With union rights in the news more than usual during the past year, student theatrical production “The Cradle Will Rock” is especially timely — perhaps as much so as when it was written in the 1930s.
“It is a seminal piece of theatre. It is a piece that resonates today and that asks provocative questions about how we as members of society operate within our society to protect our rights and those others without a voice to protect fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Norma Saldivar, University of Wisconsin theater professor and director of “The Cradle Will Rock.”
Born into controversy itself in 1937, “The Cradle Will Rock” is a musical satire about union organization and the social corruption with which it must cope. Written by Marc Blitzstein, produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles, it was part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project started during the Great Depression.
In its third production of the year, UW’s University Theatre opens “Cradle Will Rock” Nov. 16. The show will run through Dec. 8, with a break for Thanksgiving weekend.
The play takes place in fictional “Steeltown, USA,” on the night of a big labor union rally. The drama shows the abuses of big business, media and the arts using the blues, vaudeville and music incorporating the styles of Kurt Weill and American protest songs.
Ironically, the drama became the subject of its own controversy when the WPA, concerned about possible outbreaks of violence, locked the door of the original theater in June 1937 before it opened. The actors were afraid not working would alienate them from their union and wanted desperately to perform. The show went on as a “readers’ theater” production in another theater.
Finally, the cast opened on Broadway with the original sets and costumes and a new organization, the Mercury Theater Company. Only then were Welles and Houseman ready for film.
In UT’s production, returning graduates Joe Lullo, Pete Bissen and Morgan Boland will be back on the boards performing along with the undergraduates of the department. Third year MFA design students Sarah Woodworth (costumes) and Jennifer Pflager (sets) along with guest lighting designer Hide Tsutsui from the University of Texas-El Paso have joined up with Saldivar, as well as musical director Scott Foss, Maureen Janson (choreographer) and Jack Sayre (sound designer) to recreate the 1937 experience.
The director said she feels “Cradle” is a helpful piece for young performers to build their skills.
“This material is both very complicated in its artistry and very direct — almost simple — the music is very advanced and sophisticated but unique to its time — while the performance requires elements of agitprop and archetypal renditions that are basic and harken us to more classical work. It also provides a great exercise for students of theater to see the threads of the production that are in the fabric of our modern work. Its a dream project that way,” Saldivar said. “It will offer a terrific opportunity to see burgeoning talent in theatre and music.”
An added attraction is the fact that composer Marc Blitzstein’s personal archive is located at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in the Historical Society building on Library Mall. The original script and music are available to view. There will be a free panel discussion about the production Nov. 29 from 4-6 p.m.
“Cradle Will Rock” plays Nov. 15 through Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $23 and $16 for students and children. It will be performed in Mitchell Theatre.