It’s June 16th, 1937, and director Orson Welles is phoning furiously, trying to find a theater to house his politically charged and abruptly banned epic musical, The Cradle Will Rock. His stage manager is circling around town with a piano in her rented truck, waiting until Welles chances upon a vacant theater where he will lead cast, crew and bewildered audience. The actors, forbidden by their unions to perform that evening, are prodded on by Welles, as they rise from their seats, recite their lines and bring an astounded audience to their feet.
And so goes the legend behind Mark Blitzstein’s musical, which served as the basis of Tim Robbins’ 1999 film of the same name. Like its intriguing opening, the musical itself, which recounts the saving grace of union organizer Larry Foreman against the manipulative Mr. Mister and his corruptive influence over the people of Steeltown, reflects the anti-labor unrest of the New Deal and a distinctly 1930s theatrical sensibility. But the work’s deeply rooted historical relevance didn’t daunt Director Patrick W. Hosfield ’05, who will be bringing the show to the Loeb Ex this weekend. In fact, Hosfield and the rest of Cradle’s cast and crew have used the uniqueness of the show’s history to enrich the experience of a modern, student audience.
“We have such a legacy to live up to” says Hunter A. Maats ’04, who stars as Larry Foreman. “But at the same time, it’s a piece so strongly rooted in its time, it’s almost a crime to try to deny it of its history.”
In this vein, the production makes no attempt to revamp the script or drill home the work’s potential impact on a modern audience. Instead, it stays true to sometimes quirky 1930s lingo and the brazenly leftist, pro-union messages. The characters, too, with names like Mr. Mister and Dr. Specialist—not-so-subtle prototypes of social powers and evils—remain perfectly intact from Blitzstein’s original.
Cradle’s cast is aware of the caricatured nature of their role and the risk of one-dimensionality. But as Hosfield contends, “If the actors believe the ideologies and if they believe the corny sentiments, the work can’t help but have an impact. It’s so raw and exposed and not hidden under subtleties.”
Thus Hosfield’s actors aren’t concentrating on finding emotional nuance, as much as they are focused on giving their roles personal flare. Their acting method demands an immediate connection with the audience. And with the production’s minimal lighting, set design and accompaniment, the actors shoulder the bulk of the work’s impact as they attempt to create what Hosfield deems “a community of outrage.”
The believability of the conflict between hero Larry Foreman and villain Mr. Mister has been aided by the playful tension between real-life roommates Benjamin A. Maas ’04 and Ari D. Brettman ’04, who play the two leads respectively. “I can’t deny it,” Maas says. “It has really created some intense room tension.”
Another timeless aspect of the piece sure to draw in the audience is Mark Blitzstein’s score, which attracted both Hosfield and producer Rebecca F. Rubins ’05 to the show, as it did a young Leonard Bernstein ’39 who directed the piece at Harvard in 1939. “The music is fascinating—strange but beautiful,” explains cast member Abby A. Carlin ’04. And the work as a whole, as Rubins points out, is a unique piece of musical theater, with music interwoven into the text, unlike the more common format of dialogue interrupted by occasional song and dance.
But beyond the music, Hosfield says he simply hopes his production will give audiences a valuable new take on their world. “I want them to reconnect with the history and the background of the show,” he states, “and realize that this situation still exists and the events still have bearing.”