The Cradle Will Rock: Blitzstein’s 1937 “play in music”

by danielgoode

July 15, 2013 6:37:28 PM EDT

His tight-fisted, angry, union-loving, anti-capitalist, anti-militarist singspiel had a four-day run at the New York City Center, ending last night. Marvelous music with acid chamber-music textures from the pit orchestra (on stage for this concert performance). Thrillingly seamless transitions between speech and song. The whole ninety minutes, without intermission, flowed like a dream.

Most of us “know” Marc Blitzstein for his translation of the Brecht-Weil “Three-Penny Opera,” still the one most used in English (and I think the best, with lines like “Let’s all go barmy, and join the army…we chop ’em to bits because we like our hamburgers rawwww”)

I had one guilty reservation about the music—guilty because it was so good, why would one complain! As I listened to the lovingly embodied (but not over-used) Kurt Weil harmonic influence, it dawned on me that I was missing the “big numbers” like the “Moon of Alabama” in Weil’s Mahagonny, or all those wonderful songs in “The Three-Penny Opera.” I kept waiting, but the stirring, combative finale (the cradle not only will rock, but COME DOWN!) came and went without that swoon of pleasure and relief-in-song that opera can provide—especially after long swathes of satiric or bitter political rhetoric set elegantly in a through-composed style. My hunch is that Blitzstein’s musical persona is too tightly wound for the expansive lyricism of Kurt Weil, to name only one of many “numbers” opera composers. But moving, exciting music it is, fresh, sassy and as brilliant as you could want. I’m so glad I went to hear it on a hot, humid summer night in New York.

And what of the politics? During the depression, the industrial unions had a physical place in the plants that they no longer have: a strike was a dramatic disturbance of a whole complex community of working and living. No longer true in dematerialized, yes deracinated global capitalism. Where do you go to protest? The internet! If you believe, as I do, that unionization is the only countervailing force to “wild, savage capitalism” (of which Pope John Paul told us to beware)—well nothing has changed since the ’30’s. And that, like it or not, is what Marx would say, and he’d be right. Blitzstein’s target: the evil monster steel-plant owner, “Mr Mister” is harder to find now, harder to organize against, harder to know even what the tools we are to array against today’s Mr. Misters.

And that leaves activist composers scratching our collective heads, while muttering or loudly intoning: “Capitalism, capitalism.” We wonder as we wander out under the stars, what the hell to do!