week to see if there’s a new story by J.D. Salinger. This has been going on for half a century. In terms of publication, Salinger is still only in mid-career. But when we last left off, it wasn’t going so well. What if the literary revelation of the century yields nothing but incoherent streams of consciousness about Vedantic spiritual principles? Can we put it back in the vault?

The Salinger estate has neither confirmed nor denied Salerno’s claims regarding the publication of “new” writings. Salerno’s information, he writes, has been “provided, documented, and verified by two independent and separate sources.”

He says we can expect five books. One is a novel, described as “a World War II love story” based on Salinger’s mysterious first marriage, and featuring Sergeant X (Salinger’s alter ego in “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor”). Another is “a novella that takes the form of a counterintelligence agent’s diaries during World War II.” Sounds promising, like Salinger did get back to writing from experience. Less promising, as far as I’m concerned, is a third book, “a ‘manual’ of Vedanta.” But perhaps the existence of an explicitly religious text suggests that the other books won’t be too saddled with this stuff.

The two remaining books apparently deal with the Glass and Caulfield families. The Family Glass “collects all the existing stories about the Glass family together with five new stories” and “a detailed genealogy.” One of the new stories depicts a party in 1926, at which Seymour and Buddy are recruited for “It’s a Wise Child” (this story is mentioned, as Buddy’s work in progress, in “Hapworth 16, 1924”); another deals with “Seymour’s life after death.” The new Glass stories, like the old ones, are said to be “saturated in the teachings of the Vedantic religion.” But this can also be said of excellent work like “Franny” and “Carpenters,” in which Vedanta effectively decorates and informs the writing without capsizing it.

The prospect of a new Caulfield book is a real surprise. Salinger seemed to be disgusted by public hunger for more of Holden. According to Salerno, the Caulfield book will include “a complete retooling” of  “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” (an unpublished 1942 Caulfield story), along with “the six other Caulfield stories,” “new stories,” and The Catcher in the Rye itself. Perhaps “the six other Caulfield stories” (some unpublished, some merely uncollected) have been “retooled” too; they contain material which was later incorporated into, and sometimes contradicted by, Catcher.

It’s not clear whether the “new stories” feature the first-person narrative voice of Holden Caulfield, or whether they continue Holden’s story beyond the events described in Catcher. But this book – these books – represent the hope of reunion with old departed friends. J.D. Salinger has more to say, and now that he’s dead, he’s willing to say it. There’s no longer any risk that by emerging from seclusion, and telling his stories, he’ll start to miss people.

Friday, August 09, 2013

That's Thunder, That's Lightning: Lyrics in THE CRADLE

Continuing my investigation of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, I've arrived at the first difficult subject.  I’m not talking about the ravages of capitalism or the social responsibilities of artists – those are easy subjects.  I’m talking about song lyrics.

I think I've made clear that my love for this musical is unequivocal.  (For those of you who have just joined us, see my thoughts on Cradle at the City Center, and my essay about the 1938 cast recording.) But in casting a critical eye toward this work, I've mostly explained why I think it’s so great, and why I see some of its apparent defects as strengths, or at least as necessary to its effectiveness. I love Blitzstein’s music, and as I've said, I think it accounts for a great deal of the work’s power.  But I can only say so much about music.  I can write in appreciation of Blitzstein’s work as a composer, and I can describe how the music serves the play, and I can document my emotional response to it.  But I do not have a high enough level of musical literacy to produce a detailed formal analysis of this music, and even if I did, evidence suggests it would not be much fun for non-musicologists to read.

But I think I do have a high enough level of lyric literacy.  I care about lyrics, at least as much as music.  I write lyrics, and I think I write them well.  I’m also highly critical of lyrics. I have little patience for failed attempts at rhyme, errors of scanning and emphasis, inverted phrasing for the sake of rhyme, unnecessary words added simply to pad empty syllables in melody lines, and other imperfections which I see as hallmarks of careless or unfinished lyric-writing.  These flaws, if they’re minor and occasional, cannot prevent a great work from being great.  But if they’re more than minor, and more than occasional, I lose interest.  I lose faith in the writer; I feel like I’m not in good hands.  If you want my attention for the full length of your song, album, or musical play, I think you should take the time to do the work correctly, make sure the lyrics sit properly on the music, and that any words which should rhyme actually do. What you say is more important than how you say it.  Therefore, to make sure the content shines through as clearly as possible, it’s important that the form have integrity.

When criticizing songs or musicals which I do not like, I can be merciless in my appraisal of the lyrics.  There are plenty of songs and musicals which I would like, if their crimes against good lyric-writing were less dire or less frequent.  And so, in discussing a work which I do like, but which I feel succeeds in spite of some problem lyrics, I ought to be just as critical.

Marc Blitzstein deserves to be taken seriously as a lyricist.  He was a real lyricist, not just a composer who could get by with words.  Blitzstein’s most commercially successful work, his adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, drew on his skill as a lyricist and librettist and not as a composer.  His Threepenny remains the only, I repeat, the only truly singable English version of that score, because he was not just a translator/playwright; he brought a lyricist’s feeling for the weight of words and their interaction with music.

Many Blitzstein lyrics suffer from the one-bad-line problem.  The lyricist has a beautiful little verse that starts well and ends well, and hopes that those strengths will justify or obscure weaknesses in the connective tissue.  A good example is the final section of “The Nickel Under Your Foot”:

And if you’re sweet, then you’ll grow rotten,
Your pretty heart covered over with soot.
And if for once you’re gay,
And devil -may-careless, and oh so hot…
I know you’ve got
That nickel under your foot.

The first two lines are perfect.  (This is the song’s “change in tone,” which I mentioned in my discussion of the 1938 record.)  I love the fact that this character, Moll, is essentially the ingénue in a musical comedy, and the final verse of her big song is a rueful acknowledgment that life is going to defeat us, and liberty is only really available to those with money.

Blitzstein needed another rhyme for foot.  By this point in the song, he’s already used put twice, and gotten away with it, by setting it in a nice parallel structure with repeated phrases.  So you expect to hear that put/foot rhyme again the last time around, and when it doesn’t happen, it wakes up the ear.  And “your pretty heart covered over with soot” is such a fantastic, poetic, heartbreaking phrase – this is a moment of songwriting perfection.

Of course the song is going to end as it should, with a restatement of the title phrase, and of course that will be satisfying.  Blitzstein also has devil-may-careless up his sleeve – a nice bit of wordplay worthy of Cole Porter or Noel Coward, but slightly diminished by sitting awkwardly on the music.  The melody emphasizes the second syllable in the word devil.  This is the high note.  The only way a singer can possibly deal with this is by drawing out a short i sound, and you hear “deVILMAYcareless.” (The fact that this matches a similar scan in the first chorus – “Oh, you can dream and scheme / And happily put and take, take and put,” with the second syllable of happily corresponding with the second syllable of devil in the third chorus – may be evidence that Blitzstein had some structural intent here, but repeating the problem doesn’t help, and in any case there is no equivalent rhyme buried in the second chorus.)

And then we have the connective tissue.  “And if for once you’re gay” is a true copout.  The corresponding line in each previous chorus internally rhymed dream and scheme on the high notes (somewhat marred by scheme’s instead of scheme in the second chorus), and here Blitzstein makes the mistake he avoided with soot.  He doesn’t even attempt to match the internal rhyme, and the words are just filler.  “And oh so hot” is even worse: Hot is not a precise enough word here, and we don’t really know what Moll means by it; and in oh so we have two unnecessary syllables, propping up the poorly-chosen hot, which is only there to rhyme with gotHot and got are too close in sound to foot, so this winds up sounding like a failed attempt at rhyme, even though it isn’t; foot is supposed to rhyme with soot, and so it does.

I go into all this detail because I think this characterizes Marc Blitzstein’s lyrics, in Cradle, in Threepenny, in Regina, and in general.  They are often excellent; they are rarely perfect.  There are beautifully crafted passages of wit and elegance and power, and then there are places that make you wonder why this highly capable lyricist keeps letting himself off the hook.

Rhyme, however, is not Blitzstein’s problem.  He is almost impeccable in this department.  First, and most importantly, he deals almost exclusively with actual rhymes.  (I don’t address “perfect rhymes” versus “slant rhymes,” because the former is redundant and the latter is a misnomer.  If it’s not perfect, it doesn't rhyme.  A so-called slant rhyme is not a rhyme at all.) In the score of The Cradle Will Rock, there are only four or five failed attempts at rhyme.  The first – seven and given – is inexcusable, and it really stands out, coming early in the first song at the very beginning of the show.  Later, we get a buried mistake involving press and best, and a forced attempt to rhyme sun with the last syllable of Solomon.  And in the otherwise elegant title song, there is an identity (surround and around) where there should be a rhyme.  But this is still an excellent scorecard.

Blitzstein more often has problems with emphasis and scanning.  A good portion of his lyrics are smoothly metered, but there are serious lapses.  The most egregious scanning errors tend to coincide with the most angular melodies.  “The Freedom of the Press” has a very angular vocal line, and poses a real challenge to the lyricist;  Blitzstein doesn't quite rise to it, and this number is full of awkwardly-emphasized passages like this one, which features missed accents, and ends with an unnecessary word added to pad empty space:

I believe newsPAPers
Are GREAT mental SHAPers
Is dePENdent on them, REALLY

This liability also haunts many of the recitative sections in the nightcourt scenes (there is no reason for Moll to drag the word scared out for three syllables, except that Blitzstein has to fill three syllables), as well as the song “Honolulu” (“JUNior’s going to BE a journaLIST”).  Worse, it nearly destroys the impact of “Art for Art’s Sake,” which is substantively one of the most important points in the show.  I've always admired Blitzstein’s willingness (apparently at Brecht’s suggestion) to include artists in his attack on the prostitutes of capitalism, and the message of “Art for Art’s Sake” is still vital for creative people. If more of us had the integrity and conscience of Marc Blitzstein, the cultural climate of the United States would be much better.  But the point of this short song is obscured by the uneasy marriage of its words and music.  It consists of only ten lines, each of which ends with the phrase “for art’s sake,” but the s at the end of art’s slurs together with the s at the beginning of sake, and it sounds like “for our steak,” or something.  Too bad.

But in considering these defects in Blitzstein’s lyrics, it’s worth noting that there are several “golden age” lyricists, much more revered than Blitzstein, who were worse offenders.  His lyrics are plainly superior, in grace, wit, technique, and substance, to Ira Gershwin’s; and in craft, at least, he leaves Lorenz Hart far behind.  In smoothness of technique, Blitzstein generally falls short of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Fields; and in wit and invention, of Porter and Yip Harburg; but he compares favorably with other contemporaries.  For lyrics of political and social commentary, he is tops among Broadway songwriters, his competition in this area coming mainly from elsewhere, earlier, and later: W.S. Gilbert is comparable as a social satirist, but inferior to Blitzstein in technique; Tom Lehrer is a sharper satirist, but not a dramatist; some of the protest singers of the 1960s matched Blitzstein for well-intended social commentary, but are nowhere near his level of lyric craft.

If Blitzstein the dramatist has an heir in the latter-day musical theatre, I think it’s Jonathan Larson.  Like Blitzstein, Larson was able to express social and political convictions through his characters, and he did this without apology, and without sacrificing the entertainment value of his work.  Like Blitzstein, Larson had a Brechtian interest in dissolving the artifice of the theatre, in being honest about the fact that actors are on stage in front of an audience.  Like Blitzstein, Larson had a keen sense of the artist’s social responsibilities, and of the conflict between art and commerce. And Larson, like Blitzstein, sometimes seemed so driven by the urgency of what he was saying that he neglected to sufficiently refine his craftsmanship.

The lyrics for The Cradle Will Rock are rich in variety and invention.  Each character expresses herself or himself in a distinct voice, which helps put them across as individuals even though they’re archetypes.  The score is a tapestry of techniques: Traditional song; blank verse accompanied or punctuated by music; spoken rhymed verse, with or without rhythm or music; counterpoint; choral response; spoken or sung rhymed or unrhymed dialogue.  In contrast to the operettas which were forerunners to the American musical, Cradle resorts to unison choral singing only when it’s dramatically justified, as when the Liberty Committee explodes with impatience (“Oh what a filthy nightcourt!”), or when the entire company reprises the title song as a kind of protest chant.  The spoken rhythmic sections of the score (“Hurry up and telephone to Mr. Mister / To hurry up and come to the rescue!”) are particularly deft and innovative.  To my knowledge, this technique is not used as extensively or as successfully in another Broadway score until Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, twenty years later.

Like all good writers, Blitzstein was a good rewriter.  The evolution of the song “Joe Worker” demonstrates his ability, however inconsistently applied, to work out a lyric until he got it right.  This song, which might be referred to as a show stopper in a different kind of show, was written earlier and interpolated into Cradle.  Its original title was “Poor People.” In Blitzstein’s initial 1936 Cradle typescript, it has become “Workpeople.” The title refrain “Joe Worker” is a great improvement; it scans better, and by singularizing the pronouns, Blitzstein more surely invites us to identify with his story.  When the character Ella Hammer sings, of her archetypal worker, “they feed him out of garbage cans / They breed him in the slums,” we feel the dehumanizing indifference with which capital treats labor in Ella’s parable.  In the earlier draft, with “they feed them” and “they breed them,” the song seemed to participate in, rather than protest, the dehumanization. Elsewhere between the two drafts, Blitzstein makes the kinds of adjustments and refinements known to all meticulous lyricists.  “Workpeople will go / And stand outside stores they know” becomes “Joe Worker will go / To shops where stuff is on show.”

The end of “Joe Worker” is a devastating emotional climax, made effective by the indescribable power of the music and the inventive rightness of the words.  Musically, the penultimate line is a restatement from the first chorus, whose lyric asked, “How many toiling, ailing, dying, piledup bodies, / Brother, does it take…?” Having established his pattern, Blitzstein is able to conclude the second chorus with a surprising and heartrending variation: “How many times machine guns tell the same old story, / Brother, does it take…?” The notion of deadly weapons “telling the same old story” is a masterful piece of lyric invention.  The irregular grammar of “how many times machine guns,” complemented by the gathering intensity of the music, uncannily communicates the rage and despair of the character and the situation.

For innovation in the musical theatre, the most significant individual song in Cradle is probably “Hard Times.” It presents three conversations taking place over three years, between Mrs. Mister and Reverend Salvation, with chorus, and contains some of the sharpest lyrics in the score. The number alternates between musical comedy (for Mrs. Mister) and arioso liturgical pastiche (for Reverend Salvation). Its penultimate line is Mrs. Mister’s hilarious, spoken, unrhymed “I can see the market rising like a beautiful bird!” “Hard Times” is also some of the most satirically pointed work in Cradle.  It comes early in the show, as the first flashback from the nightcourt, and I take this as a sign of Blitzstein’s daring: Before the evening is over, he will identify members of the press, the arts, medicine, academia, and small business as hypocrites and prostitutes, but he starts with the church.

Scene Six, featuring Mrs. Mister and the two artists, Yasha and Dauber, is almost as sharp.  The scene culminates in “Art for Art’s Sake,” which is marred by the aforementioned scanning problem.  But before we get there, there are two songs whose effectiveness is not dampened: The brief “Ask Us Again,” and the main content of the scene, a number sometimes identified by its first line (“Don’t Let Me Keep You”) and sometimes by the title “The Rich.” Yasha and Dauber, like so many of Blitzstein’s peers and ours, are more concerned with being artists than with creating art.  They fret openly about their careers, and have little to say about their craft.  Reliant upon Mrs. Mister’s patronage, they quickly agree to join her husband’s Liberty Committee, but have no interest in its substance (“Politics?  Cora, we’re artists!”).

For there’s something so damned low about the rich!
It’s incredible, the open way they court you.
All these millionaires, I can’t tell which is which.
What can they do?
What can they do?
What can they do?
Support you.

Without directly stating it, Blitzstein establishes with these lyrics that Yasha and Dauber have the right amount of contempt for Mrs. Mister, but for the wrong reasons.  They snidely mock her ignorance and philistinism (“What she doesn’t know about music / Would put Heifetz back on his feet again!”), but take no issue with the social injustice wrought by her family’s stranglehold on the town; they don’t even seem to be aware of it, concerned exclusively with their own careers and welfare.  There is “something so damned low” about their patrons, but apparently it isn’t the murderous oppression of the middle and working classes.  “Moneyed people,” as Mrs. Mister refers to her crowd, are relevant to Yasha and Dauber’s worldview only for their ability to support Yasha and Dauber.  Even the content of their art can be dictated by their backers.  This blithe ceding of civic duty among artists is something Marc Blitzstein fiercely protested, not only in his work (especially “Art For Art’s Sake”) but by example.  If the lyrics in Scene Six of Cradle include some of his best writing, perhaps it’s because he knew this criticism of artists could not be taken seriously unless it was also a demonstration of his own creative facility.

The title song, “The Cradle Will Rock,” is a straightforward musical monologue, not really noteworthy for structural or dramatic innovation, but it is my favorite song in the score, and it contains some of Blitzstein’s best lyric-writing.  The verse/intro, which emerges naturally from the spoken lines leading up to it, establishes the song’s central metaphor with playful intensity:

Upon the topmost bough of yonder tree now,
Like bees in their hives,
The lords and their lackeys and wives –
A swingin “Rockabye Baby” in a nice big cradle.

Here we have another example of idiosyncratic phrasing – “a swingin ‘Rockabye Baby,’” on which the vocal line shifts to a singsong simplicity which evokes, without directly quoting, the lullaby from which the title is derived.  The phrase “nice big cradle” corresponds with a slowing, descending line in the melody, and it’s left hanging, deliberately unrhymed, setting the scene.  The verse goes on to introduce the birds who will figure in the chorus, with more idiosyncratic phrasing, consistent with the character’s spoken language (“a birdie ups and cries…”); then it builds, lyrically and musically, to the explosive chorus:

That’s thunder, that’s lighting,
And it’s going to surround you!
No wonder those stormbirds
Seem to circle around you!
Well, you can’t climb down, and you can’t sit still;
That’s a storm that’s going to last until
The final wind blows…and when the wind blows…
The cradle will rock!

The aforementioned identity (surround/around) notwithstanding, this is crystalline work, the lyric as exquisite in its simplicity as the music in its sophistication.  The words, no less than the music, give this number its heart-racing power, its bracing mixture of anger and optimism.  I think any other lyricist, including me, would have written “that thunder, that lightning.” It seems good, and correct, and obvious.  It is good, and it is correct, and here’s our problem – it is also obvious.  Blitzstein’s lyrics were sometimes careless, but they were almost never generic or drab.  His words, like his music, do not always wind up where you think they’re heading.  They’re full of quirky phrases and unexpected word usage, and pulling this off successfully is one of the most difficult tasks for a lyricist.  Very few of Broadway’s canonical wordsmiths even attempted it.

“That’s thunder, that’s lightning” – We are not describing the weather; we’re pointing directly at the sky and telling you what’s what.  The character, union organizer Larry Foreman, is not waxing poetic.  He’s gloating, reveling in his fantasy of the oppressors’ downfall.  At the end of the chorus, Blitzstein has a particular challenge: He has to drive home his cradle metaphor, and end the chorus as a galvanizing battle-cry, even though we all know what’s coming.  He achieves this through the perfect interplay between great words and great music.

“That’s a storm that’s going to last until / The final wind blows” – Blitzstein begins this couplet with the word that’s, referring back to the first lines of the chorus, and giving the whole passage some structural integrity.  The tempo and intensity of the music make it possible for Blitzstein to gracefully split “until / The final wind” over two lines without an awkward break.  It’s correct for until to be the rhymed word here (rhyming with the previous “you can’t sit still”), because it leads into the key phrase of the show.  The accented rhyme on until provides the sense of an anticipatory pause, which is necessarily missing from the music.  (In an earlier nightcourt scene, Blitzstein is less successful with the same technique: “And see that goes for you too” / “I must admit they’re new to / This place…” The words emphasized by the rhymes needn’t be emphasized, and the melody line creates an unnatural break in the middle of the phrase “new to this place.”)

“The final wind blows…and when the wind blows…” – The repeated lyric corresponds with a repeated musical phrase, and then both explode into the inevitable, but still thrilling, exclamation of the title.  The music is all sharp, bouncing, forward momentum, and so is the lyric. The phrases which straddle line breaks are the connections between ideas.  Blitzstein is using song to dramatize the character’s thought process.  The conclusion is a quote from a universally-known, seemingly benign children’s lullaby (which is in itself kind of terrifying, if you think about it).  In sharing his vision of what the future holds for the Liberty Committee and their like, Larry Foreman is drawing on something every one of us has known since childhood.  We all know what happens when the wind blows.  This is also an illustration of the power of music and lyrics to inform a worldview, something Blitzstein had eschewed in his avant-garde period, but had come to care about deeply by 1936.

The second chorus begins the same as the first one, but wraps up with a slightly different and less ingenious lyric.  The second time around, we get the end of a thought where we were previously left hanging with until.  Therefore, “the wind blows” no longer seems like the conclusion of a thought process.  There’s no longer any dramatic justification for repeating the phrase, so it now feels like a poetic affectation: “For when the wind blows…Oh, when the wind blows…”

“The cradle will rock” is an incredible phrase.  It combines the soothing gentleness of a baby’s lullaby with a sense of menace.  In Blitzstein’s appropriation, the cradle contains not an innocent child who deserves safety and protection, but corrupt professionals who profit at the expense of the less fortunate, and have built their cradle out of blood and money.  Since the impending doom inherent in the phrase “the cradle will rock” is theirs, the spirit of the title song is both dark and joyful.  This is an assurance about the future, as opposed to reassurance about the present: Right now, we are the victims of great injustice, but we’re not helpless, and if we take collective action, the cradle will rock.  This is great art as well as great agitprop.

We children of the Sondheim revolution are slow to realize how recently the master’s breakthroughs took place.  Certainly, when Blitzstein wrote Cradle in 1936, there was no precedent for this level of storytelling, characterization, and integration of elements in musicals.  It was not really a musical, according to what that term meant at the time.  Blitzstein, at a loss for words, described the work as an opera, or “a play in music.” What premiered at the Venice Theatre on June 16, 1937 was not just a new work, but a new form.  Hallie Flanagan, the visionary director of the Federal Theatre Project, recalled in her memoir: “This was not just a play set to music, nor music illustrated by actors, but music and play equaling something new and better than either.” And here’s Orson Welles, from his 1938 preface to the published libretto:

“The work is apparently indestructible. And what is more interesting, it is certainly entirely new. The arts of Music and the Play have had efficient business relationships in the past, an occasional partnership and a few happy marriages. Here, finally, is their first offspring. It is a love-child, and besides being legitimate, it looks like both its parents, and it is called a ‘music drama.’ As a matter of fact, it isn't easy to find a title for a new art form. Just now of course this one has only one real name: The Cradle Will Rock.”

Orson Welles had a social conscience, though he was not above working the street corner (what evil lurks in the hearts of men?) and ultimately was more interested in art than in social causes.  It’s still remarkable, and a measure of Cradle as a leap forward for its form, that Welles chose to emphasize not the show’s political messages, or the behind-the-scenes drama of its original production, but its formal originality as a work of art.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK: The 1938 Recording

Olive Stanton, 1937

Since seeing the recent City Center production of The Cradle Will Rock, this enigmatic favorite of mine has continued to rattle around in my mind.  I’ve been thinking about it, reading about it, and listening to it. Just before I hurt my hand, I was finally updating my Cradle website, which has languished for years.  There are some musicals I love more, and many which are technically better, but I get stuck on this one like no other.  Cradle is such a strange mix: Unapologetic agitprop, broad comedy, bitter anger, giddy idealism, cutting satire, emotional testimony…it’s so many different things, yet it’s so ridiculously simple.  In fact, it’s not just simple — it’s simplistic, with cardboard characters who have descriptive names standing up and explicitly announcing who they are, how they feel, and what they want.

I think it works for two reasons. First, today as in 1937, it’s refreshing and exciting to encounter a work of art that is frank about its agenda.  A great artist and socialist thinker said, “If it isn’t art, it isn’t propaganda.” (The line has been attributed to both Upton Sinclair and Diego Rivera, and I’m sure they would be willing to share it equally.) It can be a wonderful experience when a work of art makes you feel something by involving you in a dramatic story and making you identify with complex, fully-realized human characters.  But that’s just one approach.  Cradle makes you feel something in another way, by the power of its convictions, the strength of its ideas, and the entertainment value of its individual components.  Which brings me to the other reason this work continues to resonate and fascinate: The music, which remains excellent and challenging and infectious.

Much has been made of the connection to Kurt Weill, which is undeniable.  In Blitzstein’s early, avant-garde period, he had expressed disdain for would-be elite composers who, like Weill, appropriated jazz and other popular forms to make their work more accessible.  On his return from Europe, Blitzstein was newly interested in writing accessible work, because he was suddenly burning with social conscience and wanted to reach people with his art.  From there, Kurt Weill rose in the younger composer’s estimation; Blitzstein openly admired The Threepenny Opera, which he would later translate to great success, and befriended Weill’s collaborator Bertolt Brecht.  Blitzstein’s wife, Eva Goldbeck, had translated a number of Brecht works (including Threepenny Novel) into English, and Blitzstein was able to show Brecht his song sketch for “The Nickel Under the Foot.” It was Brecht who suggested expanding the sketch into a longer work which equated prostitution and capitalism.  The Cradle Will Rock, written “at white heat” after Eva’s death, was dedicated to Brecht, and it did sound something like Kurt Weill.

Most critics have picked up on the sonic and tonal (occasionally atonal) kinship, but it’s rarely pointed out that Blitzstein’s use of this sound is significantly more sophisticated than Weill’s.  The Threepenny Opera is song, scene, song, scene; and, Brecht being Brecht, the songs are commentaries, interruptions.  Blitzstein, as composer, lyricist, and librettist, weaves his songs and dialogue together to a degree unprecedented in the musical theater in 1937, and still rare.  He was a master of the concise statement; Cradle is full of very short songs that say what they have to say and then stop, sometimes to set up other songs, as in the abrupt transition from “Let’s Do Something” to “Honolulu,” which always gets a laugh.  Until Sondheim, nobody in musicals came close to Blitzstein’s level of compositional design, his use of themes and motifs, and his ability to express character and advance a story through songs  – except, of course, for Gershwin.  Porgy and Bess predated Cradle by one year, and its authors, like Blitzstein, always referred to their musical as an opera.  As for Kurt Weill, his sound was always revolutionary, but he did not become an innovative craftsman of musical theater until Lady in the Dark in 1941, for very different reasons.


In my recent exploration of The Cradle Will Rock, I’ve developed an appreciation for its original cast recording which had eluded me before.  (You can listen to it herehere, or here.) It was recorded in 1938, with Marc Blitzstein and the original cast, during the show’s run at the Windsor Theatre.  It’s considered the first Broadway musical cast recording.

The record has often been dismissed as a curiosity – an artifact of historical interest, but not much for your listening pleasure.  I listened to it once, years ago, and went along dismissing it with everyone else.  But having carefully revisited the recording, I’ve found much to love. Because it’s primitive and scratchy, the best way to enjoy the original Cradle record is to know the material well before you listen to it.  I am now so familiar with the score from repeated listenings, mostly to the excellent 1985 Acting Company recording, that I can enjoy the 1938 record without frustration.

It’s made me feel closer than ever to the night of June 16, 1937.  Despite the strengths (and weaknesses) of Blitzstein’s work, it’s true that a great deal of Cradle’s appeal has to do with the circumstances of its original production and its first public performance – certainly one of the greatest theatre stories ever told.  (I will tell it myself properly someday, but until then here’s a half-baked attempt written a long time ago for my Cradle website.) So, what I find overwhelming about the original cast recording is that this is the original cast.  These are the actual members of Federal Theatre Project 891, who rose from their seats at the Venice Theatre on June 16, 1937, in defiance of their government, their employer, their union, and their economic self-interest, and lent their voices to Blitzstein’s songs.  That’s the real Olive Stanton.

Based on the written reminiscences of John Houseman, Orson Welles, and Marc Blitzstein, and the wonderful Tim Robbins film freely adapted from these events, I had come to regard Olive Stanton as an accidental revolutionary hero.  Houseman calls her “an inexperienced performer” who “held no political views whatsoever,” and quotes original cast member Hiram Sherman: "If Olive Stanton had not risen on cue in the box, I doubt if the rest of us would have had the courage to stand up and carry on.” Tim Robbins fictionalizes her as a homeless waif who can barely sing.  Blitzstein biographer Eric A.  Gordon says that she “had never appeared on Broadway before,”but the Internet Broadway Database has her in Class of ’29, a Federal Theatre production that ran for fifty performances in 1936.  That’s more experience than some other members of the company had.

Maybe we call it a draw on the question of her inexperience, but I think Olive Stanton is wonderful on the record.  Most accounts of June 16, 1937 describe a quavering soprano joining Blitzstein’s tenor during the opening song, but maybe it was nerves – the record shows that Ms. Stanton had a husky, sighing alto voice, full of the same combination of optimism and world-weariness that pervades Blitzstein’s writing.  In the very first sung line of the show, her voice rises up on the word “home,” and it’s instantly moving; it makes perfect sense that Welles saw in her the quality of a plaintive survivor.  Her singing is unpolished, honest, and very expressive. On “The Nickel Under The Foot,” she sings with a drawn, weary, unsteady voice that suggests Blitzstein was grooming his own Lotte Lenya.  Listen to Lenya on Threepenny, and listen to Blitzstein’s own recording of “The Nickel Under The Foot,” and they sort of add up to Olive Stanton.  Blitzstein seems to have liked her; he later cast her in a concert version of his I’ve Got the Tune, and thought of her as a standard against which to measure future interpreters of the role of Moll in Cradle.

It is, I suppose, the definitive rendition of “The Nickel Under The Foot,” and it’s almost the best. It seems to me there is a change of tone built into the final verse of this song, and  only Patti LuPone has marked it with the proper rueful vocal surge.  Olive Stanton just marches to the end.  It’s probably not fair to compare Olive Stanton to Patti LuPone, but listen to the 1964 Blitzstein memorial concert – Barbara Harris is a pro, and she doesn’t come close to Stanton in emotional expression.

Elsewhere where I’ve written about Cradle, I’ve declared my love for Howard da Silva.  It is impossible for me to hear the name Benjamin Franklin without thinking of da Silva’s brilliant performance in 1776.  He also created the role of Judd Fry in Oklahoma!  and appeared in dozens of films and TV shows.  But the role he was actually born to play was Larry Foreman in The Cradle Will Rock.  Da Silva had been a steelworker before he became an actor, and during the original production of Cradle, he impressed John Houseman as one of “the stalwarts” who believed in the show’s message and could be counted on to help make history that night at the Venice Theatre.  Da Silva kept Cradle with him throughout his career, reprising the role of Larry Foreman whenever possible, and later directing numerous incarnations of the show, on and off Broadway.

It’s interesting to compare the 1938 performances of Howard da Silva and Will Greer (as the villainous Mr. Mister) with their renditions of the same roles in the 1964 Blitzstein concert.  A quarter century later, da Silva is endowing Larry Foreman with the same vigorous indignation, but shading him much more subtly.  Greer, on the other hand, goes from sly and sinister in 1938 to a crazed, crusty monster in 1964.  Both actors are great on both recordings, but I’d really like to hear 1938 Howard da Silva play the climactic scene with 1964 Will Greer.*

The third of Houseman’s stalwarts was Hiram Sherman, who originated the roles of Reverend Salvation and Junior Mister.  He was in the cast at the Venice, and in the subsequent run at Houseman and Welles’ Mercury Theatre, but he does not seem to have followed the show to the Windsor, and I don’t think he’s on the 1938 recording.  I haven’t been able to find an authoritative cast listing for this record, but it does sound like the same actor is playing those two roles, though IBDB lists Maynard Holmes as Junior Mister and Charles Niemeyer as Reverend Salvation for the Windsor run.  In any case, Hiram Sherman definitely does sing Reverend Salvation in the 1964 concert, and he doesn’t sound like anybody on the earlier record.

Whoever is playing Reverend Salvation – let’s call him, oh, Charles Niemeyer – his performance is one of the weaker ones.  Another is Blanche Collins, who sings what should be the show’s angriest and most emotional song, “Joe Worker.” Both of these roles were better served by later interpreters with bigger, more soulful voices.  John Adair as Harry Druggist is doing something weird with his voice that I don’t like, and Howard Bird as Stevie speaks his lyrics as though he is attending a robot seder.  Peggy Coudray, as Mrs. Mister, has an interesting sound, but she rushes through the material and misses a lot of the humor.  Both of the comic twosomes— Maynard Holmes and Dulce Fox as Junior and Sister Mister, and Edward Fuller and Jules Schmidt as Yasha and Dauber – are terrific, with Fuller and Schmidt in particular setting the tone for all future interpretations of their roles.

But that can be said generally about the entire 1938 album, and that’s part of its value.  It is the seminal document of Cradle as a performance style.  There’s a Cradle Will Rock style that’s unique to this show, that I think has a lot to do with the manner and diction of Marc Blitzstein himself, and also with original director Orson Welles’ flair for explosive drama.  It’s amazing how often different actors give the same line readings in different productions of Cradle, especially those directed by da Silva or Houseman.

The most powerful presence on the 1938 record is Marc Blitzstein himself.  In addition to playing the piano (which is, per tradition, the only accompaniment), he narrates the story and plays a few of the smaller roles, as he did at the Venice Theatre.  He has a lot of fun at the piano, and I can almost see his smile during some of the score’s percussive, dissonant passages.  His voice is high, his diction clipped, but he sounds much more natural and at ease than on his “Nickel Under the Foot” demo, where the singing is so affected it’s hard to take.

No other composer in Broadway history has wound up so literally in the middle of his own musical.  Marc Blitzstein was not a member of the cast or the orchestra of the original production of The Cradle Will Rock, until the events of June 16, 1937 rewrote Orson Welles’ concept.  What was to be an enormous, high-spectacle production became the composer at the piano. It was minimalism, the antithesis of the Broadway musical, and it turned out to be the perfect approach for this Broadway musical which attacks greed and excess.

I mean: Imagine a show that begins with a bare stage, some empty chairs, and a piano, and then the author of the show walks out on stage, sits down at the piano, and presents his work. He summons actors as if from his imagination. It's the writer as god, with the aesthetics of a backers audition. It's a portable musical, and it's been unpacked many times over the years, and it always sounds the same. The Project 891 cast emotes and declaims just as all future Cradle casts will, including just a few weeks ago at the City Center. That production had no direct pedigree from Project 891 (though it was nice to see Henry Stram, who was in the Robbins film). But most of the cast delivered their material in this same Blitzstein trance, that combination of sarcasm and earnestness that puts this particular piece across. Maybe it's in the music; maybe it's in the air. But somehow, this guy is still singing to us. 


* Addendum (July 29, 2013): I've just read, in Howard Pollack's recent biography of Blitzstein, that it's actually not Will Greer on the 1938 record. Apparently he was succeeded in the role by Ralph MacBane for at least part of the Windsor Theatre run. So that explains the differing interpretations. Pollack also clarifies that the recording was made just after, not during, the Windsor engagement. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK at the City Center

Jerry Orbach performs the title song in the 1964 revival

When I was around ten years old, I discovered Marc Blitzstein's landmark 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock. What I actually discovered was the title song, as part of the Smithsonian's American Musical Theatre compilation. I was initially drawn to it because it was performed by Howard Da Silva, and I loved him as Benjamin Franklin in 1776. But it took me no time to get hooked on "The Cradle Will Rock" -- the song -- which, in contrast to every other musical I knew, was filled with political outrage and social comment. It was also funny. And the sound of Blitzstein's music, perhaps more than anything else, got under my skin. It reminded me somewhat of The Threepenny Opera, which I loved, and I'd later learn that this was no accident; the Brecht/Weill collaboration was a key influence on Blitzstein. He was responsible for the first successful English translation of Threepenny, which ran for almost three thousand performances at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwhich Village, and was the first Off Broadway hit. Blitzstein's Threepenny remains, in my opinion, the only effective English version.

It took me a while to dig up the rest of Cradle, and to learn about the story behind the Federal Theatre Project and Cradle's legendary premiere. But I did, and my esteem for Blitzstein and the show increased. I loved Tim Robbins' excellent 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, which presents a semi-fictionalized account of the original production. I later discovered a personal connection to Marc Blitzstein; he and my grandparents had a mutual friend, Nan Pendrell, who made possible the productions of some of my plays, including agitprop satires that owed something to Blitzstein's influence. In 2007, Sisk and I intended to make the connection explicit with a contemporary adaptation of Cradle, but the Blitzstein estate was understandably wary.

Last night we saw the final performance of The Cradle Will Rock at the New York City Center, presented as part of the new Off-Broadway version of the Encores program. It was, in many respects, a thrilling experience. Blitzstein's score, usually played on a single piano in tribute to the original opening, has never sounded better than it did last night, as arranged for a 13-piece orchestra. The orchestrations used in the Robbins film, which I think were the original orchestrations unused in 1937, have always seemed too lushly orchestral. What I heard last night had the proper Kurt Weill twang and tin.

The distinctive Blitzstein sound is nicely explained by Eric A. Gordon in his passionate and exhaustive biography, Mark the Music:
"In music, one refers to a 'home' key, or the tonic key, on which the composition is based. In the system of polytonality, Blitzstein's accustomed mode in his avant-garde phase up to this time, the composer wandered between and among keys; the works of that period generally bore no key signature. With his return to America, and with his dedication to Communism and the working class, his music too returned 'home' to given  keys, to tonality. He soon realized that the European mass song, of which Eisler was the acknowledged master, would sound inappropriate in America. Composers of the left recognized that bourgeois music of radio, film, and recordings served as a dream-escape from reality, as a kind of aural drug to depress the population's social awareness. Thus, Blitzstein felt it better to use the devices of Broadway -- the thirty-two bar AABA form, for instance -- but elevate their employment to make a more sophisticated music. In part, this explains why his tunes always retain a snaky, uneasy, slightly unsettled sense of tonality wavering between major and minor, with surprising accidentals that often begin to sound 'right' only after repeated listening. For that is how he saw his country musically -- like a stew of popular tunes made tasty by the dissident spice of protest. The relationship of his music to American popular modes expresses the living, active relationship between the composer and his listeners in which he had come to believe."
Cradle was written just one year after the premiere of Porgy and Bess. Together, these two musicals represent the most sophisticated work composed for Broadway to that time. They beat a path to Sondheim's door and endow musical comedy with a moral gravity and seriousness of purpose that is rare to this day. (For completists: Porgy and Cradle were preceded in social significance by Showboat and As Thousands Cheer.) I think Cradle deserves more attention as a groundbreaking work for its medium. Its innovations are rarely mentioned alongside those of Porgy and Showboat. Sondheim Himself mentions the show only once, in passing, in his two recent books.

The excellence of Blitzstein's work was well-honored by Encores' orchestra, and by a fine cast led by Anika Noni Rose and Raul Esparza. I found Sam Gold's direction, and overall concept, to be a mixed bag. Cradle is a tricky piece. It's deliberately light on character development, functioning as a morality play, with character names like Mr. Mister and Editor Daily and Dr. Specialist. And its plot structure, borrowed from Waiting for Lefty, is just a series of flashbacks that play like blackout sketches. Only occasionally did Gold's production strike the right peculiar balance between tongue-in-cheek satire and earnest conviction. The show was performed under an enormous projection of a quote from Diogenes: "In the rich man's house, the only place to spit is in his face." I'm sympathetic to this point of view, but it misses the point of Cradle and the social movement that inspired it. Blitzstein was careful to attack greed, not people, and it was jarring to see his play unfold beneath this cheeky misinterpretation. It underlined the awkwardness of seeing a socialistic "labor opera" (Blitzstein's phrase) in the plush environs of the City Center, underwritten by so many Mr. Misters.

But these contradictions, in the end, pointed to another strength in the original work. Part of Cradle's message is that capitalism makes prostitutes of us all, and the show contrasts the innocence of a sexual prostitute, Moll, with the far worse prostitution of the church, the press, academia, etc. But Blitzstein does not spare artists from his critique. The two artists in Cradle, Yasha and Dauber, are among the most despicable characters in the piece. Their devotion to their muses is narcissism. They prostitute themselves to Mrs. Mister, who offers financial support for their work. They paint pretty pictures and compose pretty tunes, obediently refraining from any political engagement or social commentary which would be unflattering to their patron and cut off the flow of cash to their pockets.

Gold's production of Cradle ended with an absolutely brilliant notion, which unfortunately was not quite fully-realized. During the final number -- Blitzstein's artful weaving-together of two reprises with dialogue -- the house lights came up, and stagehands appeared and began breaking down the set, and then exited through the back door in the newly-visible backstage wall. This is an inspired way to close The Cradle Will Rock: The theatre itself becomes the closed shop that union organizer Larry Foreman advocates in the title song. But to really sell this concept, Gold would have had to fully commit to it. Everyone should have walked out, including the orchestra, leaving nothing on stage but a piano and a ghost light, which is what Cradle's original audience found when they wandered into the Venice Theatre on that historic night in 1937. But Gold only timidly suggested this ending, and then destroyed it by bringing the house lights back down and dragging the cast back out for a dramatically-dishonest curtain call.

It's too bad, because this Cradle might finally have achieved something of Blitzstein's revolutionary spirit. Ultimately, despite the pleasures of the production, I felt more of that revolutionary spirit during the pre-show event in the lobby. There, Cherry Jones and Lisa Kron told the backstage story of Cradle by reading skillfully-edited excerpts from the recollections of Marc Blitzstein and original producer John Houseman.

After leaving the City Center last night, Sisk and I got the disgusting, unsurprising news that a Florida judge and jury had acquitted George Zimmerman, who murdered an unarmed black child because he felt like it. Of course, it seemed sadly resonant with much of what The Cradle Will Rock has to say -- that the American system, despite its supposed commitment to equality and fairness, is plainly rigged in favor of some over others. It's hard to know whether to be uplifted or depressed by the fact that today, 76 years after Cradle's premiere, the need for a people's American revolution is as dire, and as unlikely, as ever. And so we applaud Marc Blitzstein for his genius and his idealism, and return to our street corners when Mr. Mister snaps his fingers.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Four More Years, Starting...NOW

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

"It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm."

-- President Barack Obama
Second Inaugural Address
January 21, 2013