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.”
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 got. Hot 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 the 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
My STEEL indusTRY
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 strong sense of the artist’s social responsibilities, and of the conflict between art and commerce. And Larson, like Blitzstein, occasionally 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 theater, 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?
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.
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 here, here, 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.
Note: If you haven’t yet read Love Marches On, and are spoiler-averse, skip this for now.
Well, there you have it, folks.
Above all, thank you for reading it, and I hope you liked it. I’ve been walking around with this story and these characters for a while, and Love Marches On arose more from the desire to share them with others than to do a daily comic strip.
Also, I wanted to do a daily comic strip. I’ve always liked newspaper comics that blend humor with serial storytelling, and this tale — which began as a sprawling, unproducible musical called Broadway Memory — lent itself to that treatment. I’m always in danger of rewriting things forever, and I thought the daily deadline would force me to finish each piece quickly and move on to the next.
In recent weeks, with the end in sight, people have told me that they’re looking forward to going back and reading the whole story from the beginning, which is nice to hear… [READ MORE]
Picking a favorite can be as difficult as it is pointless (as those of you who have taken the Proust-Vanity Fair-Lipton-Pivot-Diamond Questionnaire can attest). But if asked to name my favorite musical, I say Merrily We Roll Along. My love for Merrily is as complicated as Merrily itself. Everything about this show — including the excellent Encores treatment currently rolling along at the New York City Center — is touched by the legend of the 1981 original Broadway production, sometimes described as one of the most spectacular flops of all time.
If you already know all about Merrily, you can skip this paragraph. Merrily We Roll Along was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It was produced and directed by Hal Prince. It was the last of the Sondheim/Prince collaborations (1970-1981)*, a phenomenal run which revolutionized musical theatre. Merrily is the story of a composer (Franklin Shepard) and his friends (Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn), as they travel from idealism to disillusionment over the course of twenty years. The story is told backward. The original production was cast with performers in their teens and early twenties. Costumes and sets were representational. The show was hated. “Epidemic” walkouts were reported. Broadway wickedly relished the fall of Sondheim and Prince. Columnists said terrible things. It closed after sixteen performances. Later, beginning in 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse, there were smaller productions of Merrily for which Sondheim and Furth performed significant rewrites, and adults were cast. The “new” Merrily got an Off Broadway production from the York Theatre Company in 1994, and was seen at the Kennedy Center in 2002, but it has never returned to Broadway. (For an excellent Merrily production history, see Edward Copeland.)
I’ve always been a little in love with the doomed original production. Conveniently, I didn’t see it (I was four); I know it through bootlegs, photographs, old scripts, and the beautiful original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed. There’s nothing else like that recording. Those poor kids took all the hope and sorrow they’d just been through and poured it into an urgent, searing performance that uniquely expresses the themes of Merrily.
Most musicals have second-act problems, but of course this one has first-act problems. The evening begins with a series of cruelties and heartbreaks among people we don’t yet know, and it’s rough stuff. But it has to be that way, and close attention to the first act is richly rewarded in the second. Relax, folks — it all builds to an iconic Broadway finale, unabashedly sentimental, gleaming with rapturous hope! But…you already know what’s going to happen. Effect, then cause. Merrily We Roll Along makes you feel two things at once.
My friends and I discovered Merrily when we were teenagers. We were theatre kids, and Sondheim was our rock ‘n’ roll, and this was the show that most spoke to us. Crucially, the original Merrily began and ended with scenes set at high school graduations. The first song, and the last, was “The Hills of Tomorrow,” a glorious a capella alma mater. The proper opening number, “Merrily We Roll Along,” was performed by the young graduates, in rebellion against keynote speaker Franklin Shepard, who is droning on about compromise and expedience. The title song was defiant; it was the kids telling the old tightass to piss off.
I undestand that what immediately followed this on stage in 1981 did not play well. After the title song, the kids “became” the jaded adults at Frank’s Bel-Air party. But the first stretch of Merrily is challenging even for performers who are the right age. As Sondheim explains in his book, you can’t expect people that young, no matter how talented, to embody hardened disillusionment. “There was a feeling of amateurness on the stage,” he told Norman Lebrecht. (It must be emphasized, though, that the original cast was bursting with talent. Some of them even went on to play George Costanza on Seinfeld.)
Subsequent Merrilys have eliminated the two graduation scenes, and “The Hills of Tomorrow.” The title song is no longer a rebuke; it’s now an earnest statement of the show’s themes. I miss the freewheeling, youthful exuberance of the old Merrily, perhaps because I miss the freewheeling, youthful exuberance of the old me. But I also believe (at 35, anyhow) that the authors were right: This story is not really about youthful exuberance, and the reworked Merrily is a better play. Two key songs have been added, and there have been important refinements in book and lyrics. The 1994 York Theatre cast album is not the shimmering document of 1981, but it’s the best available recording of the rewritten score.
It turns out that Merrily We Roll Along is not about being young; it’s about growing up. Growing up, Gussie now sings to Frank in Act One, “means admitting the things you want the most,” and letting go of the old Merrily has meant stripping away good ideas that were out of sync with other good ideas. Over its long creative journey, the show itself has grown up. The Encores Merrily, which I saw last night, is absolutely the Merrily for our time. It deserves — it demands! — a full production, and a recording.
Its director is James Lapine, a frequent post-Merrily Sondheim collaborator, and the key figure in what the songwriter has called the “rehabilitation” of Merrily. Lapine directed the 1985 La Jolla production, and played a dramaturgical role, guiding the rewrites. For the current production, there have been a few more improvements. (One is a significant plot point, so I won’t reveal it, nor will I mention which song’s lyrics have been adjusted to accommodate it.)
The cast is extraordinary. Merrily has at its core three very complicated characters, who age backward from forty to twenty, and sing Sondheim. You don’t often get, in one production, superlative interpretations of Frank, Mary, and Charley. Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are not just individually great; they’re great together. Their collective performance is convincing from end to beginning, rolling along toward a second act full of the exuberance that inspired this project in the first place. They are just right, right now.
The three outstanding leads are complemented by a uniformly fine supporting cast, a fluid Lapine staging, and the overwhelming power of the 23-piece Encores orchestra. (The orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, has made some adjustments, which include the reinstatement of the original overture.**) The projections, by Wendall Harrington, gracefully clarify time and space. They add a welcome Zelig-like dimension to Merrily, placing Frank and his old friends in the culture of their time (much like the topical transitions written in 1981 but discarded during previews).
Stephen Sondheim is the greatest songwriter in the history of Broadway, and Merrily We Roll Along, today, looks like his true masterpiece. I suspect it was never really bad, merely flawed. Maybe it seemed out of touch because it was ahead of its time. Regardless, it’s now the Sondheim musical that speaks most directly to our world, and it’s one of the few Sondheim musicals that has never received a Broadway revival***. Merrily We Roll Along still awaits a definitive production. It awaits a definitive recording. Gang, I think this is it.
* The Sondheim/Prince collaborations: Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and then Merrily. Yeah, yeah, they teamed up again in 2003 for Bounce. I know.
** UPDATE: The eagle-eyed, encyclopedic David Levy (of Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim) has rightly corrected me on two points. First, my original post neglected to include Passion in the list of Sondheim shows never revived on Broadway (see next note). Secondly, David is right again: The Encores Merrily does not really reinstate the original overture, because it doesn’t include the cut song “Rich and Happy.” I mistakenly identified the Encores overture as “the original” because it builds to an ending which restates the title theme, rather than dribbling out from “Good Thing Going” into the (sung) opening number, as in other post-1981 productions of Merrily. David’s own thoughts on the Encores Merrily can be found here.
*** The others are Anyone Can Whistle and Passion. Technically, Assassins (1991) has never been revived on Broadway; the 2004 revival was its Broadway premiere. The Frogs, too, has only been seen once on the legitimate stage (Lincoln Center, also 2004). Sondheim’s first musical, Saturday Night, and his most recent, Road Show, can’t be revived on Broadway, because they’ve never been there.
More for Merrily fanatics: In 2002 the original cast reunited for an historic concert, of which ten minutes of video can be seen here. Original cast member Abigail Pogrebin has written movingly about Merrily. The original Charley, Lonny Price, is now a successful director (credits include the excellent filmed concert versions of Sweeney Todd, Passion, and Company), and he’s working on a documentary about the original cast of Merrily. Playbill.com has a gallery of 68 Merrily images, mostly from the original production.
If you know where to look, you can find audio and video bootlegs of numerous Merrily productions, including the original, as well as versions of the script from before and after previews.
On YouTube, there is evidence of many high school and college productions of Merrily We Roll Along; of course these vary in quality, but sometimes they’re incredibly touching. Schools are the only performance venues where the original casting concept can really work. Behold the hills of tomorrow.